‘Attica! Attica!’ cries Sonny Wortzik at the massed ranks of cops pointing their guns toward him, making reference to the excessive force the police used in response to the Attica Prison riot in the early 1970s. The largely-sympathetic crowd that has gathered outside the First Brooklyn Savings Bank cheers along as the wound-up Sonny, warming to the idea of being the centre of attention, prowls the pavement with menace. The cops duly holster their weapons and back off, looking around nervously as the crowd reaches fever pitch. With the media spotlight suddenly upon him Sonny has become a far more unpredictable and dangerous prospect outside the bank than he was inside it, despite the fact he and his partner-in-crime have taken a dozen or so employees hostage.
This is widely regarded as one of the best moments in Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet’s terrific 1975 tale of a real life heist that went horribly wrong; confirmation of its iconic status can be seen in the number of subsequent ‘Attica!’ spoofs in popular culture, such as The Naked Gun. Up until that point Lumet has kept Dog Day Afternoon’s anti-establishment leanings largely under wraps, but this uproarious scene suddenly confirms the director’s intentions; Wortzik (played by an infectiously wiry Al Pacino) is instantly transformed into one of cinema’s more memorable antiheroes: an unelected spokesman for the man on the street, an outnumbered underdog, a gay rights icon, a spokesman for disenfranchised and poorly-treated Vietnam War veterans and even a counterculture revolutionary (albeit one who is ultimately cowed by the authorities, not to mention his ex-wife and his ma).
Crucially, Lumet keeps us in Sonny’s corner throughout: the character draws the audience’s sympathy despite his actions and the hostages always appear to be safe from harm, despite any public threats made to keep the police and the FBI at bay. While the film doesn’t exactly underplay the peril of the cashiers, security guard and bank manager, or the effects the robbery has on their health, it is littered with scenes in which the innocent victims appear to be at ease with their captors: they watch television, for example, chat confidently and even have fun by practicing army marching manoeuvres (with Sonny even handing over his rifle to a cashier at one point). However, as Sonny’s notoriety increases, the police and the FBI become more and more frantic; though there is concern for the welfare of the cashiers and bank manager the real issue is figuring out how to shut Sonny up.
Lumet’s film was inspired by The Boys In The Bank, an article by P.F. Kluge for Life Magazine that told the story of an armed robbery perpetrated by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale in 1972. Wotjowicz separated from his wife and had publicly married Ernest Aron (later known as Elizabeth Eden) a year earlier. The bank job was supposedly undertaken to pay for Aron’s gender re-assignment operation, and the inexperienced duo based their plan around scenes from The Godfather, ironically starring a certain Mr. Alfredo James Pacino. The robbery didn’t go to plan, but during the ensuing 14-hour standoff Wotjowicz and Naturale became media celebrities. Wotjowicz was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison – he served six – but was paid $7,500 for the rights to his story, and 1% of the film’s profits, which did actually pay for the surgery in question.
Kluge’s article explicitly referred to Wotjowicz as ‘a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman’, which went some way to making the casting decision a no-brainer, though Lumet had of course worked with Pacino on Serpico. (Interestingly, when the actor briefly quit the production, Hoffman was actually offered the role.) The quietly-steady John Cazale was cast as Sal, despite the fact he was 39 at the time of filming and the real-life cohort was only 18 at the time of the robbery, and Charles Durning signed on to play Sergeant Moretti, the cop who initially negotiates with Wortzik.
Quite rightly this is regarded as one of Pacino’s finest performances, a showcase for the kind of gleefully-delivered over-the-top bluster that has drawn a degree of criticism in his later career, perhaps due to its familiarity. It gave him his fourth Academy Award nomination for acting in as many years, but he lost out to Jack Nicholson, who deservedly won for an equally-magnetic turn in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Pacino’s energy ensures that Dog Day Afternoon – a film that mainly takes place in one room and on one stretch of pavement – never loses its audience, keeps interest levels high, and most importantly sells the character as a fundamentally decent human being… albeit one who just happens to have robbed a bank.
It’s a fun performance to watch because of the sudden bursts of physical comedy, first and foremost, but the actor brings so much more to the part: there’s the withering, irritated sarcasm of your stereotypical New Yorker, there’s thoughtfulness, there’s desperation and ultimately there’s sadness – the ‘sinking feeling’ look on his face at the end of the film, soundtracked by the roar of jet engines, is as good an ending as I’ve seen anywhere, the kind of image that you can clearly picture in your mind long after the movie has finished.
Pacino, Lumet and writer Frank Pierson, who won the film’s only Oscar, collaborate effectively in order to change our perception of Wortzik as the film progresses. At first he is depicted as an incompetent clown, comically struggling to get his gun out of a box as the heist begins, before setting off the fire that tips off a neighbouring business. The lack of planning also means that Sonny is robbing the bank after a daily security pick-up has occurred, meaning there’s hardly any cash left in the vault to steal anyway. This sense of haplessness is enhanced by the jittery nature of his fellow thieves Sal and Stevie (Gary Springer), neither of whom have the stomach for armed robbery, and Lumet sticks with flashes of slapstick for a good fifteen minutes or so. There’s one great little shot during this phase of the film that sums the robbers up perfectly: Sonny and Sal are trying to communicate with each other across the room, but they seem incapable of establishing eye contact due to the presence of a couple of pillars. It’s not really important, it’s over with in a second or so, but it’s funny and it tells you everything you need to know about their credentials as bank robbers.
Though the film almost resembles a Three Stooges homage at the beginning, Lumet et al soon take a different tack. Sonny isn’t an idiot, and is apparently streetwise enough to know when he is being played: first he stops the bank manager Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) from deliberately tripping a vault alarm, while shortly afterwards he chastises a cashier for trying to give him a dye pack and the last dollar bill in till, the removal of which would also set off an automatic alarm. Later, when the FBI attempt to pass off one of their agents (Dick Williams) as a civilian limousine driver, Sonny guesses the ruse and insists on a replacement (played by Lance Henriksen).
This game of cat-and-mouse that takes place between Sonny and the authorities is a major reason why Dog Day Afternoon is so enjoyable. When FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) takes over from local cop Moretti as chief negotiator, Sonny clearly becomes more frantic, perhaps because he is aware there is a greater immediate threat and perhaps because he is no longer dealing with someone from a similar background. A period of emotional button-pushing results: Sonny must partake in a sad conversation with Leon (the character based on the lover Ernest Aron, played by an Oscar-nominated Chris Sarandon) and a very public one with his mother (played by Judith Malina); at one point she becomes so desperate she quietly implores him to run, despite the fact the locale is teeming with police officers, news crews, civilians and circling helicopters. It’s a tragi-comic scene that plays out wonderfully, with the FBI agents standing yards away.
Lumet – whose final film came 50 years after his first and, incredibly, was almost as good – plays on the increasing mania of his main character. There’s a great sequence, for example, where Sonny realises that the police are attempting to enter the bank via a back window. The character fires a warning shot through the glass at the cops, and the director captures the ensuing panic via a series of consecutive fast cuts, showing the reactions of Sal, the cops, the hostages and the public in the space of a few seconds. It may be a simple editing technique but it looks very, very cool.
Like Lumet’s next film Network, there’s a downbeat feel to Dog Day Afternoon. The film goes to great lengths to establish a clear counter-culture icon before pitting him against the establishment, in the form of the bank, the police and the FBI. He loses. And you know all along that Sonny’s going to lose; he repeatedly attempts to convince Sal that all will be fine, and they’ll be able to fly away and start a new life, but really we know he’s not even convincing himself.
Network also took the topic of celebrity, witheringly criticised in Dog Day Afternoon, and ran with it. News cameras and reporters are in the background here, but we are reminded of their presence often, and the style of their reporting has clearly helped to develop Sonny as a ‘sensation’ in the eyes of the public. Playing to the gallery – ‘Attica! Attica!’ – proves to be irresistible to Sonny, and his visits to the growing crowd and news teams outside increase in frequency the longer the heist goes on. He represents a disenfranchised sector of society that ordinarily has little influence on public affairs, or any notable voice, therefore when he is given a public platform to sound off he understandably feels important for the first time in his life and becomes addicted to the experience; the robbery and the hostage situation become secondary concerns, something he repeatedly leaves for Sal to handle.
The crisis has the full attention of the media, albeit temporarily, and various negative effects of instant celebrity – heavy breathers and other cranks phoning the bank, invasion of privacy of loved ones, etc. – are included. Then there are the bizarre reactions of characters such as the pizza delivery guy (Lionel Pina), who jumps up and down in front of the rolling news cameras and screams “I’m famous!”, forgetting the seriousness of the situation.
The film does have flaws. It has been criticised for its attitude to women (pretty much every female character of note is depicted as a nagging ‘shrew’ type) while Kluge’s praise for the fast-paced story was tempered by the argument that it resulted in a lack of reflection. Both are valid points; the women (and even the gay lover) are seemingly just there to rile the main character so that we get to see more of Pacino being Sonny as a result, while the film does rattle along without much pause for thought. The energy, though, is part of the enduring charm of Lumet’s film; as with many of this great director’s movies there’s discernible buoyancy throughout, most notably in Pacino’s enjoyably manic performance.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Frank Pierson
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon
Running Time: 119 minutes