Dir. Sidney Lumet. Starring Al Pacino, Charles Durning, James Broderick
Enter another one of those Andy Griffith Conundrums, although maybe this is more like a Daniel Kaluuya Conundrum. Like Judas and the Black Messiah, a film based on actual events which featured name-brand actors in leading roles, Dog Day Afternoon makes most of its hay through performances. And like Judas, Dog Day has an issue with the ages of its leads. Al Pacino is only five years older than John Wojtowicz, rechristened Sonny Wortzik in the film, and that doesn’t really matter so much. Pacino looks a little old for the part, but maybe I’m just not adequately judging how much faster people aged in that time. What doesn’t work, what lodges a crowbar into the film and starts getting leverage early, is John Cazale as Sal Naturile. The month after Dog Day Afternoon was released, Cazale turned forty, and he looks it here. Sal is not an innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a difference the film can’t quite manage between a naïf and a simpleton. A bank robber at nineteen is a naïf; a bank robber with a receding hairline and with a questionable knowledge of the fifty states is a simpleton. Dog Day Afternoon is a story which finds it far easier to reduce to idiocy rather than chastise or mourn naivete, and that’s a shame, because Cazale is pretty good in here.
The partnership of Pacino and Cazale is, short of Dede Allen’s editing, the best thing about Dog Day Afternoon. Cazale has four, maybe five inches on Pacino, and the stringy hair makes him look even bigger than the tousled floppy mess that Pacino has going on. The first half-hour of the film is really as much a farce as it is anything else, Rocky and Bullwinkle for the armed robbery set. Once the afternoon turns to night and then the wee hours, that size difference starts to feel much more like George and Lennie. The robbery itself is a rush of activity, punctuated by a number of mistakes despite Sonny’s self-proclaimed know-how as an ex-teller. Carol Kane, who would join Pacino and Chris Sarandon as Oscar nominees for that year (but for Hester Street, not this film), hides out under a desk and isn’t roped into the employee corral until the robbery is well underway; there is another employee hanging around in the bathroom who isn’t discovered for even longer. The guard has an asthma attack, the safe has already been collected. Miriam (Marcia Jean Kurtz, presumably playing the same woman in Inside Man almost three decades on) is afraid that Sonny will shoot her for how little money is there. There’s a sudden rush to go to the bathroom. Sonny sets a binder on fire and the smoke is noticed from outside. Pacino is as manic and sweaty in these moments as Cazale is grim and beady. The two of them, even if Cazale is kind of badly miscast, are a good pair here, and both of them provide more than enough nervous intensity to carry the movie in its first act. One of them is loud and one of them is nearly mute, but between them they are both clearly pretty terrified and acting accordingly. That famous “ATTICA” scene works not even because it shows that we’re en route to at least a few hours of countercultural bank robbing heroes, but because it’s such a release of tension. Sometimes the movie makes you laugh to bring relief, and sometimes it references the violent, murderous quelling of a prison uprising.
That acting partnership between ex-Corleone brothers, buoyed by the cast of relative nobodies in the bank, is the first place where cracks begin to show in a film that believes it’s about people when it’s really about scandal. If this film is about Sonny and Sal, young people robbing a Brooklyn bank out of some combination of hubris and desperation, then it would feel like that. It would be set over more than twenty-four hours, and it wouldn’t drop Leon (Chris Sarandon) on the proceedings for tabloid shock value. Stevie (Gary Springer) would be a more meaningful character rather than just the guy with the poofy hair who bails on the robbery in its first minutes. The film’s single greatest stroke of brilliance is a needledrop, putting “Amoreena” over a montage of Brooklyn in the heat before we get anything else in the film. (Maybe I’m a Philistine, but I’ll take this over the Rhapsody in Blue stuff in Manhattan any day of the week.) The film can understand why that opening sequence is important as it contextualizes early ’70s Brooklyn, but it can’t understand why context for the individuals would make the screenplay’s punches land harder. This isn’t about “we need an origin story for everything.” This is about the film’s moral center, about whether it sees itself as a movie about a really wild event or a movie about a really meaningful person.
Lumet, writer Frank Pierson, and the other members of the team have failed in losing the subjectivity that, in a more empathetic version of the picture, would have taken hold. Sonny and Sal and Leon are a car wreck that has taken out other vehicles belonging to the bank employees or Sonny’s family or, in some way, an entire block in Brooklyn, and Dog Day Afternoon puts us in the place of rubbernecking spectators like the crowd that forms rapidly around the bank. A year later, Lumet’s Network was released, a film about how television news has the power to distract and corrupt absolutely. In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet creates the sensation of following live local news coverage while our eyes dry and our mouths drool. Didn’t he know better?
Leon is the film’s gravest miscalculation. Like The Crying Game would years later, Dog Day Afternoon treats a trans character as a way to drop a bombshell on the story, a real wowza moment rather than a statement of personal strife or human feeling. I find Dog Day Afternoon is probably a little less exploitative than The Crying Game—depending on your feelings on The Crying Game, which I realize is a polarizing picture, that might not mean much to you—because of the way it treats a cop in the background of one shot with Leon. He’s the only one in the group who’s snickering about Leon’s story, about the failing marriage to Sonny; meanwhile, the other cops and the lead NYPD man on the case, Moretti (Durning), seem fairly interested in Leon’s recital as they would be any recital of a troubled marriage. This is in service of realism, I suppose, although one imagines that there’d be way more than one cop who thinks the idea of a marriage between Sonny and Leon (who, for all the discussion of her wedding dress and her potential operation, is never referred to as anything but her birth name) is hilarious.
More realistic than the approach the cops take is the approach the crowd takes to news that Sonny is queer. The roaring cheers and thunderous applause which emboldened him as he went out in front of the bank and screamed ATTICA turn to sarcastic ooing when he frisks G-men. Dog Day Afternoon can appreciate that the crowd around this Chase Manhattan branch is there for much the same reason that crowds flocked to see gladiators do battle. That it doesn’t realize it’s there for the same reason is an entirely different issue, but it recognizes that a lot what holds people’s interest is the supposed salaciousness of Sonny and Leon’s relationship. Even Sal can understand that’s what people are hooked on, as we hear when he objects strongly to being characterized as one of two homosexuals holding up a bank. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t treat Sonny’s last will, dictated to chief bank associate Sylvia (Penelope Allen), as a joke. It’s clear that it’s been written with care, because Al Pacino really does have a heck of a lot of dialogue to chew through. It’s not funny to the movie that Sonny and Leon are married, and while I don’t think it finds this relationship romantic, it’s because Leon appears to be at her wits’ end with Sonny. But that Sonny and Leon are together while Sonny has left Angie (Susan Peretz) behind is truly scandalous for the film, far more than it would be if Sonny were with Lee Ann instead, and the film teases the “Sonny’s wife” angle mercilessly before revealing Leon in her robe.
This is a likeable movie, with memorable performances, strong production design, and a snappy screenplay. The fact that it has all of these things is credit to Lumet, who was a master of making movies which fit those qualifications. It also fits another classically Lumet qualification, which is that despite having all of the additives, it is less than the sum of its parts. Like 12 Angry Men or Fail-Safe or Murder on the Orient Express or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the film feels more like an analytical exercise in “what if?” rather than something which could happen in flesh and blood. The irony for Dog Day Afternoon, out of that bunch, is that Lumet appears to have excised both from what is marketed as a true story.