Dog Day Afternoon: Review
Dog Day Afternoon is an invigorating, engrossing, exciting, and thrilling nail-biter of a heist film with a young and magnetically engaging Al Pacino. A world apart from other caper films, Dog Day Afternoon’s story focuses on the character of those involved and the forces that push them to complete their inevitable actions.
Based on true events, Dog Day Afternoon is about a botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank on one of the hottest days of the year. Acclaimed director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) immediately establishes the feeling of stifling heat through a series of documentary-style shots of working class Brooklyn, blistering in the shadows of the Manhattan Skyline. It’s clear that in this part of the big city, the poor never seem to get a break - unless they make one for themselves. And then we meet Sonny.
The story digs right in with Pacino’s down and out Sonny and his partners waiting for closing hour at a bank. The robbery is supposed to be quick, but Sonny is too kind-hearted for his own good, and it is his generous nature that leads to his ruin (“I’m Catholic! I don’t want to hurt no one!”). A series of misfortunes conspires to complicate matters so that, four hours later, the bank becomes the center of a media circus, and the growing attention draws the support and admiration of the public like crazed fans in support of social revolutionaries, who chant along with the would-be robber, “Attica! Attica!” For a brief moment in the hot summer haze, Sonny stands proud and tall as a public hero rallying the people against the social injustices brought upon Brooklyn, and all Americans who struggled in the demoralizing economic times of the early 1970s.
Charles Durning (best know as Jessica Lange’s romantically challenged father in Tootsie) is wonderful as the policeman overwhelmed with the chaos that ensues when his efforts to contain the situation fail miserably. He, too, is a working stiff, but he represents the system that is not to be trusted and is therefore afforded no respect. John Cazale’s character is an acutely sympathetic and simple-minded neurotic who cracks under the pressure when he realizes that he and Sonny have hemmed themselves into a corner. Sadly, this is only one of five impressive roles Cazale completed (The Godfather Part I, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter) before succumbing to bone cancer only a few years later.
But my favorite performance in this amazing film is that of Chris Sarandon’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Leon, Sonny’s transsexual lover (handled with incredible tact and matter-of-fact manner for the time). Better known for his work in The Princess Bride and as the voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sarandon is nearly unrecognizable as he has an impassioned (and fully improvised) phone conversation with Pacino in the middle of the siege. It is a very short amount of screen time for an Academy nod, but one well worth the recognition.
Dog Day Afternoon was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, winning only for Best Original Screenplay. Although the Awards may have chosen to honor other films that year (Pacino lost out to Jack Nicholson in Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) Dog Day Afternoon is no less notable as a superb example of 70’s era Hollywood filmmaking at its finest: Big budget films with the look and feel of a gritty independent.