Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Frank Pierson; based on "The Boys in the Bank" by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen this movie since working my way through the AFI Top 100 - the mission any fresh cinephile completes. I must have been eighteen or so and honestly I just didn’t like the film all that much. Still, I purchased the Special Edition Double Disc which doesn’t really make sense, though probably because it was directed by Sydney Lumet and felt cool to put another one of his films on my shelf. With nothing looking good on Netflix and having just moved into a new place, it was sitting on top of my rubbermaid bin that held all my films. I popped it in and for the first five minutes I was bored, remembering why I didn’t like the film. After five minutes, as the bank robbery was getting under way, with all its farce and hilarity, I was hooked and wondered what I had missed the first time around.
This film has everything - incredible characters, a fresh take on an old story, it looks at media and entertainment, gender and sexuality, and that which links us all together. What we discover very quickly is that Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Their third partner Stevie (Gary Springer of Jaws II fame) ditches out and so they’re left trying to figure how to pull the heist off, managing the six bank tellers/hostages, led by their supervisor Sylvia (Penelope Allen) who fluctuates between finding the situation thrilling and growing overwhelmed with fear.
The situation is kicked off with Sonny trying to remove his gun from the flower box, as it gets caught on the ribbon, which many know was a mistake made by Pacino that he played through, portending the entire story in that Sonny and Sal have no idea what they’re doing. The three grand they were looking for hasn’t arrived and so they’re left with $150. Fortunately, Sonny knows banks; what to do with and where the cameras are. He decides to burn the teller receipts, which in a pre-computer age is pretty brilliant as it’ll wipe away the money record and avoid anyone tracking them down. Soon the cops arrive. Sonny tries putting the tellers in the bank vault, and then one of them has to use the bathroom, where he then discovers another woman who failed to notice the robbery at all.
The demonstration of what media would become is eerily prescient. There’s the moment when the Bank Manager turns on his small television, which has a news anchor discussing the breaking story. Sonny gets on the phone with the anchor and begins explaining the situation before launching into a perverse tirade, only to have the program cut to black: no matter violence, networks have a zero tolerance policy toward bad language. Of course, this then makes the tellers even more excited, seeing themselves as characters in a national news story.
One of the film’s great characters is Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) who is one of cinema's all time greatest detectives. Eugene’s trying all the tricks in the book to placate and satisfy Sonny, but as the crowd falls in love with the guy, Eugene quickly learns he’s dealing with a fairly smart robber who knows a con when he sees one. In the film’s best scene, the two argue over one another, edited with such lightning speed that it plays like a great jazz song as they rapid fire exchanges and insults with such awesome intensity that you find yourself catching your breath at the end.
It’s when we learn that Sonny has a gay lover, and that the money he was attempting to steal was all for this person’s sex change that there’s a sudden shift. The crowd that loved him now voice their bigotry. They can’t be on the side of a homosexual; once again serving as a harbinger of the politics to come. It’s been over forty years since the film was released, and with such vast progress having been made with gay rights, there still remains a solid minority of folk that despise homosexuality and transgender folk. Lumet was willing to examine this hate; to put a magnifying glass upon it light years ahead of when anyone else would, placing it within a story with extraordinarily badass characters, completely disrupting the stereotypes that so many hold.
The film’s humor was much more apparent now that I’m older. John Cazale delivers a magnificent and creepy performance. Watching the "Behind the Scenes" his involvement was due to Pacino, who urged Lumet to hire him rather than - what I believe - was suppose to be a much more vanilla casting decision. Cazale is quiet in the beginning, though after the robbery gets underway and the cops arrive, with Sonny threatening to kill the hostages and kill themselves if the police try anything, Cazale looks right in his eyes and asks if Sonny is serious - because he is and they agreed to go all the way. I don’t know many actors that could pull off this line without slipping into melodrama. Cazale’s delivery is so frightfully candid, with Pacino’s reaction driving it home, that we truly believe we’re watching a madman unwind. Every line and interaction he has feels as though he’s about to snap, standing to kill everyone in the room.
I had forgotten how the film ended exactly. I just knew they didn’t get away. A solid gauge for any film is to maintain an irrational hope that the characters act a bit smarter the second time around - that Sonny would direct them to pull closer to the plane, or keep a closer eye on Agent Murphy (Lance Henriksen). I’m not sure where this comes from, or how our minds can create such a silly hope that maybe the film will play differently. It seems a symptom of any great movie, where you love the characters so much that you’re willing to excuse your own irrationality in order to root for their success. The ending is dark, with Sal getting shot in the head, and Sonny taken in, knowing he’ll spend the majority of his life behind bars. And yet beyond his individual punishment is realizing the people will no longer care; his wife and children will remain on welfare; his mother will never understand; and the world will hate them after what they learned.
BELOW: The best scene of the movie (and the entire period)
Thoughts on films, old and new
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