I watched Dog Day Afternoon for the first time about eight years ago when I discovered the films of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino concurrently through the likes of The Godfather. Since that first watch I’ve seen the movie about once every eighteen months or so and it has become one of my favourite films. For me Dog Day Afternoon has everything I could possibly want. It shows New York at its grimy and dirty height, it’s brilliantly funny and tense and features one of Pacino’s greatest roles. If they could digitally add Scarlett Johansson as one of the bank tellers, I’d watch the film daily.
The movie is based on a true story. Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and Sal Naturile (John Cazale) walk into a Brooklyn bank on a summer’s day with the idea of robbing it. It isn’t long before things start to go wrong and the robbery turns into a farce. Soon the cops have the bank surrounded and Sonny and Sal are left inside with eight hostages and nowhere to go. The hours roll on and the scene attracts the media and onlookers alike, all of whom want a glimpse of the action. Sonny becomes an anti-hero to the gathering crowd after evoking the memory of the Attica prison riots. As the night draws in Sonny decides his best way out is to arrange for a jet to take him and Sal out of the country, a request which the police begin to arrange.
Dog Day Afternoon provided Al Pacino with one of his greatest roles and despite all the fantastic, award winning roles he played, Sonny Wortzik is amongst the most iconic and revered. The role gained him one of his eight (so far) Oscar nominations. It’s difficult to separate Pacino’s best performances but for me, this one ranks in his top three, perhaps just piped by Scent of a Woman and Serpico. (As I write these words internally I’m arguing with myself about how I could possibly leave Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross and Cruising off that list). Pacino gives an often angry and sometimes fragile performance that is deeply nuanced. He has little ticks and half looks during which you can see the thoughts processing behind his eyes. The ‘Attica! Attica!’ speech is one of the stand out scenes and probably the most famous in the movie.
Whenever I see Dog Day Afternoon I always find it really funny. It begins early on when Sonny struggles to take his gun out of its box and continues as things go from bad to worse for the pair. The robbers third accomplice soon discovers that he can’t hack it and leaves, the hostages get cocky and a string of people connected to Sonny turn up outside the bank with each provided great comedic moments. The phone call to his wife Angie is hilarious. One of my favourite lines comes when Sonny asks Sal which country he’d like to go to, to which Sal answers ‘Wyoming’. As well as comedy, there is a great reveal when Sonny’s wife is bought in. The film is remarkable for suppressing homosexual stereotypes too. The dramatic elements to the film are always present and there is a constant fear about how the robbers will escape. Both become anti-heroes and Sonny in particular comes across as a really nice guy. There is a lot of tension in the final scenes and I remember back to my first viewing when I was really worried about how things would turn out.
The film's themes of stress, homosexuality and anti Vietnam war sentiment are evident throughout the movie. It is clear that Sonny never adjusted to civilian life after the war and the stress of civilian life as well as an unusual personal living situation is what drives him to the idea of robbing a bank in broad daylight with the unhinged Sal. The actual events of the film took place in 1972 during a high point for anti-war feeling, during a hot summer when tensions were running high. The film itself can be seen as anti-establishment. The homosexuality, counter culture, anti-war, anti-police ideas all go with the anti-establishment ideals. The film also takes place in during one of my favourite time periods of my favourite city. Give me a time machine and one of my first destinations would be to the trash filled, graffiti laden streets of mid 70s New York City.
Director Sidney Lumet could create tension and a feeling of claustrophobia at the drop of a hat and his early film 12 Angry Men is one of the tensest and close films I’ve seen. He manages to repeat the effect here, although to a lesser extent, as the night draws in and the heat becomes unbearable. When outside the bank the film is often seen through the eyes of the media. We see television footage and shots from TV and police helicopters. The movie is an early example of media circus, something which continues to grow today through live police chases, 24 hour rolling news coverage and reality television.
One of the problems with watching a film over and over again is that you do begin enjoyed it less each time. I think I’ve probably reached saturation point with Dog Day Afternoon now and I didn’t enjoy it as much as on my first couple of viewings. Even so, it remains one of my favourite films and despite all his success, is one of Pacino’s finest. It’s tense, funny and interesting and provides insight into a fascinating afternoon during a captivating time period of a mesmerizing city.
- The movie was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture and won one (Original Screenplay).
- The plot takes place during only twelve scenes.
- The outdoor scenes were actually filmed in cold weather. So their breath wouldn't be seen, they sucked on ice before each take.
- Other than fake sweat there was no use of makeup in the film.
- Like most of the lines, the Attica! sequence was improvised.