Dog Day Afternoon

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.

Rating: 5 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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24 Responses to Dog Day Afternoon

  1. One of my favorite films. After watching this back in the 80s I still write and say Dog Day Afternoon when I’m having a bad day, or scribble the title in my notepad during a meeting that’s dragging.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    One of the seminal films of the 70s. Saw it first run, too. Well done, Morgan.

  3. Mark Walker says:

    Certainly ranks as one Pacino’s finest moments Morgan and undoubtedly one of the best films of the 70’s. In fact, ever. Great write-up man.

  4. Such an amazing film. Pacino is amazing and it was a pretty bold role for his to take after The Godfather.

  5. I love Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. These movies are some of the best work done by both Pacino and Lumet.

  6. Nice review. I love seeing your “Greats I Need to Catch Up On” list get whittled down. 😀 This was a great one to choose.

    I love this movie. One day, I’ll dissect it in detail myself. I personally think that Pacino’s performance here is one of the greatest onscreen performances ever. As you say, you can just HEAR him thinking! He’s tweaking out!!

    The crowd DOES play a character here, it speaks volumes about society…. The news, the true life story angle… dont get me started. 😀 I’ll go 1,500 words on this one right now!!

    Glad you appreciated this one. It’s definitely one of my favorites, too. 😀

  7. CMrok93 says:

    Great review Morgan. One of Pacino’s best performances by far and one of Lumet’s best as well. Just a terrific movie that you never know how is going to end, but you don’t need to, to appreciate what’s going on in front of you.

    • I had an idea of how it would end — there aren’t many ways a bank robbery can turn out when it’s gone wrong, and this was clearly not a slick heist movie where the crooks get away with it all — but it didn’t matter. It’s one where the journey is very entertaining.

  8. Tyson Carter says:

    Great write up Morgan.

    I have mentioned this on my site a lot, but how good is Cazale!? For such a tragic and short career he was in nothing but masterpieces! 🙂

  9. Riveting movie and my favorite Pacino performance. Nice review 🙂

  10. Eric says:

    Great, great film. I saw it for the first time a couple years back on my birthday, and I instantly fell in love with it. So much fun watching Pacino and Cazale in this. Nice review, Morgan, glad to hear you dug it so much, too.

    • Thanks, Eric. Considering the difficulties I had getting to watch this (this was the film that Flixster’s licensing kept screwing up on), I think I would have been pretty upset if it turned out to not be any good.

  11. Definitely agree with your thoughts. I was pretty much blown away by this – and I was expecting it to be great.

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