22 August 2012

BEST SHOT: DOG DAY AFTERNOON

The third year of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience ends tonight, with a film commemorating events that took place 40 years ago this very day: Dog Day Afternoon, one of the best bank robbery movies ever filmed, a crown jewel in the careers of director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino, quite possibly the high water mark of the 1970s "life on the filthy streets of New York City" subgenre that produced so many classics of urban blight, and for the trivia buffs out there, one of the five features made in the short career of actor John Cazale, who never acted in a movie that wasn't nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. To top it all off, it's one of the best movies about summertime heat ever made, as is only right, considering its title.

For a reason that is not clear to me, it never seems to have picked up the cachet of many similar movies from that era, never attaining the level of must-see classic that accrues to, say, The Godfather or Network, and this is unjust: it typifies all the things that are beloved of 1970s studio filmmaking as well as anything else. At any rate, if you need an excuse to see it, the anniversary is as good as any; "this film is a stone-cold masterpiece" was enough of a reason for me to revisit it for the first time in a shamefully long number of years, and I am grateful to have been pushed into it by this series.

So! to pick a best shot. It was not all that hard for me to know where I wanted to start looking, for even after the span of some years, one scene stuck out in my memory: late in the movie, as the bank robbery has long since gone to shit and lead robber Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) has becoming increasingly convinced that he's not going to come out of this alive, he dictates his last will and testament to one of his hostages. It is the finest moment of acting Pacino gives in this movie, and one of the best scenes in his career, and I knew I wanted to focus on this moment for that reason, though I was not certain that there'd be a particularly great shot involved. Silly me. Since this is a Lumet film, and if there's one thing he was great at throughout his career, it was using the camera to help draw out the best parts of his actors' performances. And that's how we get this:

It couldn't be much more straightforward, or perfect. Four characters on four planes, but what really hits in the moment is not that Sonny is surrounded by people, but that he's isolated even in the middle of them; they're out of focus, while he's in focus, once of the simplest tricks in the book, but it always works if you do it right. Still, even though he's the focal point of the shot, Sonny is still a messy disaster: the back-lighting on his shirt gives him an aura that serves to make him fuzzier and more indistinct, while his slumped posture (and he's constantly moving throughout the shot) makes him look saggy and weak while the other people involved are still and sturdy. And as for that back-lighting: note that everyone else has a light trained on a side of their body visible to the camera, while Pacino is bathed in gloom - of course, there's some light on his front, or there'd be nothing to look at, but while the other people here are front or side-lit, Sonny is blocking the light, in a sobering, quiet gesture of fatigue and despair. Coupled with Pacino's excellent reading of his will-writing monologue - dazed, sad, tired - it's a shot that could not more perfectly sum up the "let's please just get this over" feeling that has fully latched onto the plot at this point.

And one last thing, because I did after all call this one of the great summer movies: doesn't everybody just look miserably damn sweaty? I love it.

6 comments:

Gregory Roy said...

Such a great shot, you couldn't have picked a better one for this movie. One of my favorites and definitely one of the best of the 1970s era.

What I love best about this shot is how the lady in the far back is turned back looking towards Sonny like "What's next?"- perfect.

Since you mentioned this genre of "life on the filthy streets of NYC" I was wondering if you have seen The Panic in Needle Park (1971), also starring Pacino in his first big screen role.

Squasher88 said...

I completely agree with you. This film is a masterpiece that is right up there with the other 70s classics. Sidney Lumet really had a knack for sweaty summer films (think 12 Angry Men). Great analysus

NATHANIEL R said...

beautiful shot choice. your description of that will reading "dazed, sad, tired" and the way he looks in that short is spot on.

I watched half of it early this morning and half early this evening and inbetween I was DYING to watch it. great great movie.

NicksFlickPicks said...

You are the MVP of this series. Even though we haven't talked since dinosaurs were stepping on other dinosaurs' heads, I've loved all these entries! Hope to see you soon...

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

One thing I, unfortunately, didn't get to make much mention of in my remembrance of this was the goodness of the ensemble so I'm glad your best shot has three of them. The shot with that potent feel of despair afoot, is such a fine encapsulation of the film – as you say. And the Pacino is standing underscores one of my favourite things about him spiralling out of control here. Sure he has moments where he shouts, but the spiralling is never grandiose or loud. It’s just this sad, overwhelming quietness just like the way he looks there, looking down, dejected and so, so very alone.

Tim said...

Gregory- I haven't seen that one, actually! But I'm a fan of the form, and a fan of what Pacino does with it, so I'll be sure to give it a look.

Squasher- Good call on 12 Angry Men. Definitely another all-time great hot movie.

Nathaniel- Thanks for picking the movie! It's pretty damn addictive, isn't it? Glad you've finally seen it.

Nick- Aw, shucks, that's way too nice of you, but thanks. If nothing else, we have that festival-thingy in a couple of weeks...

Andrew- Beautiful analysis. There's just so much to say about Pacino in this movie, isn't there?