By Marc S. Sanders
Sidney Lumet uses his best strengths in this ridiculous Brooklyn bank robbery that is actually based on fact.
Here, Al Pacino and his cohort, John Cazale, play inadvertent stupidity without compromise. If two of the three stooges went on to do drama, this would be the material they’d use.
A simple bank robbery with little to no planning spirals out of control and into sheer pandemonium. Nothing goes right even when Pacino’s dimwit character, Sonny, is deluded enough to believe all is going in his favor. He immediately earns the support of the encroaching Brooklyn community only to lose them when he shows his true homosexual nature. Then he’s blindsided as to what happened. Layered in drenching sweat, Lumet wisely takes advantage of Pacino’s best up close facial expressions. Utter delirium!!!!!
Once again, Lumet’s camera moves while his best actors remain naturally in place. Al Pacino does his thing and trusts his director will find his shots. As the cop initially in charge, Charles Durning does as well. Pacino and Durning especially have great scenes together in the middle of a heavily populated New York Street as the robber shines off the cop, and the cop does his best to obtain some measure of control. It’s a scream fest for the ages. “Attica! Attica!” Pacino and Durning’s best career performances were always the ones where it looked like neither of them were ever acting. Dog Day Afternoon is one those better examples.
Frank Pierson’s jagged script of wild turns makes every person whose an extra like the pizza delivery man, for instance, caught up in the hysteria. The pizza kid shouts out to the crowd “I’m a star!!!” It’s great reason to applaud Sidney Lumet’s control over a crew and the entire company of extras he’s employed. This film is a rare example where all of the extras (seemingly the entire Brooklyn population) are as integral as the leads. The setting is the main antagonist from the media all the way to the observers who can’t look away and can only cheer, yet mock as well. Brooklyn, New York is a great character here.
Most fascinating about Dog Day Afternoon is that it is all based on fact from the media circus to dumb bank robbers with a need to steal in order to fund a lover’s sex change operation. It’s ridiculous. It’s funny. It’s frighteningly stressful and it’s all true.
This was released following the first two Godfather films and confirms the enormous range Al Pacino possesses with his performance talents. Hyperactive and dumb here as gay bank robber, Sonny; quietly contained, evil as Michael Corleone. His range was through the roof in the 70s before absorbing his loud, crackling, smokers voice. It was when the script outshined Pacino and before the current age of writing being catered to its bankable star.
Lumet also allows great moments for the hostages who become undone to the point of regretfully using foul language, to actually befriending their captors. He’s a director who efficiently leaves no stone untouched.
Chris Sarandon as Leon, Sonny’s male gay spouse is great here too. He’s full of melodrama, panic, worry, and a New York maternal despair. Another great scene is a phone exchange between Pacino and Sarandon. It might appear funny at first, especially in the 70s when homosexuality was lampooned often with the other F-word, but anyone who appreciates the filmmaking of Lumet will quickly contain their snickering when they realize a gay man is equal flesh, bone and feelings like anyone else.
Dog Day Afternoon is very telling of an out of the closet social media future. The story will always get grabbed regardless of danger or sensitivity. People will get swept up in the hoopla (a teller hostage quickly boasts her brief fame on television “Girls, I was on TV!”), police will overextend their privilege, helicopters will swarm, the criminals will demand their moment in the spotlight, and the public will serve as jury per the majority.
It’s a vicious cycle but considering it is a 1975 masterpiece, it’s all disturbingly valid and sensationally true.