Al Pacino garnered his fourth consecutive Best Acting Oscar nomination in 1975 for his performance as Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. Sonny, along with his partner, Sal (John Cazale), start the film off by botching a bank robbery in Brooklyn. When they find all the money in the safe has already been picked up, and that there is almost none available. By the time they round up what money they can the police have been alerted to their robbery attempt. Phone calls inundate the bank and soon Sonny is talking with Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) who acts as the hostage negotiator the situation ends up calling for. The media is soon alerted to the situation inside the bank, and a large crowd forms and surrounds the dozens of police that proceeded them.
Al Pacino gives an incredibly charismatic performance as a character with notable flaws and a driving desperation. And for the first hour plus of the film you’re not sure the reason compelling this character to act and why he so foolishly and haphazardly committed a crime. There were times when watching Dog Day Afternoon I felt that Sonny showcased bi polar tendencies and behaviors.
Especially with a manic energy that shows up many times throughout the film. As well as the depressive lows he goes through while talking with his lover Leon (Chris Sarandon) and conversations inside the bank. He certainly seems to be driven by a motor other than sheer anxiety and panic. Sonny is an interesting character who elicits our sympathy despite his faults and willingness to commit crime. We get to see someone who feels as if he doesn’t have any other choice.
The overall atmosphere of the film feels infected and influenced by the Vietnam War. Society’s pessimism towards authority figures, government, and public institutions in general were at an all time low and fed into the art being made at the time. We can feel this in how the police are presented and the FBI agents slickness and dishonest tactics.
All along Sonny doesn’t trust the powers that be, feeding the crowd outside the bank screaming “Attica, Attica, Attica!”. Referencing the earlier conversation with the bank manager where police killed 42 people in upstate New York at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. Through his words, Sonny ultimately believes in a cynical world view, that the authorities will kill you the first chance they get. Events like Kent State come to mind as well as various prison riots where things have gone too far in the hands of a governmental body, in the hands of some kind of authority.
Ultimately, Sonny wants to get the money so that Leon can have a sex change operation, so that the person he loves the most can be who they always felt they were. And despite his foolish attempts in trying to procure that money, Sonny is a character who’s genuine willingness to do whatever it takes for his loved one is quite a moving action.
Sidney Lumet expertly puts a chaotic and circus like atmosphere together, with static dialogue scenes while maintaining an incredible amount of dramatic momentum. The film goes through different paces all throughout the run-time, with action scenes being edited very quickly together. And medium shots building the mood of cops eating, conversing, filling the background and city landscape, and long introspective character shots.
Lumet does a great job of making us feel the heat and moisture of the heat and humidity. The characters are all dripping sweat, especially after the FBI cuts the air conditioning. We are worn down by the constant shifting of perspectives and the warm atmosphere seems to leak through the screen.
The editing is marvelous as well and some of the best work of Dede Allen’s career that includes such titles as Bonnie And Clyde and The Hustler. There is a constant shifting between inside and outside the bank, other characters, media reports and crowd interactions.
There is so much that Lumet puts into each frame, combined with the pacing techniques and relentless action of his story and characters. All while being told quite smoothly, it is something of an accomplishment. Lumet was best known for 12 Angry Men and his previous work with Al Pacino, Serpico. I feel like he combined those two films in a lot of ways. He takes the one location type of film and expands on the true crime story narrative and makes something that feels quite idiosyncratic and fluid. Serpico also had the same type of downer and dark feeling, almost as if it was always too late, even at the start.
Dog Day Afternoon is enthralling and entertaining, but it works just as much as a narrative film as well as an atmospheric commentary on the horror of the 1970s, and our lack of belief in public institutions. It is simultaneously both of those things, and the ending of Dog Day Afternoon always leaves me feeling haunted by it’s practicality and cold truth. The imagery of the airport at night, and not just at night but the sky being pitch black. The blackness of the sky and the lights of the police and airplanes. It’s a scene that brings up feelings of hopelessness and futility, and it’s exactly the gut punch that Lumet decides to end the film on that makes it great.