Dog Day Afternoon, the larger than life true story about an everyman and his psychotic partner who rob a bank in Brooklyn, an operation which winds up botched and turns into a literal three-ring circus for a few hours afterwards, gripping the city of New York with an anti-heroic proceeding that almost borderlined on sheer, bizarre entertainment, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week.
Full of potent performances from Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, and others, a surefooted, ham-fisted naturalistic directorial style by Sidney Lumet, and an Oscar-winning script by Frank Pierson, Dog Day Afternoon remains a benchmark film of the 1970s, and in many ways expertly captures the entire zeitgeist of not only the mid decade feel and energy of New York City but also of America at the time, full of a post-Watergate paranoia and unease, with huge slices of humor and even pathos in the middle.
Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, which is a reworking of the true to life character John Wojtwicz, who in the teeming hot summer of 1972, attempted to rob The Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn, New York with his partner, Sal Naturale in tow. The impetus for doing so was of the most off-beat terms: he wanted to raise money to pay for his lover’s sex change operation (who is portrayed in the film in a powerhouse and albeit short performance by Chris Sarandon). Wojtiwicz also had a wife and children, and was living a life pretty much under the economic radar, as much of New York City was during that time, trying to make ends meet. The attempted robbery was performed by anything but a group of professionals. Getting caught early by the authorities, Wojtiwicz decided to take the employees of the bank, including the manager, hostage, and it created a standoff with the law enforcement that stretched for hours, playing out on live television which added to the tension in which no one knew what the fate of the hostages or the bank robbers for that matter, would be. It all finally culminated to an end at New York’s Kennedy Airport, where Wojtiwicz had asked to commander an airline to take him and the hostages overseas, by the wee hours of the morning.
The theatrical film version of these events are played out even more broadly, almost teetering on nervous comedy. Pacino’s performance as Wortzik/Wojtiwicz with his brashness, tenderness, and complete takeover of the character’s nuances, ticks, quirks, and mannerisms, is the main stand out. His character of Sonny is constantly on a controlled edge, as he is trying to keep everybody and everything together once the hostage situation rears its ugly head. Between playing cat-and-mouse games with the police and FBI (in a most memorable scene in which Pacino’s character bellows “Attica!”), who have staked what appears to be New York’s entire police force outside and around the bank, replete with snipers perched on rooftops across the street; dealing with his unnerving wife and his homosexual lover (who is brought down to the scene by police, taken from the mental hospital where he has been dwelling due to a suicide attempt); the bank hostages, many of whom aren’t intimidated by Sonny and Sal; and even Sal himself, who has an itchy trigger finger and has a few screws loose; Pacino’s portrayal in essence is the only center in a film that is spiraling out of control.
Lumet keeps things tight but loose, tiny narratives go back and forth between characterizations and actions, brisk editing keeps the two-plus-hour film cracking and constantly alive, even during quiet somber moments when the novelty of the moment starts to subside. As the characters sweat literally and figuratively in the film, so do we as audience members. No other director was able to capture a sort of physical New York feel and texture as Lumet did. In many ways, he remains the quintessential film director to do so, as he does here and in other ’70s classics like Serpico and Network, and even an out-of-towner watching Dog Day Afternoon, who has never visited the Big Apple, still gets a vibrant sense of what makes the city tick and throb. Coupled with the aforementioned performances and the smart script by Pierson, in which the narrative flows from intense to comedic, sometimes in one jarringly fell swoop, it makes a film like Dog Day Afternoon bristle with excitement, wonderment, and even jaw dropping disbelief of “this really happened?” exposition throughout.
See it for yourself if you haven’t. Witness why Pacino himself calls Dog Day Afternoon and his performance in it as one of the greatest in his entire dynamic and incendiary film career and why it still stands up as not only one of the paramount productions of that unforgettable and sprawling decade which was the cinema of the 1970s, but still stands up as one of the top 50 films of all time.