I had always wanted to see this, especially after learning what the bank robber’s motivation was, and when my boyfriend told me that he also had always wanted to see it, we arranged a viewing.
The movie is based on a true story that happened in Brooklyn. The credits show scenes of daily life throughout Brooklyn while a rock song plays, the only music on the soundtrack of the entire movie. Then we move in to our bank robbers, Sonny, played by Al Pacino [back when his performances were still distinguishable from each other], Sal, this very troubled-looking man with a round face and straight hair coming down to his shoulders, and another guy, who looks quite young and jumpy [I lost my notes to this movie, so I’m going to have to reconstruct this from memory]. They head into the bank almost immediately, and the jumpy guy says right away that he can’t go through with it, which was probably one of the wiser decisions he ever made. So Sonny and Sal pull out their guns and try to get all the money and trap all their hostages in the safe.
Sonny is quite aware of all the tricks banks pull when being robbed, having worked in a bank before, but things start going wrong almost immediately when the bank only has a little over a thousand dollars on hand, the truck having been by to pick up all the money earlier. Then he has trouble packing his hostages into the safe. Then the bank manager's having health problems. Then the police are made aware of the situation almost immediately, and are right outside the door. The bulk of the movie is made up of Sonny’s various negotiations with differing policemen, including one memorably played by Charles Durning, as tensions inside and outside the bank lowly rise.
There are a few movies I would classify as “New York movies,” and this is definitely one of them. When Sonny wants to cram all of the tellers into the safe, they immediately say “well I have to go to the bathroom,” and “I need my medication” and suchlike. I am on my way back from visiting my parents in the Midwest as I write this, and it occurs to me that if this movie took place in the Midwest, everyone would just shut up and get into the safe, and defecate in a safety deposit box or something, but in New York it is immediately “I HAVE to use the bathroom.” We just aren’t as shy about demanding our personal needs. The other side of this is exemplified by the lead teller, who returns to the bank, even when she has an opportunity to escape, because she is loyal to the tellers under her charge—and she just isn’t afraid of Sonny. Also very New York is the way a crowd gathers outside and supports Sonny over the police, the pizza delivery boy who is excited about being famous, and the way Sonny and the tellers end up advising Sonny about how he should manage his personal affairs, as well as his bank robbery. A scene not confined to New York, but at the same time VERY New York, is when Sonny calls his wife and she won’t let him speak for telling him a story about one time when he insulted her at an amusement park. When he finally says “Will you shut up, I need to talk to you!” she starts in about “You see! You’re always yelling!” It’s both hilarious and a little sad. Sonny ends up hanging up on his wife.
SPOILERS > > >
A lot of the reason I was interested in watching this was Sonny’s motivation for robbing the bank, and to see how that was handled. He is robbing the bank to pay for the sex change operation of his male lover, who he refers to as his wife [that was his legal, female wife we were just talking about earlier]. They soon locate his lover and bring him to the scene to talk to Sonny, which he initially refuses to do. The lover is played by Chris Sarandon as a not entirely flattering but entirely true-to-life portrayal of a whiny, simpering gay MESS, the likes of which I have seen numerous times in real life. Adding a sadly affecting layer to this story is that the lover wants Sonny to get lost! He never asked Sonny to do this for him, and in fact was trying to get Sonny to stay away from him. Sonny’s refusal to believe this, his hope that everything can be made right by this act, and naïve belief that he’ll be able to just walk away from all this with the money and everything will be fine gather momentum and make the entire story more affecting.
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And that’s the thing that starts to amaze more and more toward the end: how could Sonny possibly think he’s going to get away with this? He is so smart about everything else, really one step ahead of the cops almost every step of the way, how can he go on thinking that they’re going to just grant him an airliner and just let him fly off without bothering about it again? As the movie continues on, you have to assume that this one blind spot is just denial on his part, which also adds to the accumulating personal tragedy of Sonny’s story.
The entire film is filmed in a style that consciously seeks to be as realistic and matter-of-fact as possible. There are some bank-long camera moves, but for the most part the lighting is natural, no one is glamorous, there is no music, and except for one major elision as day turns into evening, the entire thing seems to unfold in real time. The script and rhythm of the movie also avoids big dramatic or emotional climaxes in favor of a naturalistic style that allows these effects to build up over time, which can make you feel like the movie is just going on with no clear direction, but eventually leads to the feeling that its effects are more organic than forced.
So that’s it! Definitely a justified 70s classic with everything going for it. I watched this about three weeks ago and am just getting around to writing about it now, and I admire it and am more moved by it now, after reflection and in hindsight, then just after turning it off. It’s not a total blast to watch, but it’ll stay with you.
Yes! It's a justified 70s cinema classic!