Holy moly, Dog Day Afternoon is perfect. From top to bottom, every level of production is firing on all cylinders. The real-life story is automatically engaging by the sheer nature of this sort of thing, and Frank Pierson’s Oscar-winning script mines every ounce of tragedy, tension, and humor from each moment. Lumet’s camera (with bright, crisp cinematography by Victor Kemper) makes the single location feel as expansive or confining as each moment requires. The performances are delightfully batty, with Pacino running the gamut of his wheelhouse from manic and scary to small and pathetic, while John Cazale continues to make me hate terminal illness for robbing our world of so much greatness.
I could rant forever, but I’m mostly interested in breaking down the script. It’s simply perfect.
Umm, spoiler alert?
The thing that stood out to me most while watching Dog Day was the fact that this appears to be the template for all subsequent hostage thrillers. From Inside Man to The Negotiator to Airheads, all of the pieces are there. We just rearrange them differently for each film. We’ve got:
– The hostage takers
– The hostages
– The negotiator & the “system”
– The witnesses
– The wildcard third party
Each of these parties is placed into their own story. The hostage takers are Sonny and Sal, who are in over their heads before the movie even begins. They have half of a plan, a bunch of misinformation, and a wheelman who immediately bails on them. The conflict for them comes from their collective lack of intellect and their struggle to adapt to a volatile situation for which they were never prepared. It’s a classic case of being in over one’s head. The smart move would be for Sonny to cut his losses, but as everything snowballs he instead commits to digging deeper, placing increasingly precarious bandages on his situational wounds.
The hostages also get their own story. Naturally it’s not as fleshed out as Sonny’s but it would have been to the film’s detriment not to acknowledge them. The hostages are mostly female, and it is very clear that they have a pre-existing relationship. The head teller, Sylvia, is given the most weight. She’s the perfect hostage for the news cameras. She’s a pretty blonde who, when given an opportunity to be free from the situation, chooses instead to go back inside “with her girls.” When she does, she’s not too concerned with the gun pointed at she and her colleagues, but more with the fact that she was just on TV. This moment is a great way to double down on the thematic interests of Dog Day as well. Just like Sonny, Sylvia is very much concerned with how she looks to the outside world. The interplay between the hostages (the ranks which include my forever-crush, Carol Kane) is a lot of fun. They all care for one another, and only intermittently do they feel threatened by Sonny and Sal. This proves to be a difficulty for Sonny who, as we eventually learn, is struggling with his own masculinity. He doesn’t want to scare these women, except that he does. He wants to command the situation, but finds that, at least regarding the hostages, a softer touch goes much further. In the instances where tensions do arise, it’s always the women who react with firmness, will Sonny relents.
The negotiator is another classic peace of the hostage movie puzzle. He comes in the form of Moretti, a loud, crass man who it is suggested has been at odds with the “system” for some time. In a world of law enforcement that would just as soon quietly chalk up casualties to collateral damage (Attica! Attica!), a hostage negotiator is seen as a necessary hindrance, especially when cameras are around. Charles Durning crushes this role and admittedly it made me pine for a Chris Farley sketch based on his performance. Unlike this presumed hilarious take on Moretti, the Durning plays him as very capable. He’s good at what he does, and despite being a bit of a slob, he seems to follow what I’ve come to understand as “the book” to the letter. I wonder how much research was done into the real world of hostage negotiation in writing Moretti.
The witnesses prove to be less of a story concern and more of a driving force to the conflict. Hordes of people have descended upon the bank just to watch the action. This results in increased tension amongst law enforcement, as any move they make will be seen by a judgmental party. This also becomes a mitigating factor for Sonny. As he becomes more aware of his sway over the crowd, he grows cockier, sloppier, and unwittingly more volatile.
The final piece of the puzzle is the wildcard third party. Dog Day has two. The first is Leon, Sonny’s gay lover. And as it turns out, Sonny is robbing the bank just to help pay for Leon’s sex change. I wish that this development weren’t included in every plot description, because I think it may be a spoiler. It’s small potatoes, but some of the narrative value is lost. It’s a mid-second act reveal that Sonny is dealing with much higher pressures than the simple need for money filtered through a lens of PTSD. We find out that he’s made a lot of promises to a lot of people all the while juggling some heavy personal secrets. Leon represents Sonny’s soul, but also Sonny’s shame, and his introduction gives us a sudden, clear window into the motivation to rob a bank. Leon also has very well manicured nails, and talks like the mom from Bob’s Burgers, which is funny to me.
The second wildcard is Sonny’s estranged wife, Angie. We aren’t given much to go on regarding the specifics of their strained relationship, but the inclusion of Leon and the mention of Sonny’s children gives us enough insight to figure it out.
The unwillingness to sideline any of these functioning pieces is most of what makes Dog Day Afternoon work so well both in individual moments as well as on the whole. I’d say the total is greater than the sum of its parts, but that would,be a disservice to the parts. In a way it reminds me of Die Hard, in that even the smallest characters are given an appropriately sized arc, and all serve to enrich the story while pushing the plot forward.
A few notes:
– There’s no score. A few snippets of songs appear that are diegetic to the scene, but otherwise, nothing. This helps add to the realism of the film, and forces us to react in the moment as opposed to having the beats telegraphed.
– Pacino almost turned down the role due to exhaustion, but remained on board when he heard that the production was courting Dustin Hoffman, a rival of his, to step in. Hoffman would undoubtedly make a different Sonny, but I imagine he would still find the same truths.
– The editing during the Sal’s final moments (with a young Lance Henriksen) is masterful. Kudos to Dede Allen.
– Dede Allen also served as editor of The Addams Family (1991). Dog Day Afternoon connects to this film in another way: Two actresses from the film, Judith Malina and Carol Kane, played Granny in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, respectively.
– I miss helicopter shots. Drone shots allow for greater flexibility, but helicopter shots have a certain something. The most memorable image from this movie, to me, is just a simple establishing shot of the block. Cops, bystanders, media, all in one helicopter shot, reminiscent of news coverage. It’s a simple beauty.
– For a bank robbery movie, its notable that only two gunshots are fired.
– There’s a substantial portion of the film (roughly 15 minutes) which consists solely of Sonny on the phone first with Leon, and then with Angie. It’s quite literally two phone conversations in a simple one shot. This is where it becomes clear how well the material is married to the talent: Lumet knows to keep it simple, showing only who’s speaking, straight on. The performers manage to ride the ebb and flow of the emotions evenly (which is impressive, knowing that movies aren’t shot like that, and each actor was likely responding to a reader) while remaining very true to their characters. The script exposits and develops cleanly through true-to-life dialogue. It is my understanding that Dog Day Afternoon is one of the very rare instances in which Sidney Lumet allowed improv, and I think it’s this scene that really showcases why he did. For a method actor like Pacino, who really works best when he’s off the chain, you want room for him to flex. It’s a powerhouse scene, and it’s all so basic.
It is my belief that what makes Dog Day Afternoon an enduring classic, and what makes it so darn shameful to have been on my shame list for so long is that it is a testament to the value of film craft. When you have high levels of talent, each with a command the basics of filmic storytelling, it’s impossible to create anything less than a great film. There’s no ego here, just solid craftsmanship.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.