The upheaval of the 1970s is the backdrop for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Dog Day Afternoon, a 1975 crime drama that is as much about the personal as it is about the political. The picture features a screenplay by Frank Pierson and is based on P.F. Kluge’s 1972 Life magazine article “The Boys in the Bank,” which told the tale of a Brooklyn bank robbery.
The robbery was real, with New York native John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale at the centre of the actual event in August of 1972. Kluge’s article detailed the robbery and the eventual relationships that developed as part of the subsequent hostage-taking, with the captives developing a rapport with their abductors.
Al Pacino stars as Sonny Wortzik, a fictionalized version of Wojtowicz. Together with Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer), he holds up the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. Stevie panics when he’s asked to hold his gun on a security guard (John Marriot), so Sonny lets him leave.
Unfortunately, Sonny and Sal discover that the safe is holding a paltry amount of dough on account of the daily pickup. Sonny decides to take some traveller’s cheques and burns the register, causing smoke to gather the attention of onlookers. The police arrive in droves, converting the robbery into a hostage situation.
Victor J. Kemper’s lens captures the robbery and hostage-taking with dynamic style, sweeping through and above the street and seizing the spectacle. There are police everywhere. The FBI is in on it. The press pull in and so do the people.
While the locations of Dog Day Afternoon are limited, the narrow spaces are conduits to the outside world. Sonny’s tale explores several vital issues, from the media’s role in influencing civic perception to the financial burdens of 1970s America. Each issue is relevant today, each one presses on the public conscience.
The media lens is pointed at Pacino’s fascinating Sonny at all times, waiting for the moment when the police bring him down or when something cracks inside and he starts popping off the hostages. They want it. They want blood. The crowd takes sides, particularly when Sonny emerges and shouts and blows off steam to Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning).
It’s interesting to note the shift of characters when Sonny’s cause is clear. His transgender wife Leon (Chris Sarandon) arrives, fresh from the hospital and doped to the nines, and the crowd reacts with the fleetness of a new hashtag. Pictures of Leon in a wedding dress are draped across the news. The crowd hoots and hollers and turns.
The tactics change. The police stop yielding to Sonny’s nature, stop fearing his instability. After he loses the crowd and goes from working class hero to “admitted homosexual,” the cops have new weapons. They push harder. Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) conducts negotiations. Sonny’s mother (Judith Malina) is brought in. Even Sal withdraws, not wanting the news to call him a homosexual.
Lumet’s vigilant observation of fluctuating circumstances amid the chaos of the robbery is evidence of his keen eye for the public pulse. Much like today’s perceptions shift by a mere variation in the wind, the variations in perception mean everything in Dog Day Afternoon.
But Lumet doesn’t lose control. He is fixed on Sonny and Sal and the detainees, on the calm bond that matures out of desperation and circumstance. Somewhere in the wash of Vietnam and Attica, there is the soul of outrage, of some sort of transitory but palpable camaraderie. There, but for the grace of God (or perhaps the FBI), goes Sonny Wortzik.