Dog Day Afternoon opens with a series of shots that are superficially simple yet convey a number of themes and emotions. Cutting between images of Manhattan’s majesty and its poverty, director Sidney Lumet and editor Dede Allen include one shot that foreshadows the fate of one of the film’s main characters, a composition in which the beautiful city can be seen in the background while a cemetery occupies the foreground. The tension between what the city promises and what it takes away is just one of the many issues explored in this complex and enduring masterpiece.
Like Lumet’s first feature, 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon confines itself to limited locations. Most of it takes place inside a bank that is being robbed by Sonny (Al Pacino), a gay man who needs money to finance his partner’s sex-change operation. Yet the movie is never static, thanks to the breadth of ideas and the kinetic camerawork by director of photography Victor J. Kemper, ASC. Frank Pierson deservedly won an Oscar for his screenplay, which uses a confined time and space to explore a wealth of subjects, among them the media’s influence on public perception, the desperation of those marginalized by society, and the emotional and financial pressures of marital relationships.
Kemper’s well-choreographed camerawork relies on constant movement, yet the technique never seems ostentatious or obvious; the cinematographer respects the film’s nonfiction origins (it is based on a true story) by allowing the characters’ actions and emotions to motivate the moves. Kemper also adheres to an organic lighting approach in which all of the illumination comes from realistically motivated sources. The bank scenes are lit with fluorescents (except for one sequence that takes place during a power outage), and night exteriors are sourced by police searchlights, car headlights and other practicals. Within this naturalistic scheme, Kemper positions sources in a manner that enhances the story’s drama. (There are few moments in cinema in which lighting, composition, and performance come together as effectively as they do in Sonny’s climactic dictation of his will.)
Warner Home Video’s new, two-disc special edition of Dog Day Afternoon offers a sharp, vibrant transfer that is a significant improvement over the previous, no-frills DVD edition of the film. The clear monaural soundtrack is equally impressive, and the manipulation of sound to express point of view is one of the movie’s strengths; the complex sound design mirrors the cinematography’s ability to foster the illusion of reality while subtly shaping and altering that reality.
Kemper and Lumet discuss their work on the film in a terrific hour-long documentary on the second disc. “The Making of Dog Day Afternoon” is a four-part exploration of the film’s writing, casting, shooting, and editing that features superb interviews with all of the principal collaborators. The filmmakers are articulate and passionate about the movie, and there are many lessons to be learned from Lumet, Kemper and Pierson as they describe how they approached various narrative and technical challenges on the picture. A second brief documentary, “Sidney Lumet: Film Maker,” contains fascinating footage of the director and his team on location during the shoot.
The DVD also includes a feature-length audio commentary by Lumet, and although the filmmaker’s remarks are engaging and passionate, they cover a great deal of the same ground examined in the two documentaries. Nevertheless, this is a fine edition of a classic movie that deserves a place on any film lover’s shelf.