Sunday, September 24, 2017


By Roger Ebert

"Dog Day Afternoon" runs a little longer than the average feature, and you think maybe they could have cut an opening montage of life in New York. But no. These shots, stolen from reality, establish a bedrock for the film. It's "naturalistic," says the director, Sidney Lumet. I think he means it has the pace and feel of everyday life. When you begin with the story of a man who sticks up a bank to finance his lover's sex change, when you have a situation that has attracted hundreds of cops and millions of TV viewers, you run the risk of making a side show. "Dog Day Afternoon" never makes that mistake. The characters are all believable, sympathetic, convincing. We care for them. In a film about cops and robbers, there are no bad guys. Just people trying to get through a summer afternoon that has taken a strange turn.

It's an actor's picture. Lumet and his editor, Dede Allen, take the time to allow the actors to live within the characters; we forget we're watching performances. Although the movie contains tragedy and the potential for greater tragedy, it is also tremendously funny. But Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning screenplay never pauses for a laugh; the laughter grows organically out of people and situations. You can believe that even with hostages taken and firearms being waved around, such elements of human comedy would nevertheless arise.

One of the funny moments comes at the beginning, when three robbers enter a bank but one of them chickens out and says he can't go through with it. "Stevie," says his partner Sonny, "don't take the car." "But how am I gonna get home?" Stevie whines. Is that real? Yes, because you believe that Stevie would in fact have driven himself home and that Sonny (Al Pacino) would think of that.
Pacino has said the most memorable moment in the movie involves the delivery boy (Lionel Pina) who brings pizza to the robbers and their hostages. He's been watching the drama unfold on live TV, and when he's applauded by the crowd, he does a little skip and jump and says, "I'm a star!" 

Television turns the moment into what, at that time, was a fairly new event for live broadcasting. Sonny expands in the TV lights, strutting back and forth in front of the bank and unwisely exposing himself to rooftops lined with snipers. His remaining partner Sal (John Cazale), on the other hand, shrinks within himself. He can't believe he's a bank robber. He can't believe Sonny says he will kill people. He's offended that on TV, which has the facts a little confused, he's described as a homosexual. He can't believe he's expected to get on a jet with the others and fly to safety. He's never flown before. Asked to name a foreign country they can fly to, he says "Wyoming." The line was improvised on the spot by Cazale.

The movie take place almost entirely within a bank branch and the barbershop across the street, which becomes the police and FBI "command center." Back and forth Lumet's camera moves, on a shuttle of negotiations. The side view down the street in either direction shows their escape route, until it's blocked by a crowd that quickly forms and becomes a character in itself. At one point, making threats on the sidewalk, Pacino shouts "Attica," referring to the infamous massacre of prisoners in an upstate prison. "Attica!" the crowd shouts back, without prompting. They never see Sal, who is trembling, pale, sweaty, frightened. They respond to Sonny, first as a hero and then (when they find out he's gay) with jeers.

Sonny is gay, along with many other things. He is also a son whose mother mercilessly criticizes him, a husband and father whose wife (Judith Malina) won't let him get a word in edgewise. Asked why she didn't come to the bank when he asked for her, she explains on the phone, "I couldn't get a baby-sitter." She and her husband speak the same New York dialect. Denying that her husband could possibly have robbed a bank, she says: "He mighta done it, his body functions mighta done it, but he, himself, he didn't do it."

Sonny is many things and wants to be all things. The writer Pierson, unable to interview the robber in the real-life story, says he found the key for the character after being told Sonny was the kind of man "who would take care of you." He walks into the bank, waving the rifle but also saying, "I'm a Catholic and I don't want to hurt anyone, understand?" He listens when a teller has to use the toilet and is worried about the bank guard with asthma. He often says, "I'm dyin' here," because the problems of the tellers become his problems.

The most colorful of the tellers is their head, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), who cares for her "girls." Outside the bank and free to escape, she goes back inside: She's staying because she enjoys being the center of attention. "He don't have a plan," she says of Sonny. "It's all a whim." She may be right. Sal certainly has no idea what Sonny is capable of. In an interview on the disc of extras, I learned that Sonny met Sal in a Greenwich Village bar and didn't even really know him very well. We sense that when Sal starts trembling when he learns they'll leave the country by air. "You said if it went wrong, we'd kill ourselves!" he protests. He'd rather die than fly.

More than halfway through the picture, the other key character appears. This is Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny's lover. He is adamant: He certainly never asked Sonny to rob a bank to pay for his sex change. Brought into the barbershop and put on the phone with Sonny, he indirectly reveals his emotional inner life. He was in a mental institution. He and Sonny are drifting apart. He can't keep up with Sonny's emotional needs. He sits in the barbershop and talks to Sonny on the phone. This conversation was written as two monologues, Pierson says, and intercut into an exchange that essentially won Sarandon his supporting actor Oscar nomination. Throughout the film, neither man exhibits gay stereotypes. Leon is vulnerable and easily wounded, but not a drama queen. Pacino is matter of fact; in a scene when he dictates his last will to the bank manager (Sully Boyar), he says he loves Leon "more than any man ever loved any other man." He states this as a matter of fact; there's not a whisper of gay spin to it, and indeed even his wife and mother tacitly accept his bisexuality as simply the way he is.

The cops and FBI agents are instrumental to the film, but less fully developed than the people in the bank. Charles Durning plays the NYPD officer in charge, and James Broderick is the chief FBI agent. Neither one is given the kinds of plot elements that usually come with cops in hostage movies. They're unburdened by standard subplots (trouble at home, a conflict with a superior) and just do their jobs; afraid that a bloodbath will erupt, Durning actually runs at cops who won't holster their weapons. Both are matter of fact, direct, playing their roles right down the center. Many of Broderick's most essential moments come in reaction shots. They help demonstrate Lumet's naturalistic approach.

 Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker. His book on directing joins David Mamet's as two contrasting approaches to the subject, both written with clarity and conviction. Starting young by directing live TV, Lumet launched his big screen career with "12 Angry Men," based on one of his TV productions. His subjects have ranged widely; he clearly cares for the story above all else and doesn't specialize in genres or themes. If he's known for one aspect of his broad creative career, it is films about New York, including "The Pawnbroker," "Bye Bye Braverman," "Serpico" (also starring Pacino), "Q&A," "Network" and the suburban "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Here he has created a film made brilliant by its deeply seen characters, in a plot that could have obviously been cheapened and exploited but is always human and true.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE IMITATION GAME - Background and Reflection

8 things you didn’t know about Alan Turing

An English mathematician, logician and cryptographer, Alan Turing was responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II. His work gave the Allies the edge they needed to win the war in Europe, and led to the creation of the computer. On the PBS NewsHour tonight, Jeffrey Brown interviews Benedict Cumberbatch about his role as Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Turing took his own life in 1954, two years after being outed as gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in Great Britain at the time, and Turing was convicted of “indecency.” He died from eating an apple laced with cyanide. He was only 41 years old.

At the time of his death, the public had no idea what he had contributed to the war effort. Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing.

Andrew Hodges, a mathematician at the Mathematical Institute at Oxford University, wrote the biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, which inspired the film. We spoke with Hodges this week about some things many people don’t know about Turing.

1. He was an Olympic-level runner

He participated in a few sports, such as rowing, but he loved running. Turing had “a bit of a ‘smelly trainers’ aspect” to his personality,” Hodges said. To work it into his day, he often ran to the places he needed to go. He used to run the 10 miles between the two places where he did most of his work, the National Physical Laboratory and the electronics building on Dollis Hill, beating colleagues who took public transportation to the office.

He joined running clubs, becoming a competitive amateur and winning several races. In 1948, his best marathon time was 2 hours 46 minutes 3 seconds — only 11 minutes slower than the Olympic winning time that year.

When one of his running club members asked why he trained so vehemently, he replied, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”

2. He embodied some values of the Hippie movement

“He was a hippie before his time,” Hodges said. “He was very casual in those days, and thought very scruffy.” Had he lived a few decades later, he would have worn t-shirts and jeans every day, Hodges added.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Turing dressed rather shabbily, with bitten nails and without a tie, he said. With his youthful face, he was often mistaken for an undergraduate even in his 30s.

He also shared the left-leaning views of many of his Kings College compatriots, who included economists John Maynard Keynes and Arthur Cecil Pigou. Though Turing joined the Anti-War Movement in 1933, he never got deeply involved in politics. But watching Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930s scared him, Hodges said, and it spurred his interest in cryptography, which would later help Great Britain in the war.

3. He got bad grades and frustrated his teachers

Science was a considered a second-class pursuit in English public schools in the 1920s, Hodges said. Turing’s passion for science embarrassed his mother, who had hoped he would study the classics, which was the most acceptable pursuit for gentlemen.

But he got bad to mediocre grades in school, followed by many complaints from his teachers. His English teacher wrote:

His math and science grades weren’t much better. He was nearly stopped from taking the national School Certificate exams on the subject, for fear he would fail.

4. The father of the computer also dabbled in physics, biology, chemistry and neurology

Turing’s most notable work today is as a computer scientist. In 1936, he developed the idea for the Universal Turing Machine, the basis for the first computer. And he developed a test for artificial intelligence in 1950, which is still used today.

But he also studied physics, especially as a young man. He read Einstein’s theory of relativity as a teenager, and immediately filled a notebook with his own thoughts and ideas on the subject. He dabbled in quantum mechanics, a new field at the time, as well as biology, chemistry and neurology after the war. Much of this work was related to creating machines that could learn and “think”, but some of it came out of simple curiosity about the world.

5. He developed a new field of biology out of his fascination with daisies

Even as a child, Turing saw life through the eyes of a scientist, Hodges said. There is a famous sketch of Turing as a boy “watching the daisies grow” while the other children play field hockey. That sketch would foreshadow Turing’s ground-breaking work in 1952 on morphogenesis, which became a completely new field of mathematical biology. It was a mathematical explanation of how things grow — a great mystery to science, Hodges explained. His work on the subject has been cited more than 8,000 times.

The subject of one of his seminal papers on the topic was called “Outline of the Development of the Daisy.”

6. He stuttered when talking

It is true that he had a bit of a stammer, something dramatic portrayals of Turing have exaggerated, Hodges said. He “took his time finding the right words,” he explained. In his biography he notes that a BBC radio producer had called Turing a very difficult person to interview for that reason.

7. He didn’t keep his sexuality a secret among friends

The laws at the time prevented Turing from being openly gay, but he never kept his sexuality secret either. He was open with his social circles at Kings College in Cambridge, which was “an oasis of acceptance” at the time, Hodges said. Many people would have clung to that oasis, he said, but Turing branched out to continue his work.

In 1952, he was arrested and charged with “indecency” after a brief relationship with another man. Defiant, he did not deny the charges.

“When he was arrested, the first thing he said was he thought that this shouldn’t be against the law,” Hodges said. “He gave a statement that was unapologetic, that detailed what had happened.”

8. He refused to let a punishment of chemical castration stop him from working

The punishment for homosexuality was chemical castration, a series of hormone injections that left Turing impotent. It also caused gynecomastia, giving him breasts. But Turing refused to let the treatment sway him from his work, keeping up his lively spirit.

“He dealt with it with as much humor and defiance as you could muster,” Hodges said. “To his close friends, it was obvious it was traumatic. But in no way did he just succumb and decline. He really fought back … by insisting on continuing work as if nothing had happened.”

He openly talked about the trial, even in the “macho environment” of the computer lab. He mocked the law’s absurdity. In defiance, he traveled abroad to Norway and the Mediterranean, where the gay rights movements were budding.

Homosexuality was considered a security risk at the time, and the conviction cost Turing his security clearance. That was a harsh blow, and Hodges believes that when he was restricted from leaving the country anymore, it ultimately led Turing to suicide.

“After he’d been revealed as gay in 1952, he couldn’t do any more secret work,” Hodges said. “It would have been hard to accept that he was not trusted.”


Tuesday, September 12, 2017


As the product of a stern religious upbringing by a Lutheran minister father, the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has had a preoccupation with life's greater questions as a thematic constant throughout his prolific and distinguished body of work. By the late '50s to early '60s, his films were consistently steeped in queries regarding the existence of God and man's place in the universe. His most profoundly realized work of the period, The Seventh Seal (1957), became a global art house favorite and staked his claim amongst the giants of world cinema.

Throughout his life, Bergman had never forgotten the images of Death that he had seen rendered in the frescoes of the ancient churches he had visited as a boy. Indeed, what would become the scenario for The Seventh Seal sprung from a 1955 one-act play he had authored and produced entitled Wood Painting. Bergman had his doubts that he could ever have such a personal project financed, but he was enjoying the clout of his recent jury prize award at Cannes for Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Bergman's producer Carl Anders Dymling agreed to back the shoot under the proviso that it would conclude in thirty-five days - a condition that Bergman, amazingly, fulfilled.

The narrative opens on the shores of medieval Sweden, where the noble knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his earthy squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand) are slowly making their way home after an ultimately futile decade spent away at the Crusades. The dispirited travelers have returned to find the populace of the country becoming decimated by the Black Plague. Having stopped for a respite, Block is confronted by a cloaked, sallowfaced figure (Bengt Ekerot) personifying Death. The knight swiftly barters with the reaper for a delay of the inevitable, challenging him to a game of chess with his reprieve as the prize.

As they play, Block unsuccessfully tries to wheedle the truth regarding ultimate destiny from his opponent, with no success. The game becomes temporarily tabled, and Block and Jons continue on to the knight's castle keep. The story's focus then shifts to a trio of traveling entertainers who are finding declining interest in their services; the impish juggler Jof (Nils Poppe), his gently loving wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), and the undependable rake Skat (Erik Strandmark). Ultimately, circumstances bind their travels to those of the knight and squire, as they encounter ever more disquieting evidence of the physical and moral blight sweeping the land.

Despite the foreboding narrative of The Seventh Seal, Bergman is still able to leaven it with comic touches, as shown in the consequences of Skat's cuckolding of a blustering blacksmith (Ake Fridell), and the moving serenity of the sequence when Block gratefully responds to the entertainers' gracious sharing of their simple fare. Throughout the journey, Death sporadically appears to Block, continuing their play until he has him in check. Block implores Jof and Mia to depart, and his final acceptance brings The Seventh Seal to its now-familiar closing image.

Amazingly enough, this most famous of sequences was devised completely off the cuff in the span of ten minutes. The unit was setting up another shot when the skies shifted so dramatically as to inspire Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer to shoot the "Dance of Death" sequence. Fridell, who had injured himself the night before, was unable to go on, and a member of the crew doubled for him in silhouette.

According to the biography, Ingmar Bergman by Peter Cowie, "The opening scene by the seashore and a few other hillside sequences were shot at Hovs Hallar, on the southwest coast of Sweden. Lennart Olsson had spent two weeks searching for the right spot. Hovs Hallar, with its sense of mountains coming literally down into the sea, struck Bergman as being exactly right. He also liked filming in the province of Skane because the light was so much softer than in the northern parts of the country."

The Seventh Seal boasts multiple strong performances by the cast, many of whom would be regarded as Bergman's repertory company. Von Sydow, only 27 at the filming and projecting a gravity years beyond, became an international star due to his portrayal of the warrior struggling with his faith. The pragmatic Bjornstrand provides the perfect counterpoint. The stage comedian Poppe strikes the right notes as the near-childlike Jof, and Andersson (Bergman dedicated the script to her) is luminous in portraying the devoted spouse. Fischer, who would lens over a dozen of Bergman's efforts from the late '40s through the early '60s, proved masterful in shifting from the stark to the serene as the story demanded.

By his own admission, Bergman utilized the spectre of the plague as a metaphor for the anxiety of nuclear war, and it should come as no surprise that the highbrows of the duck-and-cover generation were so quick to embrace The Seventh Seal. "Essentially intellectual, yet emotionally stimulating, too, it is as tough-and rewarding-a screen challenge as the moviegoer has had to face this year," Bosley Crowther declared in the New York Times' review of the day; this assessment has continued to hold true over the generations since.

Producer: Allan Ekelund
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Film Editing: Lennart Wallen
Art Direction: P.A. Lundgren
Music: Erik Nordgren
Cast: Gunnar Bjornstrand (Jons), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Nils Poppe (Jof), Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bibi
Andersson (Mia), Inga Gill (Lisa), Maud Hansson (Witch), Erik Strandmark (Jonas).