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Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon was a hit when it was released in 1975, and it's not hard to see why. Bank robbers make great folk heroes, and this story was based on real events that took place in Brooklyn's Park Slope in August 1972: Two novice bandits entered a bank, took its employees hostage and almost made a getaway via a small jet they'd procured via negotiations with law-enforcement officials. Their scheme didn't work: One robber was shot by an FBI agent; the other was ultimately sentenced to 20 years. But the incidental elements of the story, as they were later reported in a Life magazine article, were what made it exceptional: One of the robbers, John Wojtowicz - renamed Sonny Wortzik in the film, and played by Al Pacino - developed a rapport with the hostages. ("If they had been my houseguests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious," says Shirley Bell, a bank teller who became one of the hostages. "Especially with John's antics, the way he hopped around all over the place, the way he talked.") But there was a romantic element to the crime as well: John, although he had a wife and two children at home, had recently married another man, Ernest Aron (played in the movie by Chris Sarandon); the nuptials were elaborate, complete with 300 guests and a lavish buffet. Aron desperately wanted a sex-change operation; getting the money for it was Wojtowicz's chief motive for robbing the bank.
One of the remarkable things about Lumet's picture is that it refuses to treat this marriage between two men - certainly unusual at the time - as a novelty. Dog Day Afternoon is half comedy, half drama, but the gradations between the two elements are so subtle that it's not always possible to distinguish them. That's all part of the movie's artistry, and part of the reason audiences and critics took to it so passionately. The picture also captured a sense of the era's free-floating unrest: To onlookers - in real life and in the movie - the cops were bullies, ostensibly keeping the peace but mostly just throwing their weight around. And in a world that seemed to be unraveling before people's eyes, tenderness was in short supply: A guy robbing a bank out of devotion to the man he calls his wife? That wasn't something you saw every day.
Dog Day Afternoon brings together a number of remarkable elements: As Sonny, Pacino is simultaneously loose-limbed and wound tight, a man whose anxieties and his sense of humor pretty much constitute his life force - it's a marvelous performance. John Cazale is equally terrific as Sonny's partner in crime, Sal, the fictional version of 18-year-old Salvatore Naturile, who was killed at the end of the day-long robbery. With his high, rounded forehead and chin-length hair, Cazale has the profile of a Medici prince; he brings a sense of forlorn nobility to the role.
It was Frank Pierson's screenplay, based on that original Life magazine article, that attracted Pacino to the project in the first place. He initially rejected the role: He had just completed The Godfather: Part II (1974), and he was exhausted. He was also hoping to return to the stage. But something about Pierson's storytelling changed his mind: "Pierson had structured [the story] quite beautifully; he really made it sing," Pacino told interviewer Lawrence Grobel. "And Sidney Lumet is a genius in staging; he never tells you a word; just by the way he has you move, the scenes come alive. He pointed me in a direction and said, 'Go here and go there.' It's extraordinary."
Pacino's observations mesh with the way Lumet himself has described his approach. As he says in Frank R. Cunningham's Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision: "One of the things that thrills me about Dog Day, we never went into any background, but it was there, you knew it all. I learned that from Chekhov when I did The Sea Gull -- there is no exposition, you never know who Konstantin's father was; it is so marvelous not to know much about Masha." Lumet continues: "I had been brought up in such a tradition of psychiatric explanations for everything, and tend to that myself...but one of the reasons you understand so much about what Al does in Dog Day is because we inject it in the performance, in the non-verbal text."
Lumet's direction apparently gave Pacino the right balance of guidance and freedom, and critics picked up on that idea, too. As Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times when the picture was released, "Sonny isn't explained or analyzed -- just presented." In that review, Ebert also notes that while the picture sometimes appears to flirt with old gangster-movie clichs, Lumet is "exploring the clichs, not just using them." He also cites the way Lumet captures the energy - sometimes benevolent and sometimes menacing - of the "big-city crowd" that gathers at the crime scene, at first lionizing Sonny and then turning against him when they discover his homosexuality. "But within a short time (New York being New York)," Ebert notes, "gay libbers turn up to cheer him on."
The crowd's response to Sonny and his actions - their willingness to turn him into a celebrity, and their desire to grab a bit of that celebrity for themselves, as evidenced by the pizza guy who makes a delivery to the hostages and holds his arms aloft, crowing, "Hey, I'm a star!" - presaged our contemporary obsession with fame and reality TV. But it's almost too easy, and too glib, to draw that parallel. The emotional potency of Dog Day Afternoon goes far beyond casual sociological theorizing. Pacino told Grobel, "My friend Charlie Laughton saw the film and said to me, 'Al, do you know what it is like? It is like pulling a pin out of a hand grenade and waiting for it to explode.'" Then he adds, "I remember Lumet saying to me at one point, 'It's out of my hands. It has got its own life.'"
Producers: Martin Bregman, Martin Elfand
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Frank Pierson (screenplay); P.F. Kluge, Thomas Moore (article); Leslie Waller (book, uncredited)
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Art Direction: Doug Higgins
Film Editing: Dede Allen
Cast: Al Pacino (Sonny Wortzik), John Cazale (Sal), Charles Durning (Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti), Chris Sarandon (Leon Shermer), Sully Boyar (Mulvaney), Penelope Allen (Sylvia), James Broderick (Sheldon), Carol Kane (Jenny), Beulah Garrick (Margaret), Sandra Kazan (Deborah).
by Stephanie Zackarek (Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
"The Boys in the Bank," by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, Life Magazine, September 22, 1972
Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006
Chicago Sun Times
Frank R. Cunningham, Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision, University Press of Kentucky, 2001