Directed By: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Frank Pierson (based on the article The Boys in the Bank by P.F Kluge)
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon
Dog Day Afternoon is a delicate balance of theatre and reality. As a drama it bustles with urgency and excitement, a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong with often comedic, but chiefly chaotic results, underpinned with a sense of ill-fatedness. It splices long takes and flourishes of frenzied editing to snapshot the volatility of the situation, and the sweaty, suffocating heat of inside the bank lends the melodrama a visceral quality. But at its core, underneath the theatrical bedlam, it’s a very different story. It’s a sombre story, a story of human beings and their emotional struggles. Sidney Lumet’s tale is a far cry from an action film, rather it’s a sad and grounded study of desperation.
Lumet’s great strength has always been his ability to get to the heart of his characters. Dog Day Afternoon is so exciting and absorbing because the people at its centre ring with truth and complexity. There’s a veracity to it, a sense of honesty and naturalism, augmented by Lumet’s refusal of a non-diegetic soundscape which gives off a quasi documentary air.
The story is a true one. Sonny Wortzik (a wonderful Al Pacino) on a New York summer’s day attempts to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. His seemingly catatonic friend Sal (John Cazale) without hesitation draws his gun, the last moment which abides by the would-be burglars plans, as their third compatriot immediately gets cold feet and flees. It’s the first in a long line of chaotic happenings which foil Sonny, with the film beginning as a comedy of errors. Sonny is smart but is out of his depth as a criminal. Firstly, after he fights like a bull to get his weapon out, he discovers the bank has next to no cash in its vaults as the duo just missed the daily pickup. And secondly, by the time Sonny raids the tills, the police and the media have encircled the bank and any hopes of a clean getaway are dashed. Sonny is now forced to improvise a plan, taking the employees hostage and attempting to set in motion negotiations with the police to orchestrate a way out. The best laid plans, ay.
Like so many American movies of the time, Dog Day Afternoon speaks to the turbulence of 1970’s society. Amidst the morally ambiguous Vietnam War (Sonny and Sal themselves are Vietnam veterans), political turmoil, and a growing tendency towards violence in America, there’s a theme of disillusionment with authority which runs through this chapter of Hollywood, (particularly in 1975 with films like Nashville and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There’s an anti-establishment undercurrent in Dog Day, something made apparent by Sonny’s countercultural battle cry of “Attica!” when he meets the guns-at-the-ready policemen as he steps outside, instructing them to check their trigger fingers and winning the disaffected youths that have gathered around the bank in the process.
The role of the media is also crucial. The event becomes a syndicated circus, a live-wire of entertainment, despite the fact that these things are disposed to have grim endings. Even the women who are being held hostage can hardly contain their excitement at their fifteen minutes. Perhaps Lumet is distressed by how desensitised the world has become to the prospect of violence, where the living room war has bred a national blood thirstiness and Sonny’s fate is just a title in the T.V guide.
There’s much going on in the political background of Dog Day, but the film is most affective as an intimate character portrait. Deep down it’s a sad story, a desperate love story, a tale of confusion and hopelessness. Sonny is one of cinema’s great characters, an in-over-his-head, gun toting every day man who just happens to find himself at the centre of a crime. Lumet never judges Sonny, between all the craziness and the public’s fixation on the man, Lumet never loses sight of the fact that Sonny is a human being, and this makes his struggle one we can so easily lose ourselves in.
What makes the character so fascinating is how benign he is despite what he’s up to. Al Pacino is terrific in this respect, bringing a flustered charm to Sonny which allows a soulfulness to permeate any amount of yelling and gun wielding. Pacino also brings an electricity to the role, complimented by Charles Durning’s Sergeant Moretti who Sonny must negotiate with (he too is a decent man who happens to find himself caught up the craziness.) Their moments of interaction offer some of the film’s most exciting, their dialogue flowing with a sense of improvisation which lends an explosiveness and unpredictability.
The most curious character of all is Sal. He’s the most unknowable, a wounded animal type who keeps his gun at the ready out of fear. He too isn’t an evil man, just a confused and worried one on the brink of disaster, a man who society would rather push than talk down from the ledge.
Part of Dog Day’s power is how effortlessly it seems to shift gears, moving from comedic and light, to frenzied and dangerous, to melancholic and downbeat as it sways between the characters. There isn’t a tone of out Lumet’s grasp, and there isn’t a note in the film that fails to affect us. It’s a tremendous film, as exciting as it is sombre.