#427) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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#427) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

OR “For Love or Sonny”

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Frank Pierson. Inspired by the LIFE magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge.

Class of 2009

The Plot: “Dog Day Afternoon” is a faithful-enough recreation of a real life Brooklyn bank robbery in August 1972. An attempt by Vietnam vet Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his pal Sal Naturale (John Cazale) to rob a local bank goes awry in minutes, when the two learn they arrived after the bank’s daily pickup, with only $1100 left to be taken. When the police, led by Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), arrive and surround the building, Sonny quickly turns the robbery into a hostage situation, holding nine bank employees at gunpoint. During the negotiations, it is revealed that Sonny was robbing the bank to pay for his wife Leon’s (Chris Sarandon) gender confirmation surgery. The battle between an everyman in over his head and “the establishment” boils with the heat of a…dog day afternoon.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises director Lumet, screenwriter Pierson, and a “talented cast” led by an “engaging” Pacino.

But Does It, Really?: “Dog Day Afternoon” is definitely one of those “wasn’t that already on the list?” kind of movies. While not one of the essentials of film history, “Dog Day” is an expertly crafted movie where the tension and drama comes from the characters rather than any tacked-on violence. Lumet and Pierson’s dedication to realism adds to the film’s appeal, as does Pacino in one of his last great non-parody performances, complete with his instantly iconic “Attica!” outburst. How it took “Dog Day Afternoon” 20 years to make the NFR cut is anyone’s guess.

Wow, That’s Dated: Perhaps filmdom’s most famous topical reference: “Attica! Attica!” is a reference to the 1971 prisoner riot at the Attica Correctional Facility. Sonny correctly points out that the police force at Attica shot and killed “the innocent with the guilty.”

Title Track: Sidney Lumet hated the film’s working title “The Boys in the Bank” and requested a new title that evoked “a hot, stuffy day near the end of summer”: the “dog days”, if you will.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1975, “Dog Day Afternoon” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the big winner that night, but “Dog Day” won in the category “Cuckoo” was ineligible for: Best Original Screenplay. Frank Pierson was unable to attend because he was directing the Barbra Streisand “A Star is Born” and couldn’t get the time off.

Other notes

  • “Dog Day Afternoon” takes place on my birthday! The movie accurately depicts August 22nd as the unnecessarily warm day it always is. For the record, August 22nd, 1972 was a Tuesday.
  • Obviously a film version of any real-life event is going to take some dramatic license, and in the case of “Dog Day”, the main discrepancy is the age of the main characters. At the time of the robbery, John Wojtowicz (the real-life Sonny) was 27, Sal Naturale 18. During production of “Dog Day”, Al Pacino was 35, John Cazale was 40! Lumet was initially against casting Cazale, but after persistence from Pacino, was won over by the actor’s vulnerability.
  • Yes, “Dog Day Afternoon” was improvised, but not in the way you’re thinking. Sidney Lumet typically opposed improvisation on his films, but allowed it here to achieve realistic dialogue. The cast was allowed to improvise their lines during rehearsals, with Frank Pierson recording and transcribing. These additions were then added into the official shooting script.
  • Carol Kane is one of the hostages? Run, Lillian!
  • Let us take a moment to admire Charles Durning’s performance. Durning’s inherit gruffness lends itself well to the part, as does his natural vulnerability. He’s the only person I’d want negotiating for me in a hostage situation.
  • Shoutout to Penelope Allen as Sylvia the head teller. Like “Pelham 123”, “Dog Day” is aided by being a tense situation populated by smartass New Yorkers. I presume Allen beat out the likes of Anne Meara and Tyne Daly for this part.
  • The moment where the police almost open fire on Howard, the bank’s African-American guard, is sadly more relevant today than it was 45 years ago.
  • There’s a wonderful tension that builds throughout the entire movie. Its first climactic moment is the aforementioned “Attica!”, which, despite years of parody, is still a chill-inducing moment within the film’s context.
  • Sonny laments that TV news has become entertainment. File that one away for later, Lumet.
  • “Dog Day Afternoon” is my favorite sub-genre of movie: Great actors yelling at each other. It was Lumet’s niche, which is why he’s one of my favorites.
  • Ah, the sad irony of John Cazale’s character not wanting to get lung cancer. We miss you, John.
  • Adjusted for inflation; the $2500 needed for Leon’s surgery would be over $15,000 today.
  • Chris Sarandon is quite effective as Leon, in his film debut no less! I can’t imagine giving that touching, nuanced a performance, and then losing the Oscar to George Burns in “The Sunshine Boys”.
  • Though never a major focus in the film, this is a big step forward for depictions of homosexuality in film. Although Sonny’s bisexuality is never commented on, both he and Leon are treated like regular people rather than any offensive stereotypes.
  • James Broderick plays the FBI agent who takes over the negotiations. You’re more familiar with his son, Matthew Broderick, who as a young man got to visit the set and meet Al Pacino.
  • What do you suppose the next office Christmas party at that bank was like? Awkward? I’m gonna say awkward.
  • I will take this time to recommend “Making Movies” by Sidney Lumet, one of my all-time favorite books. Lumet goes into more detail about his approach to “Dog Day Afternoon”, from script analysis to working with Pacino to his lifelong dislike of teamsters.

Legacy

  • John Wojtowicz only served five years of his twenty year sentence, and served two more brief sentences for parole violation. Wojtowicz felt that the final film was “only 30% true”, but praised the performances of both Pacino and Sarandon. Ironically, it was the money Wojtowicz received from selling the film rights to his story that paid for his wife’s gender confirmation surgery. Wojtowicz died in 2006 at the age of 60.
  • Everyone at some point in pop culture has shouted “Attica! Attica!”, though I suspect that most of those people are unaware of either the movie or the historical event they’re referencing.
  • Several documentaries have been made chronicling the real life bank robbery. There’s “The Dog” and “Based on a True Story”, but the most interesting one is “The Third Memory” by Pierre Huyghe, which suggests that John Wojtowicz’s memory of the actual event was being conflated with moments created specifically for the movie.

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