"Dog Day Afternoon," Sidney Lumet, Film Review
'Dog Day Afternoon' is a message film. That's obvious from the opening sequence, showing gravestones in front of a view of skyscrapers and alternating scenes of haves and have-nots living in the city. This is going to be a message film that is going to teach you something, this sequence screams at us. I don't know about you, but that's a promise that fills me with fear.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Sure enough, we get a surprise gay wife and pointed references to the real-life Attica prison incident, where hostages and prisoners were both killed in the retaking of the prison.
'Dog Day Afternoon' raises interesting questions for writers on the relationship between real-life events and screenplays, as well as how theatrical performances can influence this relationship. Al Pacino used method acting techniques to show his character's exhaustion, for example, and much of the film's final dialogue was improvised.
Review continues below...
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Many, perhaps most, films suffer from contrived fictional screenplays, made all the worse by commercial pressures leading to cuts and changes at the expense of narrative sense. On the other hand, true life stories are often ghastly products where fictionalized sequences are needed to cover unknowable areas. Even when a lot of the facts are known, the impossibility of a screenplay writer going back in time and inhabiting the heads of the real-life characters causes problems of its own. Plus, to follow real-life events with all their messiness, irrelevant details, coincidences, inane dialogue and random unlinked characters and circumstances isn't often a recipe for a satisfactory screenplay.
So what's the answer? There isn't one. Perhaps fiction writers should look for the bizarre and often satisfyingly causal inputs from real life, and real-life story writers shouldn't be afraid to fictionalize and restructure the events.
And method actors are always going to be hammy.
'Dog Day Afternoon' treads a pretty decent path between all these hazards. The improvised dialogue and action is mostly convincing, the sheer bizarreness of the bisexual bigamous bank robber and his amateurish and unplanned robbery gives a nice real-life sheen, and the whole thing has been artfully crafted and manipulated into a satisfying piece of fiction. After that initial Elton John song there's hardly any music in the film, giving it a naturalistic feel, and little plot hitches for the characters to solve come bouncing in like balls from a tennis serving machine. The showy performance from Al Pacino is very watchable while obviously false. It's a paradox of method acting that all the preparation and physical training lead to a simulation of real life but the sheer effort of it somehow comes across at the same time in an un-naturalistic way. If you've ever seen Monsters University it's the difference from a book-learned roar and a roar from the heart.
Personal Score: 7/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.