Catching Up: Dog Day Afternoon
We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Originally released in 1975. Based on true events that had taken place three years before. Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) tries to rob a bank, only for the situation to rapidly deteriorate. As police and media mass outside, Sonny desperately tries to negotiate an out for himself, while a police detective (Charles Durning) tries to reason with him.
Wait, you really hadn’t seen this?
No. Now stop laughing at me. Please.
I don’t really have anything else to add here. This is just one of the ones that slipped through the cracks for so long. It isn’t even the most embarrassing oversight in my movie watching history.
Nominated for six Oscars, winner of one, for Best Original Screenplay. Part of the reason Al Pacino’s run in the 1970’s is justifiably revered. National Film Registry entrant. On several lists in the AFI’s 100 Years series. I fear it may be the only reason anyone remembers Attica.
What did you know about it beforehand?
Well, I knew it was about a bank robbery, and that Al Pacino was in it, and that at some point he would yell, “Attica! Attica!,” but that’s about it.
So, did it live up to the hype?
A lot of critics consider the 1970’s the golden age of American film. I don’t know if I agree, but that’s only because there are a lot of movies from the 1970’s that I have to see. Hence this column. Dog Day Afternoon is a quintessentially 70’s film, in both the sense that it exemplifies everything that people love about 70’s film, and that it showcases everything that was relevant in the time that it was made.
The film is a veritable melting pot of the social concerns of the day. Issues of economics, race, war sex, law and order, equality, and more all naturally arise from the story. Sonny is a Vietnam veteran who has had trouble holding down a job due to his trauma, hence his financial woes. He needs money so immediately because his wife is still a man, and needs a sex change operation. If it weren’t a true story, one might be tempted to accuse this film of being way too over-the-top.
By 1975, flower power was over and hope was for suckers. New York City was decaying, and Dog Day Afternoon captures a general sense of matter-of-fact despair perfectly. The only music in the film is Elton John’s “Amoreena” playing over the opening credits, set against a montage of city folk going about their daily business. In this one sequence, even though no concrete exposition is given, Lumet creates a world where robbing a bank to solve your money problems seems like almost a halfway sane idea.
And the film kicks straight into that plot as soon as the credits end. Any explanations concerning motivations and background come later. We meet Sonny as he’s sticking a gun in peoples’ faces, and yet he’s still a sympathetic character. Thanks to Pacino’s wonderfully conflicted performance, you can tell right from the start that Sonny doesn’t want to do this, and doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. It helps that things begin going wrong almost immediately, and the misfortune only snowballs from there. Lumet’s crime films often tackle such themes of escalating ineptitude, and he was doing it before the Coen brothers made it cool.
Pacino is all wired intensity and ragged desperation, and he gets even more jittery as the film progresses. But what’s great about Sonny is that he’s also keenly intelligent and massively charismatic, and he knows how to work events to his favor. There’s a reason he’s able to hold off hundreds of police officers for twelve hours. He gets the bank staff on his side, he gets the massing crowds on his side, and finally, he gets us on his side. He’s doing a stupid, dangerous thing, but we completely understand and empathize with him.
Dog Day Afternoon is an inchoate, anti-establishment howl of rage. It doesn’t have any idea where to place all the blame for society’s ills, but it will keep lashing out regardless. Sonny’s cry of “Attica! Attica!” is the film itself in brief. He speaks out for an entire populace that has been screwed over by its government, subjected to an ugly, protracted war, economic turmoil, racial injustice, and worse (hey, does this sound familiar?). They can’t do anything about it but scream, and scream they shall.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other actors, even if this is Pacino’s show. John Cazale, Pacino’s screen brother in the Godfather series, plays Sonny’s accomplice, Sal. Sal is a complete wild card, and he adds to the unpredictability of every scene he’s in. He isn’t crazy or a loose cannon, he’s just extremely nervous, and is relying entirely on Sonny to do the thinking in this mess. Every time the two are separated, you fear what stupidity Sal might commit, and whether that will ruin everything. Charles Durning does a great job as the negotiator, Eugene Moretti. He’s measured and diplomatic, and he’s trying hard to contain the situation. There are no bad guys in this film, besides The Man, and Durning exemplifies that.
For a film that takes place in mostly one location, it has a relentless verve and pace. What’s great is that it keeps up the energy even as it makes us feel the characters’ fatigue as the siege on the bank draws out for more and more hours. Constant new developments ensure that the plot never grows dull, as each unexpected curveball shifts the balance of power between Sonny and the police. You feel that literally anything could happen at any moment, and the movie has exhilarating tension built into it as a result. Even the most minor event might spell Sonny’s doom, and that keeps the audience on constant edge.
If you haven’t seen Dog Day Afternoon, do yourself a favor and fix that posthaste. If you want to understand a little bit of the 70’s or 70’s film, then it’s invaluable. If you just want a perfectly-made movie, then it’s essential.