Oscar winning screenwriter Frank Pierson died yesterday aged 87. His masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, is a cinematic classic and will ensure his name is never forgotten.
“What’s your favourite film?” – a stock question I get asked whenever I tell people what I studied at university, or what I do now. It’s almost unanswerable. I mean, I love Minority Report, and I love Fata Morgana, a documentary Werner Herzog made about mirages in the Sahara, but I love them for entirely different reasons, so it’s very difficult to compare. However, I have developed a response to this question, and my response is to say that my favourite film is Dog Day Afternoon, the writer of which, Frank Pierson, has just passed away at the age of 87.
Dog Day Afternoon is essentially a great heist movie, or a great heist-gone-wrong movie, I should say. It comes from an age when Hollywood were consistently churning out gold, the likes of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and The Graduate. It was a genuinely new era, with cinephile directors schooled on Hitchcock and The French New Wave collaborating with young, exciting actors, your De Niros, Pacinos and Hoffmans. The plot of the film centres around Sonny (Pacino), Sal (John Cazale) and a third accomplice trying to rob a Brooklyn bank, though the endeavour is almost immediately thwarted when the third accomplice bottles it at the site of the first gun.
From then on a series of calamities occur and the whole farce becomes a kind of public circus, with Sonny and Sal on one side and Police Sgt. Eugene Moretti, played by Coen Brothers regular Charles Durning, on the other, culminating in an iconic moment when Sonny shouts “Attica! Attica!”, a reference to the Attica Prison Riot in which 39 people were killed, riling up the crowd of onlookers. Two words. That’s all it took for Frank Pierson to etch his name in the annuls of cinema history forever. Simple, but effective.
From the opening bars of Elton John’s Amoreena which accompanies shots of sun-soaked New York, to the heartbreaking, perfectly pitched climax, it is nothing short of a triumph.
It’s worth watching the film for Pacino alone really, his performance is beautifully subtle and nuanced, a far cry from the parody of himself he has now become. Jack & Jill, Al, really? He darts around the bank with a brilliant nervous edgy in a seemingly hypnotic relationship with Sidney Lumet’s camera work, which is equally fast and frenetic. All Sidney Lumet’s films are action films in a sense, except the action is going on in the minds of the characters and in small, enclosed spaces – think the superb Network and the often celebrated 12 Angry Men. When you’re being this economical with space there’s nowhere to hide, the acting, cinematography and the script, especially the script, have to be flawless, and in Dog Day they are.
I remember sitting in The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square last year watching an old, crackled, fairly ropey 35mm print of Dog Day Afternoon and being moved to tears at the sheer beauty of it. From the opening bars of Elton John’s Amoreena which accompanies shots of sun-soaked New York, to the heartbreaking, perfectly pitched climax, it is nothing short of a triumph. Frank Pierson’s other efforts include Cool Hand Luke, A Star Is Born and most recently episodes of Man Men and The Good Wife, showing that throughout his career he never lost the ability to flesh out great characters and tell great stories. Rest in peace Frank, your work won’t soon be forgotten.
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