Riveting from its first frame to its last and infused with equal measures of humor and tragedy, Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece of closely observed character dynamics and meticulous dramaturgy. It also contains two of the most powerful performances of the ’70s, from leading man Al Pacino and co-star John Cazale, to say nothing of one of the decade’s most memorable moments, the “Attica, Attica!” bit in which Pacino riles up a crowd gathered around the movie’s central location by invoking a then-recent tragedy at a New York prison.
The story is a riff on a real-life bank robbery that was comitted by crooks with unusual motivations. Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, an intense ne’er-do-well who recruits his dim-witted buddy, Sal (Cazale), to help with a brazen heist in broad daylight. The robbery quickly evolves into a hostage situation as cops, led by Sgt. Moretti (Charles Durning), congregate outside the bank. Then, as we watch various communications between Sonny and the outside world, we discover why he planned the heist: for money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. So, while the anxious afternoon darkens into an excruciating evening, viewers develop deep compassion for Sonny’s peculiar plight—on top of everything else, he’s married to a woman and doesn’t want to hurt her, even though his heart belongs to Leon (Chris Sarandon).
Working from a Frank Pierson’s Oscar-winning script and guided by Sidney Lumet’s sure directorial hand, Pacino reveals dimension upon dimension of his offbeat character, never once making a cheap ploy for audience sympathy; the actor illustrates such deep and profound emotional truths, through behavior and dialogue and physical carriage, that Sonny feels like a living and breathing human being in every scene. The performance is not for every taste (the Method-y screaming and general demonstrativeness is a turn-off for some viewers), but it’s impossible not to recognize Pacino’s work as some of the most impassioned and meticulous performance ever committed to film.
Cazale, the haunted-looking Bostonian who died at age 42 after appearing in just five films (all of which were nominated for Oscars as Best Picture), is terrific as Sal, a slow everyman who can barely grasp what’s happening at any given moment, much less the future implications of his actions; in the classic moment, he’s asked what country he would like to flee to after the robbery, and he says, “Wyoming.” Durning offers humanistic support as a cop trying to keep a bad situation from exploding, Sarandon is funny and sensitive during his brief appearance as Sonny’s lover, and a young Lance Henriksen shows up toward the end of the movie.
But it’s almost completely Pacino’s show, or, more accurately, Pacino’s and Lumet’s. As they did to an only slightly lesser degree on Serpico (1973), the two men lock into each other’s creative frequencies perfectly—Lumet creates complex, lifelike situations to frame Pacino’s emotional explorations, and Pacino fills Lumet’s frames with as much vitality as they can contain. Detractors might argue that the movie drags a bit in the middle, but because each scene enriches our understanding of Sonny’s inner life and his strange predicament, complaining about too much of a good thing seems petty—few movies offer as much in the way of believable pathos and varied tonalities as Dog Day Afternoon, and few movies sustain such a high level of artistry and craft for the entire running time. Exciting, frightening, moving, surprising, and unique, Dog Day Afternoon is as good as it gets in ’70s cinema.
Dog Day Afternoon: OUTTA SIGHT