36 Films: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t fly us to the country of Wyoming.

Part 20 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Crimes of Love” with Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon.

The Synopsis

Unprofessional bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) attempts to rob a bank along with his two accomplices. When the first accomplice freezes up and asks Sonny if he can leave, it’s clear that things might not end up going according to plan. After realizing the bank’s vault contains only $1,100, Sonny settles for taking traveler’s checks, but when he attempts to burn the register to destroy the checks’ source, the smoke signals that something is going horribly awry at this Brooklyn bank. What started out as a simple bank robbery quickly turns into a counter-cultural media event as the bank becomes surrounded by police, citizens, activists, and news teams, and it is revealed in this process that one of Sonny’s main motives for the robbery is to pay for the sex change of his pre-operation transsexual partner, Leon (Chris Sarandon).

The Situation

This situation involves the elements of “The Lover” and “The Beloved,” which are clearly defined in Dog Day Afternoon as Sonny and Leon. “Crimes of Love,” as it is defined by Polti, most often involves the affairs themselves which are deemed to be criminal, or relationships that are designated by society as unconventional or unacceptable. What’s fascinating regarding how this situation exists in Dog Day Afternoon is not only the fact that love in this case inspires a criminal act, but that in the eyes of the established order which Sonny’s bank robbery evolves into a rebellion against, the love that inspires the crime is seen as a figuratively “criminal” act in of itself against the established order and expectations of mainstream society.

The Film

While Dog Day Afternoon begins as a film about a bank robbery gone wrong, it quickly evolves into something much bigger and more socially significant than the constraints of its genre are typically permitted to explore. Consistent with many other New York-set films of Sidney Lumet as well as the repeated themes explored in New Hollywood films of this time, Dog Day Afternoon is ultimately a film about anti-establishment fervor and the counterculture of this era. Sonny is eventually revealed to be a Vietnam veteran, and when in negotiations with the detectives who attempt to negotiate from outside the bank, he invokes the Attica prison riots through the film’s infamous “Attica! Attica!” chant as a means of stirring up fervor against what is seen an oppressive establishment who seeks control over understanding.

The “Crime of Love” Dog Day Afternoon eventually becomes concerned with is hardly confined to the film’s inciting, love-inspired robbery, and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. As many facets of the countercultural movement of this time invoked terms like “free love,” the very openness of the definition of love amongst young people within that counterculture is seen by the establishment as a crime in of itself, as “love” in this sense rebelled against the term’s social expectations and delineations, refusing to be bound up by culturally-mandated ideals like marriage, monogamy, or heteronormativity. While botched, Sonny’s motivation to rob a bank is made possible by the fact that he doesn’t ascribe to the social structures that define “law” in the first place, for in his eyes, “law,” “order,” and “authority” are elements that seek to constrain him rather than protect him or operate in his best interests, this notion being further cemented by the fact that Sonny fought in an unheroic war which returned him and many others to a country that didn’t quite know what to do with him.

Like Lumet’s equally brilliant Network a year later, Dog Day Afternoon functions more as a eulogy for the counterculture rather than a motive for further anti-establishment action. While the film takes place in 1972 (when the original incident that inspired the film occurred), its release only three years later places it in a time in which the counter-cultural movement was seeing its final days. Fittingly, in the end the establishment wins in the film’s only act of overt violence, and Sonny’s robbery – while containing the signifiers of a revolutionary act through the “Attica” chants and Sonny’s support from protesters – is ultimately revealed to have been an exercise in futility against oppressive forces too powerful to overcome.

Bonus Examples: Mother, Lolita, Natural Born Killers

Click here to read our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies

Supplication – The Most Dangerous Game

Deliverance – The Rescuers

Crime Pursued By Vengeance – Death Wish

Vengeance Taken For Kindred Upon Kindred – The Lion King

Pursuit – Silence of the Lambs

Disaster – Airplane!

Falling Prey to Cruelty/Misfortune – Misery

Revolt – Lucky Number Slevin

Daring Enterprise – The Professionals

Abduction – The Chaser

The Enigma – Se7en

Obtaining – There Will Be Blood

Enmity of Kin – Once Were Warriors

Rivalry of Kin – Grumpy Old Men

Murderous Adultery – Match Point

Madness – Grizzly Man

Fatal Imprudence – The Fly

Involuntary Crimes of Love – Oldboy

Slaying of Kin Unrecognized – Halloween

Self-sacrifice for an Ideal – Hunger

Self-sacrifice for Kin – Harakiri

All Sacrificed for Passion – A Single Man

Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones – The Seventh Continent

Rivalry of Superior vs Inferior – Toy Story

Adultery – In the Mood For Love

Crimes of Love – Dog Day Afternoon

Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One – Festen

Obstacles to Love – I Love You Phillip Morris

An Enemy Loved – Underworld

Ambition – Wall Street

Conflict With a God – The Truman Show

Mistaken Jealousy – My Best Friend’s Wedding

Erroneous Judgment – The Contender

Remorse – In Bruges

Recovery of a Lost One – Gone Baby Gone

Loss of Loved Ones – Dear Zachary

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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