(In French, On Cable TV, February 2018) As I watch more and more movies from the sixties and seventies, it seems to me that the characteristic grittiness of the seventies was as much of a reaction to the breakdown of the Hayes Code (and associated social conventions) as anything else. Suddenly free to show the world is as much unpleasant detail and harsh language as they wanted, filmmakers went far overboard and the result speaks for itself. (The tendency corrected itself in the late seventies with the rise of the audience-friendly blockbuster, but that’s a thesis best discussed elsewhere.) Serpico clearly redrew the classic template for most undercover-cop movies, delving deep into matters of police corruption through the eyes of an idealistic young police officer played by the explosive Al Pacino. (Sadly, the worst consequence of catching the film on a French channel is losing Pacino’s distinctive voice.) The film feels grimy and ugly, set during New York’s increasingly desperate period and reflecting the exploitative atmosphere of the time’s films. It’s still rather good, but some of the atmosphere can feel overdone at times. Pacino himself is very likable, which helps in navigating the bleak moral landscape of a police force thoroughly corrupted by a culture of graft and payouts. It’s not quite as violent as expected, but the atmosphere does help in creating an atmosphere in which the worst can always be expected. Sidney Lumet’s direction is solid enough that the film only feels a bit too long today—and much of that length is due to sequences that have been redone so often that they feel like clichés today. It may not pleasant, but there is an undeniable atmosphere to Serpico that still resonates.
(On DVD, April 2017) Forty years later, there is still something remarkable about Dog Day Afternoon’s off-beat crime thriller. Based on a true story in a way that sets it apart from most formulaic fiction, this is a bank robber/hostage thriller with enough unusual moments to feel fresh even after four decades of imitators. The closest equivalent I can think of remains 2006’s Inside Man—down to the very New York feel of the story. Watching the film is a reminder of Al Pacino’s early explosive screen persona—there’s a good reason why the “Attica!” sequence will forever be part of his highlight reel. Otherwise, the stars here are the quirky screenplay (in which the lead hostage taker has numerous scenes outside the bank and a complicated personal life) and Sidney Lumet’s matter-of-fact direction. Dog Day Afternoon is a film of moments—not necessarily the predictable ending, but the way it still twists and turns familiar genre convention into something that feels real and credible. Witness, for instance, the incredible over-reaction to a single gunshot midway through the movie—a welcome change of pace after movies in which entire magazines of ammunition get emptied without as much as a shrug. It is, in other words, still a remarkably enjoyable film. It has become a great period piece, and little of its impact has been blunted by the usual Hollywood formula.
(On DVD, January 2017) As far as mean and slightly seedy crime dramas go, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead hits most of the right notes. Featuring great performances (most notably from an often-naked Marisa Tomei, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, unfortunately playing a heroin addict) and a script that ping-pongs in time, this is the kind of low-stake but well-executed crime drama that doesn’t set the box office on fire but should feature in every moviegoer’s diet. (And I say this having missed the movie in theatres, only to catching a decade later on DVD.) The film does get grim as the consequences of “a simple theft” go awry in increasingly dramatic ways. By the end of the movie, you can expect a few deaths, a family torn apart and no one feeling particularly happy about the whole thing. Nonetheless, in the hands of veteran director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead steadily moves forward despite a slightly too long running time, and has a few surprises in store until the end. Not bad, even though I’d be surprised if viewers will be able to recall much of the plot weeks after seeing the film.