‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Review: “I Had a Plan…”

Posted in The Screening Room by - February 17, 2016

There’s passion in this film; a kind of heart you wouldn’t find in anything less than the best character pieces. Every ragged breath, each drop of sweat and every look of fear feels so authentic you can’t help but clench your fists, holding tightly as the tension builds and builds, waiting for the inevitable breaking point. Now imagine holding that white-knuckled anticipation for almost 2 hours and you’ve got a taste of what it’s like to watch Dog Day Afternoon.

Once again we find Sidney Lumet filming in Brooklyn, New York and once again he shows us why cinema is the highest form of expression. Based off a bizarre true story the film follows Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his accomplice Sal (John Cazale) as they rob a small bank on a hot summer day. In an almost comical turn of events, a band of police officers across the road spot the act and set up a perimeter as Sonny turns his robbery into a hostage situation. As the situation develops the robbery becomes a media circus, with reporters going so far as to hanging outside windows beside the bank to catch a comment from a hostage and even having a phone call interview with Sonny.

For a movie that is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time – even being inducted into the National Film Registry – its attempts to maintain a gripping realism can seem very comedic at times. However, these moments are what make Dog Day Afternoon so real. Everything about this movie was made in pursuit of portraying one thing effectively; regular people. Sonny is an inexperienced bank robber and makes mistakes we could find just about anyone making. Pacino’s portrayal of an ordinary guy tumbled into extraordinary situations provides a believable bedrock for the film. He finds pride in the media attention, a type of pride that anyone would find when confronted with mass popularity. Never once do you question the authenticity of a character like Sonny because he acts the way we would act and with every situation he confronts comes to a reaction we can empathize with.

The humor is found not out of deliberate placement; the script’s nature is never compromised to grab a quick laugh or lighten the mood. Lumet makes sure never to detract from the tension of a hostage crisis, instead, he lets the actors decide how things will be perceived. From the less developed cops to the intrinsic bank tellers taken the hostage, every character contributes a piece of human nature that is impossible to criticize. Their actions are so natural and understandable that the comedy that may come of them is undeniably funny. It doesn’t take away from the high stakes game of cops and robbers, rather it adds to it. Dog Day Afternoon is so completely relatable that even when Sonny teaches one of the hostages to do an army march with his (empty) gun or when Sal discourages one of the tellers from smoking because of cancer, it never feels forced. 

Praising the masterful script and direction, however, cannot be justified without first understanding just why everything in this movie works so well. The reason for that is simply the acting. Pacino and Cazale deliver performances of their life, seeing Pacino as the inexperienced and young everyman struggling to meet the needs of so many people is such a different character than what we’re used to seeing from him. He has the uncertainty, the struggle and anxiety show through his eyes more than his words, you can practically see the burden of responsibility on his shoulders.

However, while Sonny finds some gratification in being the center of attention, Cazale’s character plays his foil. He fears the limelight, he can’t understand why there has to be so much publicity and attention. He slinks back into the bank while Sonny handles the negotiating, he looks disturbed and unstable every step of the way. Each word Cazale utters grabs the audience by the throat, forcing them to examine every line on his face. Sal’s trembling lips, the sweat running across his brow, the sound of a nervous gulp followed by a raspy three or four words that say so much more in his expressions than in the dialogue itself.

Though the film may be dominated by Sonny and Sal it’s well complemented by the head teller and maternal figure of Sylvia (Penelope Allen) and detective/negotiator Moretti (Charles Durning). Both are again, ordinary people dealing with an unexpected turn of events. Moretti tries his best to control the massive police force on his hands as the situation gets more and more attention while Sylvia cares for and ensures the safety of “her girls” (the other tellers). After Pacino fires a shot off suspecting the police of climbing the building, a raging argument ensues between him and Durning. The raw energy and emotion in everything they said and did translated so effectively that the scene proves to be one of the most entrancing moments in the film. Perhaps because the entire exchange was completely improvised (one of the few times Lumet allowed improvisation in any of his films).

Though Dog Day Afternoon is first and foremost made great by its performances, some things should be said for the camera and sound work. Lumet obviously intended for the movie to be an intimate experience, much of Sonny’s dialogue is delivered with a close-up shot of his face, clearly outlining every crook and crevice, allowing the audience to understand through pure visuals his struggle. It seems as though many times Lumet films the movie as he would a documentary, the camera is almost an involved character, showing shots as though they are one person there to film the whole event. Through the use of many over the shoulder shots, Lumet also gives the illusion of making the camera the lens through which the characters see things unfold.

Be it the back and forth conversations between Sonny and Moretti or the Pacino’s sixteen-minute-long phone call scene, Lumet’s number one priority is pushing the audience into the characters and showing them how they feel and what they see. In regards to sound work; there is none. Aside from an opening Elton John track that is revealed to be playing from Sonny’s car, there is no music in the film. Every sound has a source and every sound has a purpose. In an interview, Lumet said having a bombastic orchestra in the middle of a dramatic tension scene would take away from the realism he tried so hard to achieve. The result is a raw and visceral atmosphere whose influence has remained so important to storytelling even today.

There’s a reason Dog Day Afternoon is important, its themes of counter-culture and anti-establishment pay respect to the protests and movements that were so profound during the 70’s. More importantly, however, it is a film dedicated to those people who find themselves crumbling under the pressures of everyday life. Whose hopes seems so dim and bleak they turn to desperation, it speaks to those who put others needs above themselves and go to great lengths in order to fulfill the responsibilities they’ve taken. Lumet never once lets this film stray from its message, from its beliefs, never once was it cheapened by conventional film-making elements. Above all else, Dog Day Afternoon is a testament to the absolute uncertainty of things. We are people who control nothing and cannot stop anything, the only choice we have in any of it is how we choose to face that crippling truth. 

Final Say: Watch It

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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