Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)

The year is 1972 and a man named Sonny Wortzik stormed into the First Brooklyn Savings Bank along with two accomplices. Sonny is clearly inexperienced in the art of bank robbery, as the plan begins to go awry in a matter of seconds. One of his accomplices, Stevie, loses his nerve after Sonny produces his weapon and asks to be let out of the bank. To make matters worse, they have arrived after the daily cash pickup, leaving a paltry $1,100 in the vault. From there, the plan that should have taken ten minutes snowballs into spectacle entrancing the neighborhood and later, television viewers across the nation.

Dog Day Afternoon is based off of a real-life bank robbery that occurred on August 22, 1972. The perpetrator was one John Stanley Wojtowicz – a married man and Vietnam veteran. What lent this crime a degree of mysticism concerned Wojtowicz’s motivation. It was reported in the Los Angeles Times that he robbed the bank in order to pay for an operation for the sake of his second wife, Elizabeth Eden. Specifically, Ms. Eden was a transwoman, and Wojtowicz had robbed the bank for her sex reassignment surgery. However, this was disputed by Arthur Bell, a respected journalist writing for Village Voice. Knowing Wojtowicz personally, he claimed the heist was actually a Mafia operation gone wrong.

Dog Day Afternoon is one of those films that has the potential to catch viewers going into it blind off-guard. Those entering the theaters in 1975 knew who Al Pacino was. His charismatic performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather and its equally lauded sequel left critics and audiences alike astonished.  His character evolved from the unassuming son of Don Vito Corleone into a ruthless, pragmatic crime boss. Absolutely none of those qualities are present in Sonny Wortzik. Make no mistake, Al Pacino’s performance is spectacular – he just so happens to portray a significantly different criminal this time around.  He’s the kind of character who, had he been involved in organized crime, would have been an enforcer – and not a particularly intelligent one at that.

To begin with, Sonny clearly didn’t do any research on the bank beforehand because they end up robbing it after a majority of the money has been taken elsewhere.  Then again, the marked lack of preparation going into the robbery was such that even if things had gone completely according to plan, the perpetrators would have been caught immediately afterwards. They didn’t wear gloves, had nothing covering their faces, and failed to use aliases, electing to call each other by their real names. Even worse, Sonny informs the tellers that he is a Vietnam veteran, making it even easier for the police to identify him and they don’t think to obscure the closed circuit cameras until it’s far too late. I was half-surprised he didn’t shout his social security number through a megaphone by the end of the film.

Because of this, it’s highly fitting that the authorities are tipped off without the victims having to lift a finger. Specifically, Sonny takes some traveler’s cheques and burns them in order to prevent them from being traced. The anomalous amount of smoke emanating from the building alerts the business across the street. Within minutes, the building the police have the building surrounded, leaving the robbers to essentially camp out in the bank.

This is when you realize you’re watching a comedy. The heist had been a comedy of errors from the very beginning, but it’s the interactions between Sonny and his hostages that proceed to remove any lingering doubts. The hostages eventually begin to identify with their captors. When the robbers attempt to flee the country, some of the hostages are excited to be going on a trip. While Stockholm Syndrome is nothing to laugh at, what makes it work as an effective piece of black comedy is that it ends up being mutual. It’s highly amusing watching the robbers causally talk with their victims. Sonny even teaches one of them how to twirl his rifle like a veteran, which most people would recognize as something any criminal worth their salt shouldn’t do for obvious reasons. They even end up ordering pizza for everyone. Then again, the hostages never seemed to consider the robbers a threat with one even telling Sonny to watch his language early on. Therefore, one could consider their causal dialogue the logical destination of this relationship. For that matter, it’s hilarious how civilians have camped out to watch the events unfold. They’re not too concerned if a gunfight breaks out; they want front-row seats.

As is typical for a film directed by Sidney Lumet, the dialogue is particularly exemplary. Even better, the Hays Code had long since expired by 1975, allowing for more naturalistic speech styles and lending a sense of believability to the proceedings. Doubtlessly the most famous scene involves Sonny attempting to get the onlookers on his side by shouting “Attica! Attica!” This was an allusion to the Attica Prison riot of 1971 – an incident that left thirty-three prisoners and ten correctional officers dead.  Then, of course, there’s the moment when Sonny asks Sal which country they should go to and he replies, “Wyoming”. What is especially incredible about these scenes is that they are adlibbed. Not only is Al Pacino’s reaction to “Wyoming” genuine, it caused Mr. Lumet to begin laughing uncontrollably – so much so that he was worried he ruined the take. Fortunately for everyone involved and the audience, he didn’t.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The police set up a personal escort for the robbers to flee the country along with the hostages. However, it turns out to be a setup. Through precise maneuvering, the police shoot Sal square in the forehead and arrest Sonny shortly after he leaves the van. What makes this a powerful moment is that it’s the only violent scene in the entire film. After watching a film predicated on a comedic premise for two hours, it was shocking seeing one of the main characters die right out of the blue. It gives the ending a bittersweet sentiment. The hostages are rescued and the criminals stopped, yet they weren’t entirely horrible people. On the other hand, Elizabeth, known in the film as Leon, is able to get that sex reassignment surgery in the end. Moreover, reality softens the blow a bit for those on Sonny’s side in that Wojtowicz only served five of his twenty-year sentence. In the end, no one innocent was harmed, and that is what really matters.

Dog Day Afternoon is the classic tale of a former teller attempting to rob a bank and basing his plans off of The Godfather, which he had seen earlier that day. His ill-fated attempt backfired in the worst way possible and after using an Al Pacino film as an inspiration for his crime, the stellar actor ended up depicting him in Sidney Lumet’s fictionalized account. The hands of fate work in mysterious ways, don’t they? Of the many iconic performances Al Pacino has under his belt, Dog Day Afternoon is one that is relatively lesser known. It’s a shame because he is incredible to watch in this film, bringing the kind of energy only he was capable of exuding. It’s also remarkably forward-looking, treating members of the LGBT community like normal people – something extraordinarily rare in works from the 1970s. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Dog Day Afternoon, but when I saw it, I could safely declare it is worthy of its status.

Final Score: 8/10

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