August 22, 1972-Two young men hold up Brooklyn's Chase Manhattan Bank at closing time. What begins smoothly quickly goes awry, leading partners-in-crime Sonny Wortzik and Salvatore "Sal" Naturale to inadvertently take the bank's employees hostage in a desperate attempt to escape the 200 policemen surrounding the building. The media immediately gets involved, allowing locals to immerse themselves in the melodrama and use it as a distraction from the late summer heat wave. A crowd of intrigued onlookers swarms the bank, observing the ongoing events and loudly expressing their reactions in equal parts cheers and jeers. Sonny finds himself in a position of celebrity, a would-be spokesman for the workingman, fed up with union wages and discontent with what his country has to offer him. His initial popularity vanishes when his supporters instantly turn on him after a local news station exposes his homosexuality and reveals that the motivating factor behind his criminal behavior is to fund his partner's sex change.
This dramatization of real-life events comprises the narrative of Sidney Lumet's 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, a "naturalistic" work that sits firmly within the pantheon of 70s cinema (Hollywood's "Golden Age"), a genre of films made between 1967-1976 that is defined by omnipresent themes of isolation, hopelessness and disbelief in the American Dream. In an era when "movies mattered," filmmakers chose projects that responded to and commented upon the defining cultural and political aspects of the time. Elements of these films included French New Wave stylism and neo-Western narratives, typically following morally ambiguous (often male) protagonists to an ambivalent conclusion and conveying nihilistic themes along the way. Late 60s counterculture had an obvious impact on the genre, as many 70s films carry overt anti-authority messaging, Dog Day Afternoon included.
A perfect storm of changes within the studio system and America's cultural climate allowed for this renaissance of filmmaking to occur. As a self-censoring industry, Hollywood once had a strict Production Code, which subsequently fell apart in 1966, allowing for more grown-up films to make it into the multiplexes. Simultaneously, Hollywood began to alter the ways it financed its movies and allowed directors more creative control over projects. The Production Code and studio system provided little room for "auteurs" (Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock stand as notable exceptions), so Hollywood directors with distinctive styles did not emerge until the late 60s. Around the same time, the audience for films began to gear toward the younger "rock n' roll" generation, so morally ambiguous screenplays covering subject matter such as pot-smoking drifters (e.g. Easy Rider) suddenly looked much more lucrative to producers.
By the time Dog Day Afternoon came around, Americans had survived a decade of social division in response to the Vietnam War, perpetual loss of trust in American politicians (and authorities) due to Nixon and-of most relevance to this particular film-crippling economic recession. The first two of these trends could not have unfolded the way they did without the sensationalism of modern media (notable moments include the Tet Offensive and the live broadcast of Nixon's Watergate testimony), a development that forever changed American culture. The instant celebrityhood attained by news coverage even managed to incentivize criminal behavior, leading fame-hungry individuals to commit acts of violence in exchange for notoriety.
Based upon a 1972 LIFE article entitled "The Boys in the Bank," Dog Day Afternoon contrasts the media's portrayal of events with the deeper realities that actually comprise them. Within the film, the media presents to the public a bizarre tale of a homosexual gone mad. Lumet's camera instead exposes a deeply human portrayal of a desperate man trying to support his loved ones, and for the first time in his life, be somebody. This instantly accessible humanity goes on full display to reveal the media's corruptive ability to alter events and sway public opinion. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film, "The presence of reporters and live TV cameras changed the nature of those events, helped to dictate them, made them into happenings with their own internal logic" (Chicago Sun-Times). Lumet attempts to capture all of this and more with Dog Day Afternoon.
Born in Philadelphia but raised in New York City, Sidney Lumet began acting at five years old, appearing in Yiddish theatre productions that his father produced and directed. He would later study acting at Columbia University and direct Off-Broadway plays for a few years before moving onto television in 1950 during the dawn of the so-called "Golden Age of Television," a breeding ground for many of the key players in 70s cinema. "Lumet has suggested that the key to his talent as a director may well be his origins as an actor," Joanna E. Rapf writes in her compilation book, Sidney Lumet: Interviews. This background likely contributed to his reputation as an "actor's director," or someone who could "deliver powerhouse performances from lead actors, and fine work from character actors" (Thomson). This skillset, and his working relationship with New York City (an omnipresent character in 70s film) catapulted Lumet into the top tier of directors with the help of a string of successful films, including 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker and Serpico. Lumet's varied choices in directorial projects quickly established his fierce "anti-auteurship," with which he denounced the idea that "good" directors need to have their own recognizable style. Perhaps fittingly, several critics have pointed to Lumet's lack of noticeable aesthetic as a weakness in his skillset.
When Lumet initially chose to take on Frank Pierson's screenplay in 1974, he had reached the point in his career where he not only had great freedom in choosing his projects, but he also held the coveted right of "final cut," the privilege of deciding-without studio interference-which cut of a film got released to theatres. "I'm pretty sure that if I want a new writer on the script, the studio or producer would let me pick one," Lumet writes in his autobiography. "Final cut is a tremendous source of security" (Lumet 48). To give a sense of Lumet's clout at the time, fewer than a dozen people working in Hollywood held this privilege. His critical and commercial success up to this point secured studio funding for Dog Day Afternoon with relative ease-no small accomplishment, and this at a time when producer Robert Evans had to fight bullishly to get Chinatown made.
In the original LIFE magazine article, journalist P.F. Kluge describes John Wojitowicz (Sonny) as "a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman" (Kluge). By 1974, each of these actors had already contributed heavily to the mythos of 70s cinema, Hoffman with The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy and Pacino with the first two Godfather films. Having worked with him on Serpico in 1973, Lumet cast Pacino in the part of Sonny. "It was a remarkable group. Pacino led them with a mad courage I've seen only two other times," Lumet writes (Lumet 33). One of the earliest Hollywood stars to subscribe to the "Method" school of acting, Pacino had shown time and time again his ability to embody characters right down to their smallest tendencies, from Frank Serpico's pervasive paranoia and androgynous swagger to Sonny nervously toying with his pocket watch. By juxtaposing his vastly different performances in Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon, released within a year of one another, one can begin to comprehend the dedication young Pacino had to his craft. He and Hoffman, among others, made way for a new type of leading man in an industry that had historically only hired those who fit the bill of "Hollywood Handsome" (e.g. James Dean, Cary Grant).
After securing the role of Sonny, Pacino insisted on the casting of his friend John Cazale as Sal despite the actor's twenty-year age difference with his real-life counterpart. As a character actor, Cazale had already turned in a remarkably consistent body of work, having played habitual screw-up Fredo Corleone in the first two Godfather films and Harry Caul's (Gene Hackman) starry-eyed coworker in The Conversation. Lumet then chose relative newcomer Chris Sarandon to portray Leon, a gamble that clearly paid off, as he received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. To contribute to the film's naturalistic feel, Lumet cast untrained actors as bystanders and even as minor supporting characters, including the pizza delivery boy who famously proclaims, "I'm a star!"
Lumet continued to round out the important positions in his crew with formidable 70s figures, including editor Dede Allen, who had established her tendencies for innovative, New Wave-style cuts in films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Serpico. Lumet had developed a close relationship with the renowned editor on the latter film, as the two worked closely to edit it concurrently with production to meet time constraints set by the studio (Lumet). Finally, Lumet chose Victor Kemper (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) as his Director of Photography to "reinforce the film's documentary feel" (Lumet 89). Despite complaints from the studio, Lumet chose not to commission a score for the film, as he felt he could not "justify music weaving in and out" of a project designed to imitate real life (Rapf). As a result, the film's only music comes in the form of Elton John's "Amoreena" during the opening credits.
Lumet's significant amount of creative control led to some tensions with studio executives and screenwriter Frank Pierson. "You have euchred us!" an anonymous production manager yelled at Lumet through the telephone (Lumet 35). He expressed anger over a scene the director had chosen to cut from the script, which included footage of Sonny and Leon's real-life counterparts' wedding. Lumet thought it would inspire too much sensationalism and render audiences incapable of relating to Sonny, while the studio saw it as a marketing opportunity to build up the film's notoriety (A common tactic; just a few years earlier Midnight Cowboy sold tickets using the tagline, "Whatever you've heard about Midnight Cowboy is true."). Final cut allowed Lumet to have his way, and he replaced the footage with a picture of Leon in his wedding dress.
"The first obligation was to let the audience know that this event actually happened," Lumet said of Dog Day Afternoon's distinct visual style, though he may as well have been talking about Pierson's screenplay (Lumet 88). Lumet and the cast improvised upwards of 60 percent of the film's dialogue during table reads, a staggering amount, but a decision that led to naturalistic characterizations by each of the key players. It also provided for much of the film's trademark humor. Legend has it that Cazale improvised his "Wyoming" line, which acts both as a recurring joke and an effective bit of character development. Lumet even left a few scenes (including Pacino's infamous "Attica" speech) for improvisation on the day of shooting. Of course, all of these improvisations resulted in an almost complete rewrite of Pierson's original dialogue. People commonly joke about writers getting slapped around in Hollywood, but Lumet insists that "[Pierson] was selfless and devoted to the subject matter. The actors may not have said exactly what he wrote, but they spoke with his intention" (Lumet 34). Lumet calling the shots on set may have allowed for a more holistic take on the material, but the other players' contributions should not be underestimated. Pierson won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and, according to Lumet, "he deserved it" (Lumet 34).
Upon its September 1975 release, Dog Day Afternoon received almost universal acclaim from the major critics, with much of the praise falling upon the film's darkly hilarious dialogue and Pacino's moving performance as Sonny. "The interactions between Pacino and other key characters are magnificently written, acted and directed," writes the staff of Variety. Pacino had established himself as something of a critic's delight by this point, having earned their allegiance early on with his performance as a heroin addict in 1971's The Panic in Needle Park. "[Sonny] becomes one of the most interesting modern movie characters, ranking with Gene Hackman's eavesdropper in The Conversation and Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces," writes Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times). The film went on to earn five Academy Award nominations, including one for Pacino, though its only win was for Pierson's screenplay. The film found box office success as well, capitalizing on its broad and timely cultural appeal to earn $50 million off of a $1.8 million budget (Lumet became notorious for finishing productions under budget, having picked up a tendency for thrift during his time spent working in television.). The movie holds up to this day, and stands tall as some of Sidney Lumet's finest and most culturally impactful work, providing poignant commentary on the modern era's exploitative media and the humanness behind seemingly absurd behavior.
"The televised image certifies the reality of events and, at the same time, removes them by equating their meaning to that of the commercials-the cheerful haiku-that frames them."-Vincent Canby; New York Times
Canby included the above piece of wisdom in his 1969 review of Medium Cool, an extraordinarily meta film about the media's role in inciting politically-charged events. I would argue that it applies more accurately to Dog Day Afternoon, in which a man finds both a voice and an audience by lashing out at the world, only to realize that his actions represent little more than a distracting freak show on the periphery of a hot summer afternoon. The public values him and Sal based upon their entertainment value and little else. The local media feeds this furnace of exploitation to feverish heights for the sake of its own ratings, simultaneously piquing the public's interest in the story and preventing them from seeing the relatable truths behind it. The public sees a man madly screaming "Attica!" and hurling money at riotous crowds. They see a man crazy enough to have a drag marriage presided by a defrocked priest. What they do not see is Sonny Wortzik, a loving husband and father who grew disenchanted with life and wanted one last shot at changing things for himself and for others.
Lumet wastes no time in setting the tone for this humanization, opening the film with a montage of everyday events in order to achieve the opposite effect of the media's sensationalism. The five-minute opening credit sequence (featuring the aforementioned "Amoreena," a moseying tune with lyrics about everyday life) serves to set the film's overall feeling of normalcy. Instead of building up tension toward the bank robbery, we barely even notice when it has started. As city noises begin to drown out the music, Lumet transitions seamlessly from hidden-camera footage of New York City to a shot of Sonny, Sal and Stevie sitting in a car outside the bank. "They seemed like just one more shot of a group of people on that oppressive summer day in New York," writes Lumet (Lumet 57). This visual aesthetic provides the viewer with no choice but to acknowledge that these are normal people, not unlike the ones shown immediately beforehand.
While much debate amongst film academics goes into the definitions of Realism and Expressionism, Lumet has said that Dog Day Afternoon's aesthetic falls more along the lines of "naturalism," or "as close to documentary filmmaking as one can get in a scripted movie" (Lumet 54). In some ways, this approach provides for fewer esoteric conversations regarding shot composition and imagery. It makes Dog Day Afternoon entirely different from a more expressionist work like Citizen Kane, in which nearly every freeze frame tells a subliminal story. Lumet and Kemper craft a visual narrative that observes the characters and events without necessarily commenting on them; the camera draws as little attention to itself as possible. This commitment to naturalism demanded that Lumet and Kemper use no artificial lighting (the only lights used to shoot inside the bank were the ceiling fluorescents), shoot exclusively on location and-for many of the indoor sequences-use handheld cameras. They could have easily shot the film in a more conventional manner complete with neorealist imagery and archetypes, but Lumet believes that style stems from "organic connection to the material" (Lumet 51). Of course, for him, this meant a visual story that matched the narrative one, which itself shows the humanity behind a so-called freak. He could not further sensationalize Sonny's actions. On the contrary, he attempted to reverse the damage the media had already done.
As the credit sequence comes to its conclusion, we find ourselves observing what quickly establishes itself as a bank robbery. Stevie (Gary Springer) walks casually, hands-in-pockets back to a beat-up car in which Sonny and Sal sit. He says something inaudible to Sonny, who proceeds to shut off the radio (implying the characters could hear "Amoreena," yet another example of Lumet's dedication to naturalism), prompting Sal to walk up to the bank, take one more look back at the car for self-assurance, and enter the building. Exterior shots of the bank show its guard (John Marriott) lowering the flag and locking the doors behind customers, implying that the bank will soon close for the day. Sonny-with a suspiciously long package under his arm-and Stevie enter the bank, putting in motion history's most prolonged failure of a heist.
These early moments with our protagonists prove instrumental both in terms of characterization and in making obvious their impending doom. As Lumet writes, "Inevitability is the key... The script must keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way" (Lumet 31). Sonny and Sal hurdle toward their self-made ruin, which makes itself obvious as soon as the former fumbles around when withdrawing his rifle from its packaging. Sal projects a stoic intensity that seems to suggest barbarism akin to that of Hannibal Lecter, but will later reveal itself as something else entirely. Stevie then gets cold feet and-in a move surely designed to establish the film's comedic tone-rushes out without even thinking to leave the keys to the getaway car with Sonny. All of hope of a successful robbery seems lost, but wait! Sonny quickly goes about reestablishing a cool professionalism that matches his two-piece suit. He makes a series of quick-witted moves, suggesting an intelligence that seems contradictory to his already long list of screw-ups. "We'll just move it right along," Sonny says repeatedly, presumably to reassure Sal and himself that they are still in control of the situation. Pacino runs back and forth across the bank floor with a bug-eyed intensity, drawing the blinds then blacking out the cameras to prevent video transmission. When the bank manager goes to open the vault, Sonny barks at him not to trip the alarm using the "spot key." A spot key? How many people know what that is, let alone how to differentiate it from the real key? He similarly rejects the head teller's (Penelope Allen) attempt at giving him decoy money. Sonny soon reveals that he used to work in a bank and that he is a "Catholic so [he] doesn't want to hurt anybody," thus flipping the audience's initial assumptions about him and quickly turning him into a puzzle that the viewer is asked to dissect. "Sonny is many things and wants to be all things," Ebert writes (Chicago Sun-Times). Sonny seems to think this of himself as well; he at one point declares, "I know a lot about a lot of things." Lumet and Co. proceed to reveal those "things" to the viewer in a manner befitting of the film's quasi-documentary trappings.
As previously stated, the film makes obvious the bank robbery's failure to the viewers, even if they are not aware of the events it is based upon. After burning the registry in another example of his recurring foolishness, Sonny gets a phone call from a group of policemen in the building across the street. "We've got you right by the balls," says Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning). "You don't believe me? I'm looking at you right now. Right now I can see you." An immediate look of panic in his eyes, Sonny glances through the window and sees a stereotypically fattened cop pointing at him. While the screenplay does not reveal how the cops came to know of the robbery, Kluge's original story details a conversation in which Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) sends a coded SOS while on the phone with a client. As Moretti and Sonny converse, the camera does not immediately opt for the standard reverse-angle shots that filmmakers usually use to dramatize conversations, but instead stays with Sonny to keep the faux-documentary's focus consistent. "Look, I told you to get out of here while you could, but you just had to hang around," barks Mulvaney. Sonny and Sal drop to the ground in despair, but their story has hardly begun, and is yet to become media frenzy.
As the narrative progresses, Sonny and Sal's character development occurs in two arcs that seem to contradict one another: via their exchanges with the other characters and the local media's (as well as the authorities') attempts to uncover their backstories. Lumet's viewers get to know the complex man that Sonny is simply by observing his uneven behavior. He first tells the police that he will "start throwing bodies out the front door" if they approach the bank and uses his status as a Vietnam War veteran (supposedly, though this is likely untrue of Sal since he admits to never having flown in an airplane) to validate this threat, but he then allows the bank's employees to take phone calls with their loved ones and even use the bathroom. "He's the kind of man who would take care of you," Pierson once said of Sonny (Rapf). Sonny verifies this statement repeatedly, as he makes sure to cater to his "hostages," even going as far as to order them pizza and teach them rifle twirling. Sal's seemingly ice-cold demeanor similarly fails to hold up under scrutiny once he reveals his silence to simply be isolation when he suggests that he and Sonny shoot themselves. The accessibility of these two becomes even more apparent once Sonny calls into question his own opinion about whether or not the authorities are the good guys. "They'll shoot you, you know? The cops...you see what they did in Attica? 42 people they killed, the innocent with the guilty" he says to Mulvaney. The film seems to affirm this point when, just a few minutes later, incompetent police officers nearly shoot an asthmatic security guard as he exits the bank.
At this moment, the turning point occurs in which the media makes Sonny into a local celebrity, giving him the power to captivate the attention of nearly everyone in New York City. Meaningful high-angle shots show both police and media helicopters alike flying overhead, symbolically linking the two. The camera cuts to Pacino, who barks back and forth with Moretti in one of the most intense improvised confrontations ever set to film. In the meantime, buses full of armed policemen arrive, adding to the purposefully absurd number of them already on the scene. Realizing he can call the shots for perhaps the first time in his life, Sonny runs back and forth like a Shakespearean protagonist delivering his soliloquy. "Get back there!" he yells, pointing at a cop. "He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it! Attica! Attica! Tell them to put their guns down! Put your guns down!" The newly formed mob cheers, screaming "Attica" in call and response. Then, in an oft-overlooked but powerful moment, Sonny proclaims, "If it wasn't for the TV guys they'd kill us all!" In a perfect example of intentional sequencing, the film then cuts to Sonny's parents watching the news coverage on television, affirming that the media does in fact alter the course of events for everyone involved. Sonny's mother was watching live coverage of her son's tragic downfall from the comfort of her own living room. This serves to reveal to the film's viewers an essential component of Sonny's character (his Freudian mother issues) while contrasting this inside knowledge with what the news anchor tells the public. This type of juxtaposition occurs again after Pacino's second outdoor demonstration. Lumet chooses to cut to Sonny's wife Angie Wortzik at home with her two kids, ranting about how crazy her husband has been acting lately. The pieces of his character start to come together for the film's viewers, but the public still sees only a charismatic bank robber. Sonny has become an instant celebrity, impregnable because of the public's irrational obsession with him. He feels the power this gives him and capitalizes upon it as much as possible, needlessly yelling slander at the policemen to draw a response from the crowd. Even the bank's head teller panders to the audience when Moretti tries to keep her outside. "They're my girls, I'm going back in there!" she says, with a smile and a wave to the laughing crowd. She excitedly runs back into the bank to brag to her "girls" about her live television interview. If this wholesome, maternal character is controlled by a desire for any small amount of fame, then surely all of us are.
Sonny soon recognizes that he does not possess a real voice to speak to the people, as evidenced by his declaration to a newscaster: "I'm here with my partner and nine other people, and we're dying, man. You're going to see our brains on the sidewalk. They're going to spill our guts out, and you're going to show that on television, have all your housewives watch it instead of As the World Turns?" Sonny knows that he and Sal represent a freak show to the public and little else.
Small bits of character development continue to occur within the bank, including Sal's insistence that cigarettes "taint the temple of the Lord," but the true shock to the film's viewers as well as to the onlookers within the film comes when Leon arrives. It's important that Lumet and Co. choose to deliver this information to both audiences at once. The film's viewers find themselves shocked at first, just like the mob of onlookers, but we then get the joy of peeling back the layers of Sonny's complexity. We see the media's coverage of the revelation and the aforementioned photo of Leon in his wedding dress. The newscaster then cuts to a commercial break and says, "We'll be right back with coverage of two homosexuals robbing a bank." In a particularly funny reaction, Sal whines to Sonny about the false reporting. The news station has no basis to assume Sal was also gay, and yet they say it anyway to stoke the public's interest in the event. As Bob Dylan famously said in an interview with Time magazine, "They've got too much to lose by printing the truth...you know that!"
In Dog Day Afternoon's tragic last act, Lumet allows the viewer to more fully comprehend Sonny's motivations, imbuing the character with nearly universal accessibility in order to critique the media's dangerous tendency to distort the reality behind events. The camera follows Sonny through a sequence of two phone calls: one to Leon, and the second to his wife Angie. The first is a desperate plea for forgiveness, an apology for failure and a sorrowful goodbye, while the second is resentfully done out of a sense of obligation ("the kind of man who would take care of you"). With Leon, we feel Sonny's love come through in an honest and affecting way, as the back-and-forth close-ups of Sarandon and Pacino tell a powerful narrative simply via facial expressions. Lumet filmed this scene twice in back-to-back unbroken takes to build up Pacino's level of emotion as much as possible. "By the end of the second take, Al didn't know where he was anymore," Lumet writes. "His eyes locked into mine and he burst into tears, then slumped over the desk he had been sitting at" (Lumet 122). This level of raw emotion provokes a visceral reaction in the viewer, creating an instant sense of connectedness to Sonny that is more deeply personal than anything the media could ever convey, as if it would ever want to. The similarly affecting Last Will speech that Pacino delivers serves the same function of providing insight to the film's viewers that the mob outside the bank could not hope to comprehend. At this point, their sole relationship to the event is still just the initial shock of learning about Sonny's homosexuality. Visually, we see this when-after the phone call scene-the camera cuts to the street, where gay rights activists chant "Out of the closets and into the streets!" Viewers of the film can see the depths of Sonny's complexity, but the public remains fixated on his sexuality because of the media's sensationalist coverage.
Many people would argue that the film's most important message lies in its anti-establishment ideals, which make themselves apparent in the portrayal of the police force as inept public servants who oppress the people. The cops' stupidity shines through on multiple occasions, including when they let an angry bystander through the barricade to tackle Sonny, or when the tactical unit behind the bank fails to communicate to the ones out front that they are going to try to sneak through the back window. This messaging culminates with the film's denouement, when a lieutenant brutally shoots Sal-with whom the audience sympathizes-in the face (A conscious decision on Lumet's part to alter what happened in real life, in which they shot him in the chest). I do not argue against this reading of the film, as I think it works alongside my critique of modern media to comprise effective social commentary. However, I do believe that Dog Day Afternoon functions best as a critique of the media's sensationalism and man's obsession with fame. It is a deeply human portrayal of someone whom the public may mistakenly label an outcast, or as Lumet puts it, "Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the most outrageous behavior than we know or admit" (Lumet 14).