Dog Day Afternoon: character study centred around a failed heist in a morally adrift America

Sidney Lumet, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

A character study featuring stunning acting from lead actor Al Pacino, this film captures the jaded atmosphere of a post-hippie / post-Vietnam War America that has lost its ideals and sense of moral direction, and which is just as likely to cheer as its heroes two inept bank robbers as it would more conventional role model types. The film is based on an actual bank robbery that occurred in New York City in 1972. First-time crook Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) attempt to rob a small savings bank but their plan goes awry when Stevie, in charge of the getaway car, loses his nerve and bails out. The would-be heist hits another snag when the bank’s mostly female employees admit that most of the day’s takings have already gone to head office and only enough for next day’s business has been left in the safe. Sonny then seizes the bank’s holdings of travellers’ cheques and tries to burn the register listing them. Smoke emanates from the building’s exhaust, alerting the shop-owner across the road, who then telephones the police. Within minutes, New York’s boys in blue surround the bank completely – even snipers suddenly appear atop neighbouring buildings – and the bank robbers are forced to hunker down for the night with their hostages. The security guard has an asthma attack and goes free when the police call for the release of a hostage early on; the bank manager goes into diabetic shock and the robbers call for a doctor.

During the stand-off between the robbers and the police, crowds gather around the bank and show their support for Sonny who takes advantage of the situation when he appears outside and parades as an outsider, a little man resisting the full might of sinister government authorities. The media attention turns the stand-off into a circus which becomes even more so when police discover that Wortzik is married to a pre-operative transgender woman, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who reveals to them and to the crowds that Sonny’s motive for trying to rob the bank is to get money to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgery so he can live as a woman.

Pacino’s excellent acting reaches its peak in the film’s closing scenes when he is overcome by despair and grief at how the day’s events have transpired, resulting in unnecessary tragedy and a young family having to depend on social welfare. The scenes are entirely wordless with only the shrieky noise of aeroplane engines as the audio soundtrack at once promising freedom yet blocking Sonny’s ham-fisted attempts at escaping drab reality and making a better life for himself and Leon. The rest of the cast revolves around Pacino and a number of them have to endure soap-opera scenes and conversations that bog down the action and reduce the film’s tension as the plot approaches its devastating climax.

Aside from the uneven nature of the acting overall and the over-long plot, the most interesting aspect of the film is its deliberate blurring and subversion of movie stereotypes and conventions, and how this subversion questions who is a hero and what are heroic actions, and who is a villain and what is the nature of a villain. The bank manager unexpectedly becomes a hero of a sort for opting to remain with his bank teller staff at the cost of his own health. Sonny and his fellow robbers are revealed as naifs at a loss in how to deal with a complex and cynical world that takes advantage of their innocence and manipulates them. The trio are way in over their heads at trying to rob the bank; even the employees seem to know more about what the robbers should do. The police are revealed as untrustworthy and deceptive, and more ready to shoot and kill than to ask questions first. Much rich comedy is derived from the nature of the characters and how they deal with the situation as it develops; Sonny especially is quite funny as he tries to please Sal, the police, Leon, his mother and his ex-wife all at once while trying to keep his hostages in line and working out an escape plan.

Lumet’s direction brings out the claustrophobic nature of the failed heist and the stand-off and does a fairly good job of maintaining tension and suspense even through the stretched-out second-half of the film with its soapy conversations. Lumet shows a fascination with how ordinary, fallible human beings fight an often oppressive system and culture with whatever weapons – mental, psychological, physical – they have at hand, and how their actions lead them into extreme and intense situations that end in tragedy.

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