Sydney Lumet with a great portfolio as a filmmaker, starting his debut with his masterpiece “12 Angry Men” in 1957, created one or two films every year afterwards, until his great film of “Serpico” in 1973. Shortly after he made another masterpiece “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1975 again with Al Pacino and just a year after another great work “Network” in 1976. Though he touches on different topics, he is the best in examination of social issues and psychological struggles of modern humans as in his above three great films. Lumet as an “actor director” was a master of pulling the best performances out of different actors whom he directed. He brought out one of the best performances from Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in “12 Angry Men” and the best of Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and from Peter Finch in “Network”.
Not an ordinary bank robbery:
Not only one of the first hostage taking film in cinema, “Dog Day Afternoon” is a unique one that has rarely equaled. Based on a true bank robbery in 1972 in Brooklyn by Sonny Wortzik (played by Al Pacino) and Salvatore “Sal” Naturale (played by John Cazale) the film is felt all the way very real, even the acts the bank employees taken as hostages. A more mature cooperation between Sydney Lumet and Pacino than their first work together in “Serpico”, the film depicts the reality of the lives of American people in a city like Brooklyn, where two of their residents struggling with living, attempt to steal some money for their needs. After an opening scene of the real poor neighborhood of Brooklyn in a summer heat, three robbers arrive at the bank in their car.
Sal approaches the bank manager who is sitting at his desk and on the phone pointing his rifle at, and Sonny taking his gun out of a wrapped gift box nervously. A young chap, Stevie as the third robber or their driver, who walks in with Sonny and Sal, soon gives up and leaves as he is scared. Sal is mentally disturbed looking and Sonny the mastermind is a nerve rack. The police soon is informed by the insurance salesman who works across the street, when he notices smoke coming out of the vents of the bank, from a document Sonny was burning inside.
The robbery though was planned somewhat by Sonny, it seems very spontaneous as one of the female bank teller telling him. This spontaneity is shown well by improvising act of Al Pacino as Sonny. The crowd outside who probably live a struggling life like the robbers, are supportive and cheer them, while Sonny who keeps getting in and out of the bank in negotiating talk with the police detective excites them more. Sal is the scarecrow who’s introduced to the police sergeant as a Vietnam veteran killer with killing meaning nothing to him. The whole film is charged with anxiety and anticipation and the nervous act of Sonny generalizes to the others including the police detective.
Sonny demands the police a helicopter ride to the airport and a jet to fly them away to a tropical destination such as Algeria. He also asks to see his wife, but the police brings a transgender man, Leon (Elizabeth) (Chris Sarandon) who reveals that the bank robbery has been for gathering money for his sex change. Sonny who’s married to Angie (Susan Peretz) apparently marries Leon as a help to him who was depressed and suicidal for being born as a woman in the body of man. Sonny’s triangular relationship is revealed from the dialogue between him and Leon outside the bank and from a phone conversation with his wife, Angie and also from his mother who has been brought at the bank by the police as well. Before departure to the airport in a heartbreaking dictation to a bank employee, Sonny passes on his life insurance money to his wife Angie and Leon for sex change.
Finally a limousine arrives to take the bank robbers and the hostages to the airport, but sonny realizes the driver being a cop, he changes him to another detective that he picks for seeming calm and perhaps thrust worthy. Escorted by the police cars, the limousine arrives at the airport and before all getting out and on the plane waiting, the detective driver asking Sal sitting in the back seat to point his gun up for safety that as soon as he does, the detective from a pistol hidden in the glove compartment, shoots him in the head and all ends. Sonny is arrested and handcuffed and the hostages are all rescued and the film ends by subtitles that sonny was sentences with 20 years in prison, Angie and her children went on welfare and Leon had his sex changed.
This great film of Sydney Lumet that broke some Hollywood filmmaking conventions, won only one screenplay award (for Frank Pierson) from Oscar, though received six nominations including the best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and editing. The same happened with the Golden Globe that nominated the film for seven awards but received none. But the film, its direction and Al Pacino’s acting were well received by the most critics of the time and years later.
In closing remarks “Dog Day Afternoon” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:
- Originality: “Dog Day Afternoon” is an original bank robbery/hostage taking film, but the film goes beyond an action film and discloses the social issues of the time, the poverty, briefly touching the opposition of American people to the Vietnam war through shouting “Attica! Attica!” along with Sal in reference to the Attica prison riot in protest to the war.
- Technicality: The technicality of “Dog Day Afternoon” is in its superb performances that changed Al Pacino’s acting method since, a flamboyant theatrical acting, that fitted the best in this film, but he took it to the exaggeration in his later films. The element of the improvisation in the act of bank robbery and the involvement of the crowd in support of the robbers well written in the script were all directed well by the socio-political filmmaker, Sydney Lumet. Finally the set design and filming on location adds credit to the technicality of the film and its superb direction.
- Impact Factor: The influence of “Dog Day Afternoon” could be seen in any future bank robbery, hostage taking and also on any actors who followed Al Pacino’s style. The film impacted or energized Lumet himself to come up one more time in the following year with another great film “Network” where he injected more of his socio-political elements and also more of his acting-directing method.
- Survival: “Dog Day Afternoon” has survived well to this very day for its freshness to watch, enjoy and more so to be surprised to see such an action Hollywood film at the time possessed some social and political depth that in later years were all faded from the American screen.