Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)


The key moment in Dog Day Afternoon is not its clearly earmarked dip into media satire, when amateurish bank robber Sonny Wortzik (a caricature of John Wojtowicz) plays his hostility as theater for a gleeful group of spectators and news cameras. Nor is it the devastating futility that closes it out, the finality of a cruel loss — however much deserved — to what they now (and probably then) call the System. No, it’s almost the first thing that happens in the movie: Al Pacino as Wortzik storming awkwardly into a bank and even more awkwardly unveiling a weapon and calling down a roomful of employees and witnesses — clearly terrified out of his mind, as are his cohorts.

Pacino’s initation of the ill-fated robbery — which turns into an extended hostage standoff before collapsing into an overwrought failure — is in and of itself a major achievement because it’s a pure moment of absolutely sublime performing by the actors involved, Pacino himself in particular; but also director Sidney Lumet’s presentation of it is both a challenge and an act of curious but immediately recognizable empathy. Even at his sharpest and most acid, Lumet’s shadings and mockeries of modern life never had the freewheeling cynicism of a Billy Wilder. The worst of his twelve angry men still showed beating hearts eventually, there’s a sense in which his Fail-Safe humanizes the very things Dr. Strangelove sought to undermine, and William Holden’s marriage breakdown casts a real-world pall over the frenzied bitterness of Network. These are all films driven by popular screenwriters, as is this one, but a common thread in Lumet’s work is the almost scientific presentation of an unforgivable act: and then, in the proceeding time, the slow revelation that somewhere underneath, all of us disparate people have something bonding us.

The setup is first-rate to such an extent that, on first viewing, I completely missed the nuance of what comes after. Frank Pierson’s script borrows directly from the real-life robbery of a Chase bank in NYC two years before the film’s release, though it alters the matter openly enough that it bears no responsibility for deviating from any truth except its own. Your heart goes out on this sweaty, horrible afternoon to the hostages trapped at their workplace under sometimes perversely comic, usually frightening and uncomfortable circumstances; and moreover, to Sonny and his team of barely-competent kiddos, particularly the great John Cazale as the dumb lug Sal, who is perhaps an even more tragic figure than his ringleader.

Despite amplifying the thriller elements of the story at several points, particularly the tense climax, Lumet never sets the heart to racing quite like in the jumbled sympathies and scary unpredictability of that first scene. Pacino, who tends so often in his films to leap wildly overboard with his characterizations, is absolutely perfect and treats his character with respect while also mining the depths of his own absurdity. The odd, unexpected way in which the whole botched operation plays out, with cops showing up too early and a volatile situation pressing onward for hours, feels frustrating and almost anticlimactic if you’re not prepared for the kind of film you’re about to see. Which is to say, Dog Day Afternoon‘s thoughtfulness comes out of subtlety and craft. Lumet and Victor Kemper shoot the indoor scenes in the bank emotionally and with an air of dramatic power, the megaphone-addled, bustling outdoor sequences like they’re on the set of a political documentary; and the finale — a brilliantly deceptive rescue — with slickness well befitting its presentation of great hope with nightmarish failure.

“Plot” is not really the point here, which is one reason a second viewing is crucial. There’s much nuance in how Sonny’s plight — not just his complex reasons for acting out, the unusual nature of his past, but also the relationship he quickly cultivates with the media and bystanders supporting him on the outside — develops over the course of the film. Something as simple as a food delivery becomes extremely intricate and telling. And while it may have been shocking at the time, the revelation that Sonny’s strongest impulse to net as much cash as possible is an outgrowth of his relationship with his wife, a pre-operative trans woman (Chris Sarandon) trying to complete her sex reassignment surgery, is handled with such great sensitivity that it’s difficult to believe the film is nearly forty years old.

Perhaps 125 minutes feels a touch too long for a story that can essentially be summarized in less than a line of text, but Dog Day Afternoon really presents a palpable feeling of being alive and confused. It’s a time capsule for its age (and place), sure, but it seems to have meant to be so — to snap the photos while this world still existed. It sings out in all its filth, perverse humor and Brooklyn fury. Lumet was always a prescient director whose films have aged unusually well, and this in some ways is the best illustration of his talent unencumbered by the dialogue-heaviness of some of his other works. He so fluidly moves about these confined spaces that they become complete theatrical worlds unto themselves, and what a handful of brilliantly natural performances are captured here: Pacino and Cazale, of course, but also Sarandon, who plays a role — Leon — that could so easily have descended into crass stereotyping in 1975 but absolutely doesn’t.

You can carp about how the film is dated by the way it seems to firmly take the criminals’ side — though such an impulse is complicated and not entirely unjustified — but I think it’s more a portrait of inevitability in general, made barbed and interesting by the specific time and place in which it unfolds. As in Do the Right Thing, the heat and tension of New York simply boil over. When Lumet looks at this frantic, tragic little news story, all he wants to do is know more about these people — and he expects the same of us.

[Some of this is from a review posted in 2005.]

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