Director Sidney Lumet was a serious filmmaker who had a unique fascination with the power of the media and its influence on society’s view of social and political events. His 1976 film “Network” provided an outstanding satirical view of network television’s manipulation of public opinion.
Yet, just the year before in 1975, Lumet explored on a smaller scale how the media create and manipulate a little event, like a bank robbery, turning it into a social crisis with 24/7 coverage. This film, “Dog Day Afternoon” starred Al Pacino and John Cazale as bank robbers Sonny Wortzik and Sal Naturale. It was based on an actual robbery that occurred at the first Brooklyn Savings Bank on August 22, 1972.
In his 1995 book “Making Movies,” Lumet explains “Dog Day Afternoon” was a movie about what we have in common with the most outrageous behavior, with “freaks.” “Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the most outrageous behavior than we know or admit,” said Lumet.
This is a story about a man robbing a bank so his boyfriend could have the money for a sex-change operation. In Maura Spiegel’s 2019 biography “Sidney Lumet: A Life,” Spiegel said, “Prior to shooting, Sidney consulted with the Gay Activists Alliance and gotten a thumbs up” on the script. Spiegel further said that the character Leon was “the first openly transsexual character in a mainstream American movie.”
After a short opening credit sequence, where Lumet luxuriates in the atmosphere of New York streets, the story’s action quickly begins as three guys enter the Brooklyn bank just at closing time. Led by the very edgy Sonny (Pacino), they quickly take six very frightened female bank clerks, one older guard, and the bank manager hostage and begin filling a plastic bag with cash.
Lumet compliments the tensions of this scene with bits of realistic humor, like when the head clerk Sylvia insists on using the bathroom before being locked in the vault. Moments later Sonny exclaims, “I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Within minutes police are notified and the area around the bank is quickly surrounded by dozens of New York City’s finest, led by Detective Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), who establishes phone conversation with Sonny. This is followed by the appearance of FBI agent Sheldon (James Broderick) and hoards of local press and television cameras. Sonny demands a car and then a plane to allow him and most of his hostages an escape. Soon, Sonny is playing to the cameras as the media exacerbate the outrageous developing chaotic crisis.
Periodically, Sonny unlocks the bank’s front door to communicate with the police face to face, and with an awareness of the television cameras, he even begins playing to the crowds of spectators and heckling the heavily armed police. At one point he begins shouting, “Attica! Attica!” and the crowds go wild. The chant becomes a mantra against police brutality. This, by the way, referred to the infamous 1971 riot at the upstate New York Attica prison where police stormed the prison and killed 43 prisoners.
Yet, it is nearly halfway into the film before Lumet reveals that Sonny has a male lover, in addition to his wife Angie and two kids. Leon (Chris Sarandon) is brought to the scene of the robbery to convince Sonny to end the standoff. In a compelling 8-minute phone conversation, Sonny and Leon discuss their troubled relationship. According to Lumet, this key scene was improvised by Pacino and Sarandon in rehearsals so powerfully, everyone agreed to go with their words and ideas in the final cut.
Pacino is very effective as Sonny, the troubled bi-sexual bank robber. He’s complex, intensely passionate about his actions, and oddly comical as the chaotic events unfold. In one of his most outstanding moments, he dictates his last will and testament to one of the bank clerks reflecting on the love he has for both his wives and two children. Pacino’s role is so significantly different than the heroic undercover policeman he played in Lumet’s 1973 film “Serpico.”
This certifiable box office hit, “Dog Day Afternoon” further shot Pacino’s star celebrity into the stratosphere, coming on the heels of the Francis Coppola’s two “Godfather” films. Lumet’s film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, director, best actor Pacino best-supporting actor Sarandon, and editing. It won the Oscar for Frank Pierson’s original screenplay.