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.