Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. It’s an old phrase — coined by Mark Twain according to most sources — and just occasionally it seems to be true. Certainly that seems to apply to the film Dog Day Afternoon; released in 1975, it was based on a New York bank robbery that had occurred only three years prior. And if even half of it is true, it’s rather strange indeed.
Al Pacino stars as Sonny, a young man who decides to hold up a bank one hot August afternoon. His partner, Sal, is played by John Cazale. It’s supposed to be a quick ten minute job. But their third partner chickens out before it begins, and things only go downhill from there. Before long, it’s turned into a hostage situation, and a massive media circus.
You just can’t get this kind of exposure in most towns.
Some films about robberies straightforward heist capers, and some are big showy action films. Dog Day Afternoon is a psychological drama. Pacino is relatively young here, but he’s fresh off The Godfather, and he’s in high form. Even though Sonny is up to his neck in doing the wrong thing, it’s still possible to feel sympathy for him, and it’s clear that his life was a shambles even before he made the decision to rob the bank. Pacino makes this obvious in Sonny’s mannerisms, his speech and choice of words (director Sidney Lumet reportedly let Pacino ad-lib much of his speech), and even just his expressions. Even when he’s silent, he’s putting in a great performance.
Pacino’s the undisputed star, but the rest of the cast also does very well with their roles. Cazale is imposing as Sal, who seems detached from everything but ultimately just wants to get out without any bloodshed. The employees at the bank, led by Sully Boyar and Penelope Allen, start off criticizing Sonny and Sal for their ineptitude, but quickly start showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome, showing as much concern for their captors as for themselves. It’s perhaps just a touch too quick for believability — or seems that way due to the need to compress half a day into two hours — but they sell it through their acting. And there’s a nice contrast between the way Sonny is treated by local Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) and FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick).
For one thing, Sheldon doesn’t get into an epic dance competition with Sonny.
Things take a bit of a turn for the strange as details of Sonny’s home life come out, and Chris Sarandon has a brief but memorable role as one of the key figures in Sonny’s life. As the audience gets to know more about Sonny, they get to feeling some sympathy for him, while at the same time seeing that there’s no way he wasn’t going to come to a bad end. And all the while director Sidney Lumet is gradually building up the tension, relying on stark silence (beyond the intro, there’s no background music in the film) to emphasize the isolation of the robbers and hostages, and showing the increased frenzy of the crowd outside. The idea that a bank robber could be championed as a hero by the public seems crazy, especially nowadays, but Lumet doesn’t shy away from it; he shows that the crowd is, in fact, as crazy as Sonny in their own way, and arguably crazier. After all, Sonny at least has his reasons; they’re just out for a show.
Dog Day Afternoon is an intense and somewhat strange film — strange in that although its plot is quite straightforward, it’s not really driven by its plot so much as by its characters. And the characters are full of quirks and oddities and feel all the more real for it. There’s even some dark humor here and there which manages to avoid lessening the tension while still providing a laugh. It’s one of the best performances out of Pacino that I’ve seen, and it’s a great film overall.