IMDB #166 Dog Day Afternoon

Ah, Sidney Lumet: we meet again. Will we get along this time? (Network being perhaps a slight runner-up to Crash for the 'Least Favorite Of The Countdown So Far" title)

I think so, based on what I know of 1975's Dog Day Afternoon- I haven't seen the whole thing before, and even though it fits into the subgenre of Bad Things Happening To Miserable People that I usually don't enjoy, I do enjoy bank-hostage dramas.

The Key Players:

Lumet just turned 86, yet remains Oscarless. I smell a Thalberg coming on.

Al Pacino, not too long after the first two Godfathers and a winning collaboration with Lumet in Serpico, gets his name before the title and everything.

Chris Sarandon's career has included his memorable villain in The Princess Bride, the speaking voice of Jack Skellington in A Nightmare Before Christmas, and a whole lot of tv guest-work as a doctor/judge type.

Among many in support are Charles Durning (Tootsie, "Evening Shade") and John Cazale (who would appear exclusively in Best Picture nominees in a brief career, cut short by cancer in 1978).

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The Story:

Two Vietnam veterans, the loquacious Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and the mute, intense Sal (Cazale), hold up a bank right as it closes. After a a third robber, Stevie, leaves due to nerve, they get the manager to open the vault, only to find scarcely $1,100 left after the daily pickup.

Sonny instead takes the money from the drawers (using his experience as a former teller to avoid the alarm-rigged bills and such) and the travelers checks- but his attempt to burn the check register alerts a nearby businessman to trouble- soon the police have the place surrounded.

What follows is a long standoff, in which a Detective Moretti (Durning) attempts to negotiate the hostages' release with Sonny, who's increasingly bolstered by the crowd gathering around the police barricade. A camraderie develops between Sonny and the female tellers, and we learn he was motivated by his partner Leon (Sarandon)'s need for sexual-reassignment surgery (this is in addition to Sonny's female wife and two children).

They demand transportation to the airport and a jet, amid a media frenzy- but you know how these things usually end.

The Artistry:

A September 22, 1972 ariticle in LIFE, which you can read here formed the basis for Dog Day Afternoon, and the end result seems remarkably true to life- John Wojtowicz, the real life Sonny, is even described as "a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman."

The movie, seeking to place itself thoroughly in early 70s Brooklyn, opens with a montage of shots of the city set to Elton John's "Amoreena." The rest of the movie has no score, and the documentary feel is only heightened by the opening moments of the heist unfolding in real time.

That tension is brilliantly brought to a head when the phone rings, and the bank manager turns to Pacino with a heart-freezing "It's for you."

The police arriving in excessively huge force is edited brilliantly thereafter by the late Dede Allen, a rush of activity before the film and the hostages settle in for an ordeal.

The undercurrent of anti-establishment sentiment in Dog Day Afternoon works well because it's precisely that- there's no speeches, no heavy-handed allegory, just some offhand and rambling remarks by Pacino about police brutality, and the famous "Attica!" chant to the crowd. That scene, and the crowd's interaction with Sonny and the police have become the most influential part of the film, but Lumet seems just as interested in the media's co-option of any developing story. The awkward, live on camera interview Sonny gives to a local tv station is kind of hilarious ("Couldn't you get a job?") until Sonny cuts it short by cursing on air.

The performances help the film get away with just skimming the thematic surface. Pacino at his wild best, Cazale with an aura of idle sadness as the heist continues, and Durning with an urgent, angry turn as the local cop trying to resolve things before the FBI takes it out of his hands.

And in a showcase for both actors, Pacino and Sarandon share a long phone call that hints at the character's long, complex history- and the long zoom in on Sarandon is flawless, as is the timing of the revelation that the FBI and Durning are listening in.


The FBI gives in and sends a limo for Sonny, Sal, and the hostages to get to Kennedy airport, where a jet is standing by. But even though he inspected it beforehand, a gun was hidden in the driver's side armrest, and the FBI agent driving shoots Sal in the head while Sonny is quietly disarmed.

The hostages flee to safety, and Sonny looks more passive than anything as the credits roll.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I liked it! You win, Lumet, and you get a 'higher' this time. May it comfort you in your waning years. Wait (checking the news)- yep, still alive.

The Legacy:

It would win an Oscar for Original Screenplay out of six total noms (including Picture, Lumet, Pacino, Sarandon, and Allen), and has a place in the NFR along with its cultural legacy in Pacino's quote.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Funny how yelling "Attica!" has become cultural shorthand for "I Am A Moron Who Saw A Movie One Time And Also Enjoys Yelling!" instead of for police brutality.

Leftover Thoughts:

-With Carol Kane as a mousy teller, this actually has two people from The Princess Bride in it.

-Shouldn't it be an adapted screenplay? Based on that article? I wonder about these things.

Coming Up...

165. The Secret In Their Eyes

164. The Thing

163. Stand By Me

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