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‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary
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Dog Day Afternoon Film Poster 1975

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.

Dog Day Afternoon

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.

Real Dog Day Afternoon

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.

John Wojtowicz

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.

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

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.

You can pick up the Dog Day Afternoon 40th Anniversary Blu-ray now, and watch the trailer for the film and the original news story that aired on ABC-News in 1972 about the actual bank robbery below.



  1. Excellent film, but something about this review confuses me. You seem to admire Lumet’s direction yet call it ham-fisted while simultaneously describing it as surefooted. How can it be both?

    Comment by David A. — September 23, 2015 @ 11:04 am

  2. It’s very simple how it can be both. Most of Lumet’s films are this way. Look at Serpico, there’s also a sort of sloppiness to it like there is here, Lumet made an art about making the action look naturalistic, hence surefooted, while sometimes coming across as heavy handed. He directs the crowd scenes rather ham-fisted, it’s not a bad thing, This wasn’t a review of the film as so much a tribute to its anniversary mind you. And in terms of the ham-fisted and surefooted thing, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have done the same thing, so did David Lean and Martin Scorsese, there’s a way of creating a natural canvas with sometimes performances that can be almost in a theatrical sense, Lumet does both, he did it with Dog Day, and hence the double negative or positive. Thank you for your comment, hope I cleared up the confusion.

    Comment by Mike Percoco (Stoogeypedia) — September 25, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Of course, some of this stuff is subjective, but I think I might have chosen another adjective than ham-fisted. That means clumsy and bungling, not heavy-handed as you’re trying to say. Heavy-handed has a sense of overly forceful, a kind of overkill. Or in the case of Zeppelin, I’d say something like bombastic, perhaps. Ham-fisted comes across as far too negative. And to even suggest a master such as Scorsese is ham-fisted makes me wonder if you meant that word or something else. Either way I have to disagree, which is okay. Naturalistic, sure. That fits Lumet and Scorsese, although not the two seventies rock giants you mention, who are the polar opposite of naturalistic. But anyway, thanks for trying to clear it up, and the beauty of this is that no two viewers (or listeners) have to fully agree!

    Comment by David A. — September 25, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

  4. Nobody is perfect, even a master. I meant Ham Fisted, which also has the definition of “awkward” to it. I didn’t stop at what I saw when I read the Google definition. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. If you don’t think there are moments in Zep records or Scorsese films that have that, I am not sure what to say further. The entire catalog of Zep and Sabbath have moments of naturalistic blues to them as well as heavy handedness and all the other adjectives I and you threw around the cyber ring here. Dog Day Afternoon to me has all of that, hence why I described it as such. I didn’t erroneously choose one over the over. Anyhow, yes, to agree to disagree is always key and vibrant. Thanks man! :)

    Comment by Mike Percoco (Stoogeypedia) — September 25, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

  5. Right. Essentially, I just don’t agree that any of these artists were bungling; I think they all knew exactly what they were doing. Sometimes we know what we want to say, but we don’t always find the right word. I often check dictionaries and don’t rely on Google to help with that, but then again I edit for a living! But yeah, no worries. Great film, either way.

    Comment by David A. — September 25, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

  6. Mike, where did our conversation go? o.O

    Comment by David A. — September 28, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

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