Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

As it is the end of the month, some of my movies will be going off Netflix Instant Watch, so here we are.

Aside from bits and pieces that I’d read about this film, I went in with very little expectations or pre-conceived notions of what I was in for.  Sonny (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) are intent on robbing a bank.  Right as the robbery starts though, Stevie chickens out and takes the getaway car.  It becomes quite clear that this is their first robbery, as Sonny seems to improvise almost everything he’s doing.

There are many missteps throughout the early part when the actual robbery takes place.  Stevie leaves abruptly, there is very little money in the safe as it had been picked up earlier in the day by a money transport service.  Sonny gets travelers checks and lights the ledger for those checks on fire.  The fire and subsequent smoke that went out of the building alerted other local business owners that something was up.  All of a sudden the police arrive and it moves from a robbery to a hostage situation.

This film was based, supposedly, on a true story of a bank robbery that took place in Brooklyn.  It was in the early 70s, the main characters were Vietnam veterans, and as war tends to do to soldiers, they had changed drastically.  There are a few cutaway scenes with Sonny’s mom and wife where they describe him to the police and how he had changed.  A large crowd forms outside the bank, news crews arrive, and a vast majority of the movie is spent dealing with the exchanges between Sonny and the police, while Sal stands guard with the hostages.

It’s interesting to look back on the time period this movie takes place and how quickly the crowd polarizes and changes throughout the standoff.  It’s revealed that Sonny is robbing this bank to be able to pay for a sex-change operation for his lover and ‘wife’ Leon (Chris Sarandon, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).  This elicits some chuckles from the police, and whistles and teasing from the crowd as Sonny frisks various people who enter the bank for various reasons.

Dog Day Afternoon came out the year after The Godfather: Part II, and Pacino was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in each film.  He lost both times: to Robert De Niro in 75 and Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in 76.  I thought he was incredibly annoying and ill-prepared for the robbery, and the scatter-brained logic and way of making things up got a little redundant, but once the film became about the hostage situation a lot of that seemed to calm down.  His performance late in the film, specifically when he has one of the bank tellers write out a will for him, shows the balance and acting range Pacino had at this time.

While he was in a supporting role, I found Sal’s character to be almost if not more intriguing thank Sonny.  The way John Cazale carried himself in this film I think speaks to something of a lost art in Hollywood.  His presence in the film: the facial expressions, tone and attitude of his voice, really bring to life Sal’s character and adds so much depth.  Sidney Lumet was very skeptical when Pacino suggested he take the role.  Lumet thought he was too old, and just wasn’t a good fit.  He quickly changed his mind once they read together.  There’s a line in the film where Sonny asks Sal what country they should flee to, and Cazale improvised “Wyoming,” even though he was just supposed to remain silent in the script.

Something unique I learned about John Cazale is that he has a unique distinction.  Every one of the films he was in ended up being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  While his role in The Godfather: Part III was archived footage and was released twelve years after his death.  Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter are all part of the 501 Must See Movies Project, so I look forward to re-watching or watching his performances in each of these films.

Overall I enjoyed this film.  I found it dragged at times.  When it felt like I was getting to the end of the movie and checked the time, I was really only about halfway through the film.  I was not expecting most of the film to take place in the bank, as I said I knew little about Dog Day Afternoon when I first watched, but I think that adds a lot.  It reminds me of something like Twelve Angry Men where the movie takes place in one spot.  They do a good job with this one place though.  I probably won’t see this one again, but it’s nice to have a reminder of how good John Cazale was as an actor, and there was a time in Al Pacino’s career where he did great films and was far better than he’s been recently.

My Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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