Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1975 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Gary Springer, James Broderick, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Carol Kane, Chris Sarandon, Lance Henriksen, Penelope Allen

 


 

I

n Brooklyn, New York, on a toasty August 22 in 1972, the true story of “Dog Day Afternoon” unfolds. The introductory footage is a snapshot of life in the early ’70s, leading up to a larger-than-life tale of crime and desperation – coincidentally just one year before a comparable heist in Sweden that would result in the coining of the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome.” It’s also a shocking, revealing criticism of the media, in the vein of “Ace in the Hole” and, to a lesser degree, “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “A Face in the Crowd,” commenting on the ways in which information is disseminated and how it affects both the public and those involved in newsworthy crises.

Sonny (Al Pacino) walks into First Brooklyn Savings Bank carrying a long white box, wrapped up in a blue bow. Stevie (Gary Springer) follows, just as the place is about to close. And Sal (John Cazale) is already inside, brandishing a machine gun at the manager, demanding that he remain on the phone and act cool. In a practically comedic moment of brashness and anxiety, Sonny unfurls a rifle, clumsily waving it at the employees, putting a bank robbery into full motion. Stevie immediately buckles, asking to be let out; he can’t bring himself to continue, despite the fact that he’s already involved in an ongoing offense.

“I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anybody!” As with many crime dramas – including those based on factual events, which are oftentimes crazier than fiction – it’s not long before everything starts to fall apart. A previous cash pickup has depleted the money in the vault; the hostages don’t behave, insolently treating their captors as nonthreatening; and crowds gather outside, influencing the robbers’ actions. In the blink of an eye, the situation devolves into a circus.

Sonny and Sal are exhaustively amateurish (“I know a lot about a lot of things,” Sonny asserts, much to the audience’s amusement), lending to a considerable amount of humor. The scenario might be realistic, but there’s an unavoidable level of insincerity in the reactions and proceedings; as it turns out, the eventual good guys are just as ill-prepared as the bad guys. Charles Durning as lead detective Moretti is a prime example, constantly blindsided, out of the loop of intelligence gathering among his own people, and unable to exert control over the trigger-happy cops flooding the scene.

In yet another twist, the public (and even some of the hostages) aren’t exactly on the side of the law. There’s animosity toward the police, particularly when Sonny shouts his famous riot-starter “Attica! Attica!” which renews disgust toward the authorities (based on the deadly prison uprising in 1971). At several points, when Sonny exits the front door to negotiate, he’s met with cheers. And when Sonny gets jumped by an irate bystander, the attacker is booed (reflecting perceptions that have only escalated over time).

“I can’t control what they say on television.” Chiefly, what makes this film more enjoyable than other run-of-the-mill crime flicks is the cast. Specific plot points follow the wild, true-to-life yarn, but it’s Pacino and Durning, playing a ludicrous game of wits and wills (wherein no one can really hope to win) that fuels a funny, silly, tragic, strangely human account of rivalry, despair, love, and bad decisions. And supporting players, including Sully Boyar, Penelope Allen, Marcia Jean Kurtz, and Chris Sarandon, further add a down-to-earth realism to the insanity.

Plenty of drama and character development also supplement the heist, intermittently overtaking the standoff tension, revealing how unexceptional motives and emotional toiling pressure everyday people into drastic measures. It’s undoubtedly a difficult thing to manage a hostage scenario, but “Dog Day Afternoon” paints an ungovernable image of confusion, miscommunication, and general pandemonium, aggrandized by the media; it’s surely a fitting ordeal for cinema. At one point, when Sonny’s mother is brought to the bank, it’s evident that effective hostage negotiation has a long way to go. By the end of it all, however, the film’s attention to details (resulting in a slow feel), the uncommon blend of comedy and crime, and its influential qualities (toward similar misadventures throughout the decade and beyond, not only for thrills but also for anti-establishment sentiments of the era) tend to outplay the actual entertainment value.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10