The picture opens to the backdrop of Elton John’s Amoreena, setting the stage. It is Brooklyn, early seventies, and a time of great economic struggle for the borough. And it is hot, mid-August. Sonny, Sal, and another kid walk in to a local bank with the intention of robbing it, for what reason we don’t exactly know. From the beginning the scheme reeks of incompetence. Sonny (Al Pacino) draws his rifle from a flower box rather clumsily, Sal (John Cazale) is clearly a few cards short of a full deck, and the third kid decides he can’t go through with the heist and leaves Sonny and Sal. Oh, and there is the little issue that most of the bank’s cash was picked up the evening before the robbery, so there isn’t really a lot of money to be taken. Everything about the robbery screams “amateur,” from the lack of crowd-control strategy, to Sonny’s decision to burn a ledger in a small trashcan, causing smoke to shoot from the vents out into the street and draw attention.
It isn’t long before the police are alerted and Sonny and Sal get a call from Sergeant Eugene Moretti, the head of the hostage team just outside the doors of the bank. Panic sets in for Sonny and Sal and what was to be a simple bank robbery has now become a hostage situation with over a dozen bank employees. The situation goes for hours and hours, and the elements that play in along the way are, I think, what make the picture so fascinating.
There is the dynamic between Sonny and Sal. Sonny is no MENSA candidate, but when placed next to the dim bulb that is Sal he looks to be just that. When Sonny asks Sal what country he wants to go to when the police bring their airplane, Sal says “Wyoming.” “Wyoming’s not a country, Sal,” Sonny explains, like a father to a son. Sonny knows these things, he is aware of his limitations, and the limitations of his partner that he must re-assure constantly.
And we have the relationship that grows between Sonny, Sal, and the bank employees, the majority being women with one male manager and security guard. This is an overlooked aspect of the screenplay, how these employees are fleshed out beyond just supporting characters. What is interesting is the way in which Lumet shows us the structure of these employees, their pecking order on a regular day translated to this crisis. There is the lead teller, Sylvia (an excellent Penelope Allen), the young wife (Carol Kane), and a diverse collection of strong working women. The relationship that forms between Sonny, Sal, and these employees becomes one of the central developments in the story. It is not necessarily a Stockholm syndrome that comes into play, but the employees develop a real relationship with Sonny. They fear Sal, but Sonny they understand and begin to care for because of the twist that is uncovered near the end of the second act. More on that later.
Sonny also develops a relationship with not only Sgt. Moretti, an excellent job from Charles Durning by the way, but Sonny begins to play on the crowd, and that is where the time and place come into play in the story. The seventies, as we all know, were a time of societal malaise and American distrust of the government and those in power (sound familiar?), and those feelings and attitudes become evident in the crowd of police and onlookers that begins to gather outside the bank. These feelings of angst against “the man” are feelings Sonny has, and he knows the crowd of onlookers has, and he capitalizes on these percolating feelings in the films most powerful scene. Acting out against the approaching armed officers, Sonny screams “Attica” over and over, referring to a riot that happened at Attica Penitentiary a few years prior where several prisoners were wrongly gunned down by the guards. The screaming incites the crowd, and immediately turns them against the police and places them firmly in Sonny’s corner. Sonny has won over the masses, a step in the right direction for his plan, but it isn’t long before the truth behind the robbery is revealed and that same crowd begins to mock poor Sonny and his plight.
It turns out, in one of the greatest reveals in American film history (albeit one that borrows from the true story), that Sonny’s plan to rob the bank is to pay for a sex-change operation for his male lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon). The reveal completely changes the entire mood, the entire direction of the film in one fell swoop, and is an amazingly daring move by Lumet and the writers. They could have easily kept this bit of the story out of the picture, but that would be a disservice. What this twist does is completely change the mindset of the audience towards what has been the central character. Sonny has been a desperate man, a hapless robber painted into a corner, but now he is also a very sad, confused young man whose real, powerful love for Leon has driven him to do this most desperate thing. Once the reveal has happened, and things change for the police, the crowd, the employees, the audience, Sonny and Leon share a phone conversation that is the emotional grab of the entire film. Lumet noted that he forced Pacino to do this take over and over until he reached the point of exhaustion, and the result is perfect.
Sidney Lumet is, somehow, one of the most overlooked directors, a staggering thought given his portfolio of some of the most amazing films in the last forty years. He filmed Dog Day Afternoon in stark, washed-out colors to make the city streets feel hot (even though when they were filming it was cold weather), and allows the actors to roam across these sets without the use of camera tricks. The story is powerful enough, using bird’s eye shots and long takes allows this story to tell itself.
So there it is. If anything I now understand more clearly what it is about Dog Day Afternoon that I love. Relationships in tense situations create compelling drama, and there are no more abundance of these relationships done as effectively as they are in what I feel is Lumet’s number one masterpiece, and one of Pacino's finest, most dynamic performances. And with films like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict, that is perhaps the highest praise I could give for the picture.