By John H. Foote
15. DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
On the hottest day of the year in sweaty New York City, three men walk into a bank, the leader carrying a flower box. Once inside one of the men announces to the leader, he cannot go through with their plan and runs out of the bank. The other two proceed, and in a hysterical moment Sonny (Al Pacino) fumbles with his flower box and pulls out a rifle, while his partner Sal (John Cazale) brandishes a machine gun. They have every intention of robbing the bank, with or without their fleeing partner.
The trouble begins with the announcement that the truck has been and gone and taken the cash out of the vault. There is but a few hundred dollars in the teller’s registers and Sonny knows they will be marked. Their troubles mount when a telephone rings and the police announce they know exactly what is happening inside the bank and the two should surrender right now. In fact the police are watching them through the window, right across the street and they expect an immediate surrender from the bandits.
Never have two more inept bank robbers existed.
However, they realize they now have hostages and can begin making demands. Sonny, clearly the leader, begins to feel the pressure as some of the bank employees collapse under the stress, the police demand to speak with him, and Sal, quietly unstable, reminds Sonny he promised that they would start killing hostages and throwing the bodies outside, which is what he wants to do. The look in Sal’s dark eyes tells Sonny he means business, which alarms Sony, because he does not wish to hurt anyone.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon was an electrifying piece of cinema, a superb black comedy that took some very dark turns, remaining dark right through to the end of the picture. The film offered Al Pacino one of his greatest roles, and he responded with a stunning performance that ranks among his finest three performances. We can feel the walls closing in on Sonny as problem after problem is piled on him, and he’s left to deal with the nightmare and his growing celebrity. He befriends the hostages, listens to them, understands their fear and tries to re-assure them everything will be fine, all the while trying to soothe the silent, murderous Sal. They demand a plane to take them wherever they want, and money , and the police tell them they are working on their demands but begin asking to see the hostages. When Sonny finally goes outside, carrying a white flag, leaving the psychotic inside the bank he feels safe because he knows the police will not risk the hostages.
On stage now, Sonny basks in the limelight. When they tell him they got him for robbery, he quickly corrects them “armed robbery” making sure they get it right. But the first meeting does not go well as the police edge closer to him, and at least one onlooker breaks through the barricade trying to get his wife, a hostage inside. Sonny begins to chant “Attica! Attica!” referencing a prison riot that went bad, as the crowd picks up the chant turning against the police who have the bank surrounded, thrilling the TV reporters who are, of course, capturing it all on live TV turning it into a media circus. Turns out Sonny is robbing the bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, while his obese, shrill wife had no idea he had a male lover who wants to be a female. Leon (Chris Sarandon) is brought to the scene where the two men speak on the phone about what Sonny is doing.
Meanwhile in the bank unstable Sal is furious they have referred to the robbers as two homosexuals and he most certainly is NOT a homosexual he tells his friend. Knowing the time is coming for them to get out into the plane waiting for them at the airport, Sonny asks Sal where he wishes to go, which country? Pausing for a second, Sal answers “Wyoming” leaving Sonny further flabbergasted.
Eventually a limo pulls up in front of the bank and everything is ready for the escape. Gathering the hostage together they move in a huddle to the limo and get in. The driver, a cop, asks Sal to lower his weapon and Sal complies, and off they head to the airport. But Sonny must know they are never getting on that plane and understands that Sal is doomed. The ending is tragic but perfect, with Sonny living to tell his story, Sal killed, and the hostages, safe, however terrified.
Lumet was the greatest director of the seventies never to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Many might say Kubrick, but I would go with Lumet who created humanist dramas and some comedies, though many of his films balanced both as black comedic satires. Gifted with working with actors, signing on for a Lumet film, meant you would at least be thought of come Oscar season.
Pacino was riveting as Sonny, sort of bewildered by what happens to him in the film, nothing goes as he expected it would, and he is not up to the balancing act he is forced to do. With his shrill wife screaming at him over the phone, his lover telling him he/she is having a breakdown, the police, the press, the hostages, Sal, the man is overwhelmed and Pacino captures every single aspect of that. Outside the bank, on TV with the crowd in his pocket, he becomes a flamboyant showboat, strutting, screaming, turning the crowd against the trigger happy (he thinks) police. After the quiet menace he projected in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), it was thrilling to see Pacino in a role such as this, and it was impossible to take your eyes off him.
Both Cazale and Sarandon are equally superb, Cazale projecting danger, frightening intensity throughout the film, the kind of kind that goes off any second. Sarandon in a single scene as he talks to Sonny over the phone is astonishing as a man seeking to be a woman and playing the part of a diva to the hilt. In a single scene Sarandon is simply mesmerizing.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Pacino), Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sarandon), Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, winning for Best Screenplay, while other awards came from the Hollywood Foreign Press, seven Golden Globe nominations, Pacino won the LA Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and Lumet was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award.
Critics adored the film, lavishing outstanding reviews on the film and Pacino, and audiences flocked to see Pacino in an explosive performance. When I say that, I do not mean loud, as he became in the nineties, but exciting, thrilling on the screen, filled with bluster and confidence. His grandstanding in front of the bank is truly exuberant acting without ever slipping over the top, remaining in character throughout.
Of the great films Lumet made during the seventies, only Network (1976) made the following year surpasses this one. Brilliant, authentic, real.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.