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Review: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Premise: Two men (Al Pacino and John Cazale) rob a bank but when their plan falls apart the police, news media, and the public surround the building. The heist becomes a hostage crisis and the crime scene becomes a circus.

What Works: Sidney Lumet was one of the great American directors and his career crested in the 1970s with movies like Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, and Network. Like a lot of the films to come out of that period, Lumet’s movies were edgy and dealt with topical subjects and ambiguous moral problems. Among Lumet’s films of that time was the 1975 hit Dog Day Afternoon. This picture was based on the true story of a 1972 bank robbery in Brooklyn. Dog Day Afternoon is a work of fiction but it creates a convincing impression of reality, dramatizing these events in a cinema verite style in which the lighting, cinematography, and acting are all very naturalistic. As a result of that style the movie is able to present its characters and conflicts with humanity and nuance. Dog Day Afternoon is led by Al Pacino as Sonny, one of the two bank robbers, and this is one of the actor’s finest performances. Movie criminals are typically portrayed as brutes or evil geniuses. Sonny is not a genius; he’s not even especially smart. But Sonny does have depth and humanity and that makes him the point of identification for the audience. It’s later revealed that Sonny is a bisexual who is robbing the bank to pay for the sex reassignment surgery for his transgender partner Leon, played by Chris Sarandon. The way Dog Day Afternoon deals with this is exceptional. The movie doesn’t leer at Sonny and Leon or make them into queer stereotypes. They are authentic people in desperate circumstances. Like other films of the 1970s, Dog Day Afternoon has an anti-establishment bent but here again the movie is more complex than that label suggests. The chief authority figure of the movie is a hostage negotiator played by Charles Durning and he is nearly as complex as Pacino’s role as Sonny. As the siege continues and draws an audience of onlookers and television reporters, Sonny stirs up the crowd with anti-establishment chants that the audience eats up and parrots back at the police officers. Of course, the bank robbery has little or nothing to do with civil rights and so the film has a subtly sardonic view of the counter culture and the way news media can shape an event. Dog Day Afternoon ends up being a complex tale of personal and political agendas that are mashed up in a way that is authentically messy.

What Doesn’t: A lot of the qualities that distinguish Dog Day Afternoon may make the film challenging for a contemporary audience. The movie’s cinema verite style gives it a raw feel. However, most movies made today, even independent pictures, are more polished and their style directs the viewer’s attention and shapes their emotional responses. Filmmaker Sidney Lumet doesn’t do that. He maintains a critical distance from the events and the characters. As a result the audience has to work a bit harder to engage with the material. Since younger viewers are accustomed to filmmakers spoon feeding them, that can lead to the impression that the film is slow or boring. Dog Day Afternoon isn’t slow and it isn’t boring and the style is appropriate for the movie. But nevertheless it is easy to imagine an audience raised on contemporary movies being confused by the picture. Dog Day Afternoon is also very much a film of 1975 and the movie makes references to events from that time, namely the Attica Prison Riot of 1971, without any further explanation. That’s part of the value of this film; it’s a time capsule of a particular period. But that can also create distance between the movie and a younger audience.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, documentary, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Dog Day Afternoon is a compelling drama and a fascinating time capsule from four decades ago. The film satisfies as a thriller with its terrific filmmaking and great performances but like a lot of movies with a naturalistic style there is something unspoken hovering around the frame that makes the movie haunting.

Episode: #595 (May 22, 2016)