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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

September 15th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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Synopsis
On a typical, stifling summer day, three men shuffle into the “First Brooklyn Savings Bank” as it closes. Stevie (Gary Springer) is a kid. Sal (John Cazale) is a dim, quiet type who holds the manager at gunpoint. Sonny (Al Pacino) struggles just getting his rifle out of a box, then suffers a major setback when Stevie decides he can’t go through with the job and leaves. Sonny knows bank procedure, but takes so long getting the robbery going, the NYPD surround the building. The head teller, Sylvia (Penelope Allen) gets upset at the would-be robbers. “Did you have a plan, or what? What did you do, just barge in on whim?” Detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) phones from a barbershop across the street. Sonny bluffs that he’ll start shooting hostages if the police come in.

As Sonny tries to figure out what to do next, the sidewalks fill with onlookers. The 250 cops outside the bank grow as nervous and blundering as the robbers inside. Sonny gains the upper hand by leading the crowd in chants of “Attica! Attica!” Doing his best to attend to the needs of his hostages, Sonny gains their support as well. One of his demands is to talk to his lover, Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), a nervous wreck wacked out on sedatives he’s been given at the mental hospital. It comes out that Sonny staged the robbery to pay for a sex change operation for Leon. Sonny asks for a jet to fly him, Sal and the hostages to a foreign country, but FBI agents Sheldon (James Broderick) and Murphy (Lance Henriksen) ultimately prove to be one step ahead of the would-be robbers.

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Production history
P.F. Kluge was a Los Angeles based journalist dispatched by Life Magazine in August 1972 to cover a bizarre bank robbery unfolding in Brooklyn. With Tom Moore, Kluge interviewed hostages, NYPD officers, FBI agents and onlookers who had gathered to watch the event. Their article – “The Boys In The Bank” – ran in September. When budding producer Robert Greenhut read it, he brought the material to Martin Bregman, a one-time talent manager producing a movie – Serpico – starring a former client, Al Pacino. Bregman recalls, “What was wonderful to me about it is it portrayed a life or a lifestyle that nobody had ever seen before. It was about a guy who’s in love with another man; it was a gay relationship, but without the dirty jokes, and the extent that one character went through to prove his love. And it was a first. It was different.”

Screenwriter Frank Pierson was hired to adapt a script. “Nothing was ever quite the same in the way the police handled hostage situations after Dog Day Afternoon. It became and still is part of police training for dealing with similar kinds of situations where crowds are out of control … Was that what it was about? Was it the teller’s story, was it the policeman’s story, who has to struggle with the situation and deal with something he doesn’t understand? Many of the police were morally offended when they discovered the issues of sexuality involved. And after a while I decided that the best way to tell the story was from the point of view of the bank robber himself; why he went there, how he conducted himself and what the results were for that character, and made the decision that we would tell it entirely from inside the bank.”

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In the real incident, a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn had been held up by John Wojtowicz in order to afford a sex change operation for his lover, a pre-operative transsexual. Wojtowicz was serving twenty years in Lewisburg and withholding cooperation from the producers over how much they would pay him. Pierson instead poured over testimony from those who knew Wojtowicz – his wife, his mother, hostages – but each eyewitness contradicted the last. Pierson considered dropping out of the project, but had already spent his advance. “So I went back to see if there was one element in common that everybody had about John. Well, basically he would be looking at you and he would say, ‘I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy.’ And then he’s going to fail. And that’s the story of the bank. Now I knew I could write it.”

Just after Christmas 1973, Pierson had finished a script for Dog Day Afternoon. He accompanied Bregman, producer Martin Elfand and Al Pacino to London, where Sidney Lumet had transitioned from Serpico to direct Murder On The Orient Express. Pacino had agreed to play “Sonny Wortzik” – as the bank robber was now named – but was having second thoughts. The actor recalled, “It basically, I really didn’t want to work. Because I knew with Sidney Lumet, you sort of have to work, he really puts you in there and works you. And at the time I just thought, ‘Why would I want to do this now? I’m tired, I want to go back on the stage eventually.’ So they understood that and they were very gracious and I thought it was over.”

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Bregman called Pacino and implored him to read the script again. “So, I read it. And it became so clear to me, I thought – especially having been reading the script – I keep getting scripts all the time and they’re never up to that kind of quality, that intensity, that writing and characters and all of these characters in this piece. And I just put the script down and said, “Marty, I’ll do it. I’m there.’” Lumet recalls, “I think that Al was as concerned if not more concerned than I was about the subject matter. He was the one with the greatest risk. By the time this picture had come out, he was now a major star. And no major star that I know of had ever played a gay man. He kept looking for disguises. So he grew a moustache and it looked terrible. We shot the first day and Al is one of the few actors I know who is wonderful at rushes … And he leaned over to me and said the moustache has got to go.”

During a three-week rehearsal, Lumet worried whether audiences were going to accept the gay content of the film, or revolt against it. His decision was to make Dog Day Afternoon feel as real as possible. The cast was asked to show up in their personal wardrobe. Other than fake sweat, there was no makeup. Lighting on the set was practical, mostly the fluorescents that were inside the real bank, and for the first time in his career, Lumet permitted actors to supply their own lines. Improvisations during rehearsal were taped and Pierson injected them into the shooting script. On three occasions, Lumet allowed Pacino and Charles Durning to improvise on camera, resulting in Pacino roaring “Attica, Attica!” to the crowd.

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Opening September 1975 in the U.S., Dog Day Afternoon was embraced by critics. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael called it “One of the best ‘New York’ movies ever made.” Gene Siskel ranked the film #4 on his list of the year’s 10 best, while Roger Ebert notched it at #10. In Hollywood, the staff of Daily Variety raved, “The entire cast is excellent, top to bottom. Dog Day Afternoon is, in the whole as well as the parts, film-making at its best.” It was nominated for six Academy Awards in an extraordinary year which saw five masterpieces vie for Best Picture: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Only Pierson received an Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay. The industry overlooked Pacino’s performance to award Jack Nicholson for his portrayal of R.P. McMurphy.

While many consider Dog Day Afternoon a modern classic, others criticize Lumet for lack of a signature visual style. On an audio commentary for the film’s two-disc DVD in 2006, he stated, “I hate the word ‘style’ because it’s misused so much because most people don’t know what they’re talking about really when they’re talking about style, that the important thing in style is stripping away everything except what that picture needs. So style is one of the most misused words in movies. It’s easy to talk about style when you see a picture like A Man and a Woman, the Claude Lelouch movie. I’m not picking on that. But it does look like a Ford commercial. And so they think, ‘Oh that’s style.’ Well, it’s not style, it’s just a long lens, that’s all it is. Using 150mm, 300mm lenses, it’s not style because it doesn’t belong only to only that movie.”

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Opinion
Unlike a lot of the great films of the 1970s, journeyman cinematographer Victor Kemper doesn’t move the camera all that much, and “Attica! Attica!” aside, the movie doesn’t make sweeping social statements or teach its characters any lessons; they start the story tired and end up exhausted. But Dog Day Afternoon is a minor masterpiece and still holds up as the best movie ever made about a hostage event because of Al Pacino’s harrowing performance, as well as its documentary immediacy, capturing the social decay, shifting attitudes and funky fashions of one of the all-time great settings for a movie, New York of the 1970s. With the exception of Taxi Driver, no movie of its era is as gritty, comical or tightly wound as Dog Day Afternoon.

Lumet’s decision not to feature a musical score – Elton John’s “Amoreena” during the opening credits is the only music – strips any artificiality that the cops and robbers tale might have been saddled with right off the screen. By documenting how the police, the press and the public over-react to the events inside the bank, the film has a terrific black wit to it. The presence of the late, great John Cazale and the revelations of Sonny’s personal life give the film even more edge, and in the middle is a ceaseless performance by Al Pacino. This is my favorite performance of his because when it’s all done, you feel almost as drained physically and emotionally as Sonny. Along with the mid-‘70s vibe the film bottles for all time, Dog Day Afternoon is unlikely to ever be topped.

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Mike Sutton at DVD Times writes, “Dog Day Afternoon is renowned as one of the definitive film portrayals of New York life and that reputation is well deserved. Perhaps only Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing has done as good a job at catching the combination of lazy indolence and near hysteria that the summer steam heat and humidity can create, and while the intentions of the directors are very different both are surprisingly indulgent of the flaws of their characters and both are willing to find the difficult, messy truth of an initially straightforward situation.”

Christopher Null at Filmcritic.com writes, “Today Dog Day Afternoon is an unabashed classic, a template by which other movies are based and a formula which is periodically tweaked and refined. There are few things you can complain about in Dog Day — a second act that relies on a few too many variations of the same ‘the cops are scheming’ bit, and that’s about it. But Pacino’s fiery performance and Sidney Lumet’s perfect direction does more than create a great crime movie. It captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom and John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Black comedy · Famous line · Heist

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // Sep 19, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I agree this is a great 70’s film with awesome performances – but the bravest actor was Chris Sarandon playing Pacino’s lover. He was only onscreen for a few minutes and he got an Oscar nom!

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 19, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Christian: Beatrice Straight was only in Network for a few minutes and she won an Oscar. Chris Sarandon has been a jack of all trades and master of none in terms of his acting career. He’s not a leading man, a heavy, a character actor, a comic or any combination of those. This is probably his best performance though. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Daniel // Oct 13, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Been meaning to catch up on this review for a few weeks now (and a number of your other ones)!

    Great review. I always like when someone blows the dust off it and gives it a nice polish. Until you mentioned it I never thought about the lack of a musical score, but you’re right that it’s addition by subtraction, similar to No Country for Old Men last year. I wouldn’t mind seeing that more often. Half of the “thrillers” these days feature music in the background for 75% of the running time.

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