In Sidney Lumet‘s gritty heist drama, Al Pacino hadn’t yet become a parody of himself. He’s still a great actor but in some of his recent films, like Heat and The Devil’s Advocate, his acting has taken on a broad, over-the-top quality not found in his earlier work. In Dog Day Afternoon, even standing on the sidewalk, chanting “Attica! Attica!” Pacino never oversells the performance, making Sonny a nuanced and sympathetic character.
Based on an actual bank robbery that took place on August 22, 1972 in Brooklyn, Dog Day Afternoon tells its tale in a restrained, almost documentary-like fashion. Sonny (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer), attempt to rob the bank, taking the bank manager, security guard and several tellers hostage. Stevie chickens out early and Sonny and Sal’s plans are frustrated by poor information about the amount of money in the bank and the early arrival of the police. Outside, Sgt. Moretti (Charles Durning) seems barely in control of his own officers, much less of the gathering crowd or the situation inside the bank.
Sonny sees through Moretti’s negotiating tactics and his open defiance of the police earns him the respect of the unruly crowd watching the spectacle. He demands a jet plane in exchange for the hostages and asks to speak to his wife. The onlookers cheers turn to ugly jeers when it’s learned that Sonny’s “wife” is a pre-operative transsexual named Leon (Chris Sarandon). The robbery was a last-ditch attempt to get money to pay for the operation.
Aside from the police outside, Sonny’s biggest problem is Sal, a squirrelly Vietnam vet who would rather die than go back to prison. One wrong movie by Sonny or the police could be too much for Sal’s itchy trigger finger.
What makes this film especially relevant, even 30 years later, is its keen insight into the nature of media exploitation and mob mentality. The bank tellers are more excited about being on TV than they are scared of Sonny. The same crowd that cheered him as he cussed out the cops throws bottles at the limousine that drives him, Sal and the hostages to the airport. The film never strikes a false note as it manages to portray both sides of the law with a great deal of empathy. The relationship between Sonny and Leon is never exploited for cheap comic effect but is portrayed with a great deal of poignancy by both actors.