A recent rewatch forced a few thoughts out on to paper…
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, Sully Boyar, Penelope Allen, James Broderick
When people describe the plot of Dog Day Afternoon, the descriptions tend to do the lead characters an injustice. When two men hold up a bank, only to watch it turn into a media circus, it is implied that they are either stupid or foolhardy. Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) is no fool; as a former bank employee, he knows the ropes. The only problem is he can’t anticipate when a vault will be emptied. He’s either got bad luck or bad information, but he’s definitely not stupid
You really couldn’t make it up. The script is based on a true story reported in ‘Life’ magazine. Wortzik was really John Wojtowicz, who served 14 years of a 20-year sentence for robbing a Brooklyn Bank. Wojtowicz later criticized the portrayal of events in Dog Day Afternoon, claiming they were “only 30% accurate”. Still, the basic premise (man and accomplice rob bank to pay for the former’s partner’s sex change) is adhered to and, not matter what complaint was made, too much has been made of “Attica!” in the public consciousness for it to be disregarded.
Sidney Lumet’s best work is unified by a great belief in humanity. Even the most unsympathetic of characters committing the worst of acts have a visible soulfulness to them in Lumet’s films. Whether it’s Alan Strang in Equus or the Hanson brothers in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, they have a sense of right and wrong, however warped and/or objective it may be. For Sonny, the heist is something he has to do; by robbing the First Savings Bank of Brooklyn, Sonny is taking a stand. Frank Pierson’s verbose-yet-grounded dialogue illuminates Sonny’s predicament. As he tells his lover Leon (Chris Sarandon) over the telephone, “Everyone’s givin’ me shit.” No kidding. As well as the over-reactive Leon, Sonny supports two children from a whinging ex-wife (Susan Peretz), he has a worried mother (Judith Malina), a bank full of scared employees, as well as his unreliable partner Sal (John Cazale) and half of Brooklyn and the NYPD on the doorstep. Dog Day Afternoon is the ultimate example of a day going from bad to worse. D-Fens may have had a similarly bad day in Falling Down, but at least he got to release his temper by pulling the trigger. Sonny is forced to negotiate the twists of fate with Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) as the worst of Sonny’s past and present come to haunt him at the worst possible time.
Yet, negotiate he does. It helps that the media have arrived in droves, looking for a story/blood. As Lumet’s later Network reminded us, power ultimately lies with the media. Sonny has the media’s attention, and thus wields great power. Proving his intelligence, he knows how to use it. As the famous chant of “Attica! Attica!” ripples through the crowd as Sonny yells it, he knows the crowd are on his side as the TV cameras lap it all up. As much as Sonny is committing his crime to define himself, he’s also speaking up for others. He certainly has to speak for Sal. He’s a silent little man, the kind of character that John Cazale excelled in playing. He has steadfast beliefs (He rejects a cigarette to preserve his body, the “temple of the Lord.”) but, unlike Fredo Corleone, Sal is too timid to truly be a man of action. He acts as crowd control whilst Sonny talks outside, but there is rarely any risk of him actually shooting anyone. Permanently looking ill-at-ease, Cazale invests Sal with equal parts fragility, wonder and earnestness. It’s a further tribute to Cazale that Sal remains memorable despite the personalities on display in the bank, such as Penelope Allen’s head teller Sylvia or Jenny “The Squirrel” (Carol Kane).
And what of those tense negotiations outside of the bank? On each side of the discussions we find men who set out to do something that day, only to have their expectations subverted by each others’ actions. Moretti looks like a 25-year cop, overweight and biding his time until retirement. However, as the hostage situation drags on, he just wants a safe ending for everyone concerned. Having an empathetic Durning helps when going up against the tour de force that is Pacino’s performance. Sonny Wortzik is a remarkable creation; organized to start, then an intoxicating mix of steadfastness and passion when his plans become warped before his eyes. We grow to like Sonny because he’s too human to be reviled, yet too energized to be pitied. With an everyman charm and balls of brass, Pacino’s performance is simply magnificent.
Lumet’s (left) direction matches Pacino’s electricity. As problems mount, and the claustrophobia mounts inside the tight confines of the bank, Lumet ups the tension with curveballs and beautifully simple storytelling techniques. The intimacy of handheld cameras blended with the televisual experience of aerial shots are delicately blended into a clarity of vision that defines the best of 1970s American cinema. Lumet’s dedication to the story and the characters defines his work, and defines Dog Day Afternoon. Even in the unfortunate (and eventual) denouement, we never judge any character harshly, not Sonny, Sal, Leon or anyone else. Dog Day Afternoon remains a popular and critical classic because it understands that life is too complicated to divide people by labels of good guy/bad guy. Some people do bad things, but sometimes for good reason, even just to get to Algeria. Or Wyoming.