Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


Still the quintessential New York movie to me, maybe because I lived mostly in Brooklyn. (My last apartment was about a mile and a half from where the film was shot). No big mystery why—the opening sequence (which I always forget features no credits until the very end, and which provided my first inkling that there was more to Elton John than his greatest hits album) serves up doc-style images of the city that are so pungent you can practically smell them. And of course much of what happens outside the bank feeds on the crowd's pugnacious energy, with Sonny repeatedly manipulating the police by playing to onlookers. But it's really Pacino's entire manically anxious performance that evokes New York. Sonny's in constant motion throughout, desperately trying to stave off disaster; even on the rare occasion when he's standing still, his eyes are darting around the room, seeking out the next inevitable problem. It's like watching a nervous breakdown that never quite does fully break down, and something about the way that Sonny feels existentially beset by an absurd situation that he himself created—about his combination of can-do initiative and why-me? futility—reads very specifically NYC to me. So, too, does the film's matter-of-fact acceptance of gender dysphoria, the existence of which was barely even publicly acknowledged at the time. I'm not in a position to say whether Dog Day Afternoon treats Leon with respect (for one thing, it calls her Leon), but the character certainly isn't reduced to a cheap punchline, as might easily have been the case. Even the cops take this development largely in stride. Just another day in New York. Nothing they haven't seen before.

Lumet deserves enormous credit for engineering this vibe. He shoots the first half of the film practically in real time—49 minutes elapse before we see a clear temporal leap (when the cops retrieve Angie). The camera is mobile without ever being flashy, seeming to respond on the fly when things happen, yet always in the right place at the right time. (It's the formal equivalent of acting that looks improvised but has actually been strenuously rehearsed, which almost always plays better than actual on-camera improv.) Some glorious moments—Sonny getting momentarily startled when he backs into a potted plant stuck in the corner of the bank's vestibule; Sonny and Sal trying to talk from a distance but losing each other behind support columns—could be happy accidents or scripted chaos, with roughly equal probability. And the overall loose-limbed approach, applied to a tightly-wound personality, makes sudden deviations from that aesthetic really count. Dede Allen generally maintains a measured pace, allowing plenty of breathing room; when Sonny fires his gun in response to an attempted police entry in the back, however, she cuts 14 times in eight seconds. Not only does this work like gangbusters, but it foreshadows the conclusion of Sonny's adventure, which similarly features 21 cuts (the last seven of them almost subliminal) in about 20 seconds. That can be remarkably effective when employed sparingly and with purpose.

The ending otherwise remains frustrating. It feels needlessly beholden to the real-life story (even though numerous names and details were altered—Sal was only 18, for example, whereas John Cazale was almost 40), and largely divorced from the anti-authoritarian dynamic that fuels most of the movie. One of my pet peeves is people who get up and exit the theater at the precise moment that a film's plot gets resolved, as if nothing that follows could possibly be of any importance; Dog Day Afternoon basically imposes that move on us, abruptly ending as soon as we know everyone's fate. There's no poetry to it, no food for thought. I'd have preferred some whole-cloth invention, perhaps predicated on Sonny misunderstanding the nature of his ostensible fan club's allegiance. This time, though, I did experience a little frisson from the sheer blunt finality of that denouement: Sonny's complete silence and thousand-yard stare; the whining of jet engines in the background, forcing everyone else to shout; Sal's corpse unceremoniously wheeled past Sonny and around a corner; no music; remarkably terse where-are-they-now? text; minimal closing credits; continuing ambient tarmac noise suddenly terminated by a hard cut to black (at a time when that was fairly unusual). It does feel harsh, and that was surely the idea.