Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon ★★★★½

"See I'm with a guy who don't know where Wyoming is. You think you got problems?"

On the 22nd of August in 1972, John Wojtowicz, Salvatore Naturile and (briefly) Robert Westenberg strove to rob a Chase Manhattan bank branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Antsy from the onset, Westenberg fled the holdup in its initial stage after seeing a police car drive by. While Wojtowicz had some background working as a teller and Naturile (though barely an adult) was a repeat criminal offender, neither of them had any experience with armed robbery, and mishaps proliferated quickly, leading to a massive swell of police attention. The maladroit bandits responded by detaining the bank's staff as hostages, and a raucous, protracted standoff ensued until a negotiated settlement took the entire party on a harrowing shuttle ride to a getaway jet.

Dog Day Afternoon is the stuff of dreams for the ripped-from-the-headlines sort of producer, especially given the peculiarity of Wojtowicz's reputed motive for the crime. While separated from his wife (Wojtowicz remained married with two children), he had recently met and married a trans woman named Elizabeth Eden. Subsequently Eden made a number of suicide attempts motivated by her desolation at not being able to afford gender affirming surgery, thus prompting Wojtowicz's desperate heist. The combined novelty and poignancy of these circumstances would be remarkable today, let alone the 1970s.

Director Sidney Lumet recognized that the story as told by Life magazine had enough white-knuckle DNA that it didn't require much tampering. Accordingly there are no hidden light sources, no musical score, very little in the way of set dressing and hardly any ancillary subplots. Clearly Lumet was more concerned with conveying the immediacy of the incident than with stylizing it. "The first obligation was to let the audience know that the event had really happened." The lack of filmic clutter promotes a spirit of realism and helps the narrative move with great efficiency.

With no frills much is riding on the performances, and the actors rise to the occasion as they tended to for Lumet. Al Pacino is fully engrossing as Sonny (Wojtowicz), toggling manically between mannered neurosis and no-fucks-remaining braggadocio. The tragically short-lived John Cazale gives one of his least expressive but most effective performances as Sal (Naturile), a chilling black-box of repressed trauma and feral instincts. Charles Durning is terrific as the paunchy local police sergeant shouting himself hoarse trying to manage the situation, finally effecting something of a rapport with Sonny only to be undercut at the eleventh hour by an icy Fed (James Broderick).

Additional points for Chris Sarandon's amazing cameo as Sonny's new wife, which ranges from hilarious to sorrowful in a matter of seconds.

Some stray notes:
-SONNY I'M GETTING REALLY BAD VIBES
-WE GOT YOU COMPLETELY BY THE BALLS
-WHAT A FUCKIN' COMEDY
-SEE WHAT THEY DID IN ATTICA?
-I DON'T WANNA TALK TO SOME FLUNKY PIG TRYIN' TO CON ME
-HE WANTS TO KILL ME SO BAD HE CAN TASTE IT!
-DO YOU BELIEVE IN KEEPING YOUR PROMISES?
-I'M FLYIN' TO THE TROPICS—FUCK THE SNOW!
-OH MY GOD—THEY SHOT ME WITH, LIKE, UNREAL
-HE'S BEEN CRAZY ALL SUMMER
-SEVEN BRIDESMAIDS—ALL MALE
-A CASE OF SHEER EXHIBITIONISM
-NOBODY GIVE YOUR RIGHT NAME—IT'S THE F.B.I.
-YOU KNOW THE PRESSURES I BEEN HAVIN'
-WHY ARE YOU GOING TO ALGERIA?
-THANKS A LOT AND BON VOYAGE
-TALK TO ME ABOUT LOVE—GO AHEAD
-OUT OF THE CLOSET AND INTO THE STREET
-I TOLD THEM YOU WERE WITH GOLDWATER IN '64

In my New York movies ranked list.

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