On Aug. 22, 1972, would-be criminal mastermind Sonny (Al Pacino) walks into a Brooklyn bank with his two inept accomplices. The instant the robbery is under way, one of the accomplices gets cold feet and bails. Then, Sonny discovers most of money has already left the bank. Plus, the security guard is having an asthma attack and the tellers want to go potty. It’s going to be a long night.
Why We Love It
Remember Pontius Pilate? He famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus didn’t answer, so Pontius was like, “OK, wiseguy. It’s the cross for you!” (At least, that’s how I remember the story. It’s been a while since I read it.)
Jesus could’ve spared himself a lot of perforation if he’d told Pontius to wait a couple thousand years to see Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. The movie embodies Godard’s statement that cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.
It all starts with the opening montage of documentary-style footage, shot with a hidden camera to capture sweaty New Yorkers on a sweltering August afternoon, just being their sweaty selves. You can practically feel the heat rising from the pavement and your shirt sticking to your back. We see Sonny, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) sitting in a car outside the bank, waiting to make their move. The opening title song – Elton John’s “Amoreena” – fades in volume and grows tinny until Sonny snaps the car radio off. And that’s the closest thing to non-diegetic music you’re gonna get for the rest of the movie.
Every stylistic choice in the movie is driven by Lumet’s desire to tell the story as truthfully as possible. Why? For starters, Dog Day Afternoon was based on an actual bizarre incident that had happened only three years before. As Lumet wrote in his fantastic 1995 memoir, Making Movies, he went for naturalism because the story itself was shocking for its time. (In case you don’t know why it was so shocking, I won’t dare spoil the surprise that Sonny is actually robbing the bank to pay for his second wife, Leon, to have a sex change. Er … d’oh!)
I also won’t thrill you with my attempt at a comprehensive catalogue of the lengths Lumet and his collaborators went to for realism’s sake. I’ll just thrill you with a few of my favorites:
• Most Pacino vehicles attempt to downplay his less-than-imposing stature. Dog Day Afternoon plays it up for comedic effect as he bounces up and down trying to spray paint over the bank’s security cameras. Pacino’s roles have rarely called on him to be this self-effacing, and the fact he was willing poke fun at his then-recently acquired stardom speaks to the feeling of trust and security Lumet is renowned for creating on his projects.
• Lumet insisted that his cast dispense with artifice and play their characters as closely as possible to themselves. He even asked them to wear their own clothes instead of costumes. Again, according to his indispensable memoir, Lumet told the actors: “You’re just temporarily borrowing the names of the people in the script. No characterizations. Only you.”
• By Lumet’s estimate, 60 percent of the dialog, while based on Frank Pierson’s script, was improvised in rehearsal. That includes the back-to-back lengthy phone conversations between Sonny and both of his wives. Which brings us to the…
Moment We Fell In Love
Dog Day Afternoon relies on more than just the big plot twist (Sonny’s motivation for robbing the bank) to defy the audience’s expectations. It shifts dramatically in tone and pace about a 80 minutes into its 124-minute running time.
Sonny has two crucial phone conversations with a) his emotionally frail and gender-identity-confused wife Leon and b) his whimpering and panicky female wife, Angie. They come at a moment when Sonny realizes he’s painted himself into one hell of a corner and he might not emerge from his ill-conceived heist alive. He makes one last attempt at reconciliation with the two people he’s loved the most. The effort leaves him exhausted, frayed and completely at his wits end. Lumet lets the two conversations play out in a 14-minute marathon of naturalistic dialog.
For Lumet, a guy who is often referred to as more of an actor’s director and less of a visual fetishist, this is the dramatic equivalent of a monster tracking shot. It’s Lumet showing off the results of an intensely personal and collaborative three-weeks worth of rehearsing, reworking and experimenting with his cast. It’s a watershed moment in Pacino’s career. And it’s truth, at 24 frames per second.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of why I adore Dog Day Afternoon. I haven’t even mentioned John Cazale’s tragic portrayal of the Sonny’s sad sidekick, Sal. Or the contributions by the rest of the ensemble. Or the film’s smart commentary on crime and punishment, race relations, religion and ethics, marriage, war, and working-class frustration.
I’m not gonna there for now, ‘cause this ain’t a master’s thesis. This is just my quick-and-dirty stab at explaining why Dog Day Afternoon is one of the (yeah, you guessed it) Movies We Love.