Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birthday Take: Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)

Al Pacino
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Al Pacino
Born: April 25, 1940 (81 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Dog Day Afternoon (nominated) as Sonny

The Take

Nowadays, it's easy to think of Al Pacino as one of the greatest actors of his generation. How could you not with an impressive resume that includes The Godfather films and even Serpico and Scarface. He was a charismatic, neurotic man who played like the caffeinated Robert De Niro with occasional sly winks to the audience. While he would go on to make subpar films in subsequent decades, there is something to the magic of his young performance that aren't only great, they're iconic.

Among them is Dog Day Afternoon in which he turned a heist film into a story about oppression and even features vague traces of LGBT themes. It was of course based on a real robbery (the subject of which was made into the documentary The Dog last year). However, it became one of the most politically charged and personal tales of its kind. It is sweaty, neurotic, and has an impressive metaphor about jails. In fact, the film itself, impressively shot by director Sidney Lumet, has become a standard for heist films and it is easy to see why. It wasn't so much about the robbery so much as the fact that things go immediately wrong.

While the film encapsulates several performances, what essentially works about it is the chemistry between Pacino and his partner played by the late John Cazale, who is doing the robbery for personal surgery reasons. With a dour ending, the film doesn't glamorize the criminals despite raising a lot of great notes about what draws people to crime. Where Pacino turned to enforcing law in Serpico, he went the other direction here and does so in a setting that is often restrained and claustrophobic. Everything folds in on itself and the initial robbery gives way to a stakeout that lasts and lasts and gets more interesting int he process.

Dog Day Afternoon has managed to become one of Pacino and Lumet's most noteworthy film in two storied careers. However, for the young actor, it was something more powerful and spoke to the times of rebellion. Much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the metaphors are essentially what makes it a timeless film that manages to be both politically charged and just entertaining. There's very little wasted by Pacino in the role that makes his manic energy more focused and the chemistry with Cazale only becomes more crushing as LGBT themes become more apparent in pop culture.

It is easy to joke that Pacino's only Oscar came from Scent of a Woman. By all accounts, it isn't nearly as revered as his impressive run in the 70's. It is one of the more controversial political elements of the awards considering that Dog Day Afternoon has remained a seminal masterpiece. However, it is hard to refute against the nominations, which were well deserved. It is a testament to the film that it is likely that without information, many would assume that Pacino has won a lot more Oscars. It may seem unfortunate that he may never get another one, but at least he left behind a resume that makes him one of the best, even if it was for a debatable short time.

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