Al Pacino at 80: In praise of Dog Day Afternoon

Once upon a time in Hollywood, Al Pacino’s name was not a byword for lukewarm thrillers or lacklustre romcoms. Turning 79 today and still in possession of one of the most bankable faces in the movies, Pacino’s popular reputation sentimentally rests in large part on just two roles: The Godfather’s (1972) Michael Corleone and Scarface’s (1983) Tony Montana – two toweringly iconic gangsters whose ruthless, brutish shadows obscure the riches they bookend.

Because Pacino’s script-screening was once judiciously discerning – if not always impeccable – throughout the 1970s, he acted in just eight films: Labours of love, not bottom-line negotiations, these heyday performances were rooted in compulsive zeal, obsessive research and an adherence to Stanislavski’s method system. The complacency of contemporary Pacino sometimes feels like an insult to this golden run, and at its glorious centrepiece stands Dog Day Afternoon – a film which proved defiantly there is so much more to Al than cold and steely, or loud and shouty.

Working again under the nuanced gaze of Sidney Lumet – who directed Pacino two years earlier as the titular snitching cop in classic Serpico – the 1975 Oscar-winner was a triumph of tone, texture and pacing. And present in nearly every frame, Pacino’s presence pulsates with magnetic charisma.

Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, an effeminate outcast who desperately, brazenly – and really quite ineffectually – holds up a penniless Brooklyn bank alongside troubled friend Sal (played trippily by fellow Godfather star John Cazale). Soon after the cops, the TV cameras arrive, and while claustrophobically holed up with his sympathetic hostages, Sonny’s unconventional backstory unravels out into the open. As the spotlight is thrust onto a dysfunctional wife and lover, curious crowds descend on the scene; emerging to collect a pizza delivery or goad the cops, cornered Wortzik becomes an unlikely folk hero, leading the simmering masses against authoritarianism.

This remarkable turn of events was based on a true story failed heist of just three years earlier – nominated for six Oscars, Frank Pierson’s script won Original Screenplay. Meanwhile Pacino – also up against Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford – lost out on the Best Actor gong to veteran Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger. That roll call alone is a testament to how far Hollywood has climbed, crawled and plunged.

 

 

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