dog day Afternoon Artwork by Mister G

Dog Day Afternoon

Director: Sidney Lumet / DP: Victor J. Kemper / Editor: Dede Allen / Writer: Frank Pierson (from an article by P.F. Kluge & Thomas Moore).

Cast: Penelope Allen / John Cazale / Al Pacino / James Broderick / Lance Henriksen / Chris Sarandon / Judith Malina / Susan Peretz / Charles Durning

Year: 1975

Money’s Too Tight To Mention…

On August 22nd, 1972, small-time villain John Wojtowicz, together with two colleagues, Salvatore Naturale and Robert Westenberg (known respectively as ‘Sonny’, ‘Sal’ & ‘Stevie’ in the picture), walked into a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, with the intention of robbing it. Stevie bailed on the enterprise before it began, apparently having been spooked at the sight of a police cruiser on the street outside. That left just Sal & Sonny to follow-through, which they did: and with (predictably) severe consequences. As ring-leader, Sonny’s motivation was to fund a sex-change operation for one Elizabeth Eden, with whom he’d become involved, following the end of his ‘conventional’ marriage: as reasons go, it’s certainly ‘out there’…

Sidney Lumet’s accomplished picture, Dog Day Afternoon, dramatises the key events of that day and uses as its template, an article written for LIFE magazine by Kluge & Moore, that shed light on the dynamic-duo’s backgrounds, as well as the robbery itself. This was optioned by producer Martin Bregman, following a description in the article that compared Wojtowicz’s appearance to Pacino’s. As luck had it, Bregman had already featured Pacino in his first movie as producer: Serpico (1973) and had a good working relationship with the actor, as he did with Serpico’s director – Sidney Lumet. At first however, Pacino wasn’t interested. Tired after a gruelling shoot on The Godfather II (1974), Pacino wanted a rest but, at Bregman’s urging, he read an initial draft by Frank Pierson, who’d adapted the article into a punchy screenplay.

With Lumet now attached to the project – and after being enthused by a closer read of the material – Pacino came aboard (reputedly his decision to join the movie, was driven only by a desire to deny his rival Dustin Hoffman). Other cast members were found, thanks to their theatrical connections with Pacino and Lumet rehearsed the ensemble for a generous three weeks prior to shooting, which allowed him to block-out scenes and generate improvised dialogue into the bargain; the better for naturalism in key exchanges. He also found the ideal setting: an empty garage just a few streets from the site of the real robbery, that was dressed & lit so effectively, that unsuspecting locals even tried to open accounts there… This created a convincing mise-en-scéne that only looked better as night fell.

The picture opens with a montage of scenes showing vignettes of the city during one of those long, ‘dog days’ of summer. We see old men out in the park. Kids playing in a street. A beat-up old car parked outside a bank. People shopping. Wait. Go back… A car outside a bank? Lumet has already begun the film, but we blinked and missed it…

Three men get out of the car with a minute or two between them. They saunter into the bank (a branch of the fictitious ‘First Brooklyn Savings’) and pretend not to know each other. Pretty soon, one of them (Stevie) is leaving Sonny & Sal behind, just after Sal’s pulled a gun on the manager and Sonny’s rounding-up the tellers. To see the ham-fisted way in which Sonny pulls his gun from a gift-wrapped flower box, only to see it snag on the ribbon, tells us how things are likely to go for these clowns from here-on. I should also mention that the bungling over Stevie’s exit is a hoot: getting the guard to unlock the front door for their departing colleague-in-crime, then having Sonny remember to ask for the car keys is genuinely funny (despite first impressions, there’s more than enough unexpected humour in the piece, but I suppose it had to be there, to leaven the otherwise grim tone).

Now to business. Sonny regains his composure and, thanks to the (already bemused) staff, gains access to the safe: but there’s only $1100 there: it seems he was given duff information about the collection date… So, he’s now forced to collect the loose change from the counters, and it’s here that Lumet tells us about Sonny’s previous employment in a bank: he knows about the rolls of marked bills kept in the drawers for such an occasion. Sonny’s biggest mistake of the day however, is when he sets fire to the bank’s ledger in a waste basket, as the (vented) smoke attracts the attention of a nearby shopkeeper who, unconvinced by the manager’s evasive denial of trouble, calls the police. All too soon, it seems as if half of Brooklyn’s finest have surrounded the bank: it’s a beautiful summer’s day, after all. Nothing else is going on, so why not rubberneck a bank siege?

Lumet builds on the sense of ‘groups’ now, by adding two more, in addition to the police and those inside the bank. First, is the Press who swarm in and out of the police lines, desperate to ‘scoop’ the competition. The last, are the civilian onlookers. Although held at-bay by police barriers, the crowd is a constant in the drama that unfolds, responding to developments – and to rousing from Sonny – like a Greek chorus. Lumet keeps these groups silo’d from each other until the final reel, which is harder than it sounds when you consider that they’re ALL reacting to Sonny. Then again, he shoots the picture from Sonny’s POV, which gives him licence to ignore the bigger picture when he has to. For example, take the (unscripted) chanting by Sonny of ‘Attica! Attica!’ at the crowd and their complicit responses. At the time, ‘Attica’ was still regarded as a low-point in the already-dismal annals of US police brutality, being an incident from 1971, in which State Police had quelled a riot at Attica Prison, in the state of New York, with the loss of 43 lives.

In using its memory to rouse the crowd (not all of whom were extras), Pacino hoped for – and got – passionate cries in return: one of many moments of Pure Cinema in this movie. In fact, the more I think of the picture, the more I think it could work as a silent film, so expressive are its actors and so linear its story-arc.

While Sonny’s wrestling with a realisation that the day might end, err, badly, for he and Sal, it’s actually Sal – quiet, introverted Sal – who appears to be struggling hardest with the way things are spinning out of control. John Cazale had acted alongside Pacino in The Godfather (1973) and it was Pacino who recommended him for the thankless role of Sal. Although much older than the character’s real-life counterpart, Cazale brought an intensity to the role that matched Pacino’s beat-for-beat. There’s one powerful scene, where Sal is talking with Sylvia, one of the tellers, about his reasons not to smoke cigarettes and Cazale’s brooding self-opinion is so pointed in its delivery, you can see how he got the part (ironically, this talented actor was to die from lung cancer just a few years later).

Another of Lumet’s groups – the Police – are led by Charles Durning as Moretti. As the first senior detective in attendance, he opened negotiations with Sonny, in the hope of reaching a favourable outcome. As he says to Sonny: ‘You’re in there. We’re out here. What happens now?’ A phrase that tells us much about his lack of training for situations such as this: how else to explain the fluid nature of the chaotic police presence, or the ability of the press to breach their ‘thin blue lines’? Moretti is rumpled, overweight and shlubby: the epitome of a tough ‘street cop’, who’s seen much, but who’s experience leaves him ill-equipped for the situation. Durning plays him with a degree of sympathy that I found endearing; he’s an honest broker trying his best in a situation he can’t control: hence why the Feds are quick to arrive.

Chief among the FBI suits (a group-within-a-group) is James Broderick as Sheldon and a young Lance Henriksen as sidekick Murphy. Lumet depicts the FBI as the calm, almost placid ‘grown-ups’ come to sort out the mess made by the children…

The key to drawing-out Pacino’s best work of the film, came with the arrival of Leon (Chris Sarandon), Sonny’s ‘husband’ (and the film’s version of Ms. Eden). At first, Leon talks to a smirking Moretti about the cost of his sex-change op. and why that might’ve been the reason behind Sonny’s actions. After some persuasion, Leon calls Sonny and they have an electrifying exchange of devastating banality that left this viewer dabbing at a speck of dust in his eye… Lumet begins this, by squeezing Leon into a tight corner of the frame and moving the camera around s-l-o-w-l-y, so as to pile-on claustrophobic layers of meaning to Sarandon’s pathos.

But it’s Sonny, who comes out of the exchange a little more broken and drained than before. Lumet opted to shoot two calls by Sonny in one take, knowing that Pacino would come out of the first call (to Angie, his shrew of a wife) in no frame of mind to talk candidly to his lover – yet at the end of a blistering first take, he got Pacino to go again and this time, the pain and disillusioned anguish in Sonny’s tone & demeanour are almost tangible.

Sonny’s relationship with Leon is key, then, for he’s a man struggling with a secret identity: he’s a gay man in a macho world & culture that can’t accept him as such (1972 was a different time, even in Brooklyn). So, he does the only thing he can think of, to grant his lover’s dearest wish: he robs a bank.

Had he gotten away with it, that would’ve led to another unraveling some way-off in the future, but he didn’t: so it all falls over on a Dog Day Afternoon…

Six nods for Oscars, yet in a year that favoured One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only Pierson would emerge with a gong.

What a picture.

Sonny: Is there any special country you want to go to?

Sal: Wyoming.

Dog Day Afternoon  Triple Word / Score: Claustrophobic / Sultry / Volatile / Eight

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