Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Sidney Lumet’s Best Picture Starring Al Pacino

Arguably Sidney Lumet’s best picture, Dog Day Afternoon is an incredibly lunatic, fact-based story of a loser named Sonny (played with great panache by Al Pacino), who holds up a Brooklyn bank to raise money for his lover’s sex-change operation.

Frank Pierson’s Oscar-winning scenario is based on the vivid magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore about the attempt to rob a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank on August 22, 1972. In the movie, the bank is renamed as First Brooklyn Ban

Dog Day Afternoon is a rather accurate yet eccentric feature, in many ways a logical follow-up to Lumet’s previous film, the vitally fact-based policier, Serpico, which also starred Al Pacino.

The film depicts a seemingly “simple” heist tale, which goes awfully and hilariously wrong, snowballing in many unpredictable directions until it becomes a citywide incident, going way beyond the two inept robbers, the bank and its diverse employees, the police department, and growing crowd of city residents.

The New York Times critic Vincent Canby has correctly noted that Lumet’s quintessential New York movies are as much aspects of the city’s life itself as well as stories of the city’s life, in this case Brooklyn.

On one level, “Dog Day Afternoon” is a fact-inspired melodrama about a disastrously ill-planned bank robbery. On another, the film is a wild satire about the desperation of marginal, lunatic characters to get their share of the American Dream.

By not taking sides or making value judgments, the film achieves great emotional impact, while remaining grounded, but not serious or earnest, in its particular concerns.

Sharply scripted, “Dog Day Afternoon” begins with a major irony, that the bank’s vault on that particular day has only $1,100. After the first reel, the film becomes a gaudy chronicle of street-carnival, which encourages the viewers to wonder and laugh at the madness on screen, almost up to the end, often at the most inappropriate moments.

The two hoodlums, Sonny (Pacino) and partner Sal (Cazale), are motivated by different goals. Seeking money for a sex-change operation for his boyfriend, Pacino Sonny failed miserably after they held the bank’s employees hostage for fourteen, during which they appeared live on TV and became the center of a neighborhood Mardi Gras, trying to negotiate for a Jet plane to fly them out of the country.

Only briefly, “Dog Day Afternoon” gets out of the bank or, for that matter, away from the lower-middle-class neighborhood. At least half of the yarn stays within the bank itself, centering on the shifting group dynamics between the hoodlums and their hostages. This concentration in space and time is at least partly responsible for the film’s dense intensity and overall emotional impact.

The precisely-etched characterization is vividly brought to life by a brilliant cast of lead and supporting actors; there is not a single bad performance in the picture. Right after the first scene, we get a concrete sense of the complex tangle of a city in a state of crisis, distress, anger, and ultimately senseless violence.

Sonny comes across as a mad mini-mind of the holding, a demented, confused man in his personal relationships. He vows his love for wife and child and at the same time declares passion for his boyfriend whom he had “married” in a drag wedding some months earlier with his mother as a witness. In a bravura scene, he recalls his full-dress white wedding to a man, attended by no less than seven male bride-maids. A man of grand delusions, Sonny says he needs and wants not a little but a big jet.

John Cazale is hilarious as Sal, Sonny’s seemingly quiet and passive sidekick in crime.  He is a lunatic who believes in physical fitness, claiming that he doesn’t smoke, “because the body is the temple of the lord.”

As Sonny’s boyfriend Leon, Chris Sarandon brings the right mixture of fear, dignity, and silliness. At one point, he testifies that his would-be patron had tried to kill him on several occasions.

The film offers a current vision of the absurd dilemmas of city life, as populated by characters that are on the periphery of American society and thus seldom get ion screen time. Like other seminal films of the 1970s, such as Spielberg’s “Sugarland Express,” made in 1974, “Dog Day Afternoon” shows the power of the media to create a fictional reality that seems more important than life as it’s lived on the street. Director Lumet should be commended for the bravura style when depicting the crowds outside of the bank.

“Dog Day Afternoon” may be the first American movie about a bank robbery that’s staged and acted as a wild social satire, which in moments assumes the tone and shape of a farce; you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, feel sorry or empathize with the characters.

Unlike most heist pictures, this movie describes a bank robbery that’s not so much suspenseful, scary, or even dramatic, but as an anti-climactic event that consists of small and peculiar scenes, courtesies, wishes, and reveries.

Gradually, the bank begins to take on a domesticated look, with a newly formed social community, in which the hostages bond with their captor-tormentors. How else can you explain that midway, the two men send for a pizza to soothe their hostages, some of them are elderly men and women.

It doesn’t help that the robbery occurs in one of the summer’s hottest days, with temperature of 97 degrees and rising, and though, almost from the start, the bank is surrounded by police, it takes a long time for the force to intervene and take any action.

Using a novel device of 1970s Hollywood cinema, Lumet keeps a TV screen in the bank, which shows the events while they are happening. Dog Day Afternoon suggests a crazy human behavior, which is both controlled and modified by the very fact that it’s publicly and simultaneously reported.

There is no doubt that he heist’s publicity affects the line of action, making it crazier, more feverish, and ultimately totally out of control. Sonny is perceived as an American “original,” a doomed but sympathetic anti-hero, at once a product and a victim of showbusiness. One of the film’s most human touches is the notion of Sonny’s inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed, as he is trying to do the right thing by everybody–his wife, children, suicidal Leon, hostages in the bank

The film is full of surprises, good and bad ones. While there’s a ritualistic scene between Sony and his very Jewish mother, strangely for a Jewish director like Lumet, race is ignored, or at least not dwelled upon. On the other hand, the expected scene between Sonny and lover Leon never happens. They handle their contact by phone; in fact, Sonny’s anxiety and Leon’s distress are so pure and complete that there’s no need to appeal for our sentiments or sympathy.

As Pauline Kael noted in her New Yorker piece, Sony is a doomed working-class hero who behaves crazily, irrationally but spontaneously, who the audience accepts, or at least doesn’t laugh at because American society of the 1970s is so normless and amoral that as citizens we no longer believe in patterns of behavior or codes of ethic anymore, just in behavior itself.

Cast

Sonny (Al Pacino)
Sal (John Cazale)
Moretti (Charles Durning)
Leon (Chris Sarandon)
Mulvaney (Sully Boyar)
Sylvia (Penny Allen)
Sheldon (James Broderick)
Jenny (Carole Kane)
Angie (Susan Peretz)
Margaret (Beulah Garrick)

Running time: 130 Minutes