Film Review: Dog Day Afternoon (dir. by Sidney Lumet)

Last night, as part of my continuing mission to see every film ever nominated for best picture, I watched Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day AfternoonDog Day Afternoon was released in 1975.  Though nominated for best picture, it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino plays Sonny, a nervous Viet Nam vet who, along with the dim-witted and possibly crazy Sal (John Cazale), attempts to rob a bank.  Unfortunately for him, Sonny doesn’t really know what he’s doing and literally within minutes of him first drawing his gun, the bank is surrounded by cops.  The robbery quickly descends into a hostage situation.  As Pacino negotiates with a NYC police detective (Charles Durning), a crowd of onlookers gathers around the bank and starts to cheer with every defiant word that comes out of Sonny’s mouth.  Sonny discovers he likes his new-found fame.  In the film’s most famous scene, he stands outside the bank and leads the crowd in a chant of “Attica!  Attica!”   Eventually, Durning learns that Pacino’s motive for robbing the bank was to steal enough money for his suicidal lover (Chris Sarandon) to get a sex change operation.  However, now that the robbery has failed, Pacino has a new plan.  He demands a flight out of the country.  Meanwhile, the hostages inside the bank start to form their own odd kinship with the two bank robbers and Durning finds himself being challenged by the F.B.I., who have a much more drastic plan for how to end the situation.

Dog Day Afternoon is a remarkable film, a dark comedy of desperation and human nature that, by the final scene, reaches a certain tragic grandeur.  Sidney Lumet (who made his directorial debut in 1957 with 12 Angry Men and whose most recent film, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, was released 51 years later) was one of the most important (if underrated) filmmakers of the 1970s and he proves it here.  From the opening montage of New York City looking so wonderfully sordid at the height of the grindhouse era to Pacino’s bumbling initial attempt to rob the bank to the film’s violent and abrupt conclusion, Lumet captures your attention and, much like Al Pacino in this movie, he holds it hostage until the movie ends. 

Dog Day Afternoon is probably one of the best acted films that I’ve ever seen.  This is one of those films where every role — regardless of how large or how small — fills like an actual human being.  By the end of the film, you feel as if you know the bank managers and the tellers almost as well as you know Pacino, Durning, Sarandon, and Cazale.  Pacino is simply amazing here, giving a nervous, jittery performance as a character who manages to be both selfish and selfless at the same time.  Durning, meanwhile, is hilarious as the frazzled detective who finds himself steadily overwhelmed by the circus around him.  Much as you can’t help but root for Pacino no matter how self-absorbed he might act, you can’t help but sympathize with During, even if he is a member of the establishment.  As Pacino’s transsexual lover, Sarandon plays his role with a fragile dignity that prevents the role from becoming a stereotype.  However, for me, the film truly belongs to John Cazale who is both scary and oddly child-like as Sal.  As seen below, Cazale improvised one of the best lines in the movie when he replies to Pacino’s question regarding to which country Cazale wants to make his escape.

Now, this is going to be difficult for me to admit but, as thrilling as it was to watch Pacino shout, “Attica!  Attica!,” I honestly had no idea why that phrase was the one he chose to use to work up the crowd.  In fact, if I had written this review right after seeing (or while watching) the film last night, I probably would have doubled embarrassed myself by claiming that Pacino was shouting “Ateka.”  However, for once, I decided to be a responsible reviewer and I actually did some research as opposed to just going with my first conclusion.  So, as a result of this film, I can now say that I know about the Attica Prison Riots of 1971.

But what’s truly significant about that “Attica” chant is that it’s the only part of this film (beyond a few fashion choices) that feels dated.  As I watched the movie, it was easy for me to imagine myself jumping on twitter and seeing “#Attica” as a trending topic.  We’ve all seen the famous “Attica!” scene in countless compilations but what’s often forgotten is how that sequence ends.  When Pacino, obviously a bit star struck by all the attention, goes outside and start chanting a second time, he is suddenly tackled from behind by one of the bystanders who has decided to play hero.  And as Pacino goes down to the ground, the same crowd that was previously cheering him now cheers for the new object of their affection.  If nothing else, Dog Day Afternoon showed why sometimes we all need to escape to Wyoming.

8 responses to “Film Review: Dog Day Afternoon (dir. by Sidney Lumet)

  1. I had not seen this film until your review prompted me to finally do so. I don’t know why I had never gotten to it – I’ve been aware of it since 6th grade. I decided to watch it first, then read your assessment.

    Honestly, you write (and perceive) so well. Having just finished watching, I would say I agree with everything you expressed, with one possible (partial) exception. I’m not sure that Cazale stole the show. But only because Pacino really was brilliant (granted, he had much more of an opportunity to be so, due to screen time and character personality), and because everyone else was so good, as well. Every actor provided everything that was necessary, and no more. And this includes Cazale, whose portrayal and character you described exactly. It was such a well-balanced set of performances. But I agree, Cazale manifested a perfect combination of menacing volatility and (almost) innocent simplicity. You were worried about this guy the whole time, but would occasionally feel sympathetic toward him. Sometimes subtle gets it done.

    It struck me somewhere in the middle of the film that I was enjoying the humor and the characters, and had gotten the vibe that I was watching a comedy, albeit a complex one. Then I realized that this story could not end well. The director was able to pull me into a state of mind somewhat similar to that of the people in the bank – a sort of detachment from reality; of ignoring the inevitable, or childishly thinking the robbers’ demands would be met. For the bank employees, this may or may not have been attributable to Stockholm Syndrome. For me, and I suspect many other viewers, it was excellent direction.

    Interesting to see both a young Chris Sarandon and Lance Henriksen, neither of whom I recognized. After seeing their names in the credits, I had to go back and take a look.

    “Cuckoo’s Nest” as well, eh? Sounds like 1975 was quite a year for cinema.

    Great movie, and a really incisive review. Thanks for getting me to watch this, at last.


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