Sidney Lumet directed this 1975 classic that combined a thrilling heist and hostage situation with searing social commentary on police brutality and the three-ring circus mentality of the media. It starred Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik, a desperate Vietnam War veteran who tries robbing a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn.
Pacino delivered an outstanding and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Though he lost out to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pacino’s turn as Sonny was nothing short of brilliant. Lumet received a nod for Best Director, and the film earned one for Best Picture, though only writer Frank Pierson walked away with a statue for his Best Original Screenplay.
It all starts one hot summer afternoon in Brooklyn. First-time criminal Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), his slow-witted partner Sal (John Cazale) and a second accomplice Stevie (Gary Springer) enter a Chase Manhattan bank in hopes of a quick score. But the plan quickly goes south when Stevie chickens out, leaving Sonny and Sal on their own, and the situation rapidly deteriorates from there. Sonny learns that there is barely over $1,000 in the vault and tries to make up for it by stealing the bank’s traveler’s checks. He burns the registry so the checks cannot be traced, which attracts the attention of a neighboring business.
Before they know it, the police have surrounded the bank, trapping Sonny and Sal with the employees. What started as a simple holdup devolves into a tense hostage situation. Enter Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) to act as hostage negotiator while the FBI looks over his shoulder. He convinces Sonny to come outside to see just how may cops are outside and how hopeless his situation is. But Moretti’s attempt to diffuse the situation turns into a protest against police brutality, as Sonny commands the cops to put their guns away amidst shouts of “Attica! Attica!”
Having gotten the crowd on his side, Sonny soon finds himself becoming an instant celebrity when the media begins digging into his life by interviewing his estranged wife (Susan Peretz) and turns the standoff into a three-ring circus. The pressure mounts, as Sonny struggles to control an increasingly volatile situation that includes the revelation of his true motivation: he’s robbing the bank to pay for the sex change operation of his transsexual wife, Leon (Chris Sarandon). Though he manages to negotiate a plane for his escape, Sonny suddenly finds himself dealing with a calculating FBI agent (James Broderick) who clearly intends take him and Sal out.
The Cast of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’
Pacino worked with Lumet once before on another New Hollywood classic, Serpico, where he played an honest cop running afoul of dirty cops when tries to expose police corruption. The actor briefly quit the production and was replaced by Dustin Hoffman, but he returned and delivered the best performance of his career.
John Cazale was an acclaimed theater actor before turning into a prominent character actor with his role as Fredo Corleone in The Godfather. He only made four more films in the decade before succumbing to terminal bone cancer, three of which starred Pacino, who considered Cazale a close friend and career acting partner.
The BackstoryOn Aug. 25, 1972, former bank teller John Wojtowicz and two accomplices attempted to rob a Brooklyn Chase Manhattan bank in order to help pay for the sex reassignment surgery of Wojtowicz’s transsexual wife, Ernest Aron. But instead of a clean getaway, Wojtowicz and his partner Salvatore Naturile were forced into a grueling seven-hour hostage situation with the arrival of police.
Wojtowicz in part based his plan on scenes he had seen in The Godfather earlier in the day. Of course, irony is not lost when Pacino later starred as Wojtowicz in this film. Though he became an instant celebrity, Wojtowicz was caught and sentenced to 20 years, and served 14 in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Naturile was shot and killed by the FBI.
Aron received her surgery after Wojtowicz sold the film rights and earned one percent of the profits from Dog Day Afternoon. She became Elizabeth Eden and died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Wojtowicz was released in earlier that year and died in 2006 from cancer at 60 years old.
The Director of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’
Sidney Lumet was one of the most revered directors of the latter-20th century and did his best work in the 1970s, which included Serpico, Network and Murder on the Orient Express.
In the previous decades, he earned a reputation as a consummate professional adept at drawing top-notch performances from his leading cast in classics like 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Pawnbroker.
Lumet was unique for employing a gritty, economical style and strong socially conscious themes to create thought-provoking films that were also commercial hits. He was nominated for four Best Director Oscars, but failed to win, though he did receive an Honorary Award in 2004.
The Bottom Line
Dog Day Afternoon epitomizes the Golden Age of the 1970s. It’s sparse, gritty, socially conscious, violent, well-acted, and in the end tragic. Pacino was never better and neither was Lumet. The film showcases all at the height of their powers. This one is not to be missed.
Recommended for YouIf you like Dog Day Afternoon, check out the other Sidney Lumet-Al Pacino collaboration, Serpico, or Lumet’s Oscar-winning television satire, Network.
‘Dog Day Afternoon’ At a GlanceYear: 1975
Director: Sidney Lumet
Running Time: 125 mins.
Studio: Warner Bros.