Appellate Judge Dave Ryan wants to discourage you from robbing banks to pay for your partner's sex change. Instead, he offers quite attractive financing terms for qualified borrowers.
"I'm dyin' here, you know? I'm dyin'."
It is closing time Tuesday, August 22, at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn, a modest, modern structure sitting on a quiet corner at Avenue P and East Third Street. Calvin Jones, a uniformed (and unarmed) bank guard, begins locking the doors behind departing customers. Shirley Ball, a teller, starts her final tally of the day's receipts. And bank manager Robert Barrett looks up from a couple of loan applications to see a sandy-haired, baby-faced young man nervously approaching his desk.
"Are you Mr. Barrett?"
"I'm Mr…" Barrett doesn't quite catch the name. The young man sits down at his desk, however, and manages to pronounce his next couple sentences a little more clearly.
"Freeze," says the visitor, whose name is Sal Naturile. "This is a holdup. I'm not alone."
Behind the tellers' counter, Shirley Ball taps away at her adding machine, engrossed in the figures on the tape. It takes a commotion from across the room, the clear shout of an obscenity, to snap her attention. Who would use language like that in a bank? Shirley Ball looks up and sees her boss at his desk, a gun at his head, his hands in the air and a what-can-I-do? expression on his face. Now she spots the second robber, John Wojtowicz, a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman, heading into the tellers' area with an attaché case.
Wojtowicz begins filling the case with $37,951 in cash, $175,150 in traveler's checks—not as much as he and his partner hoped for, but enough of a modest winning to reverse two lifetimes of steady losing.
So began "The Boys in the Bank," a Life Magazine article from September of 1972 written by Thomas Moore and P.F. Kluge. (The latter went on to write, among other things, the novel Eddie and the Cruisers, which was adapted into the film of the same name.) The subject matter—New York City's first true hostage situation, a botched bank robbery by Wojtowicz and Naturile that turned into a day-long standoff—had been the talk of the town for the summer. For not only had the robbery gone south quickly due to the sad ineptness of its perpetrators, but Wojtowicz was gay, and his male "wife" had played a big role in the soap opera that played out that day in Brooklyn. Wojtowicz, a former soldier who also had a first, female wife and kids, went from desperate hothead to folk hero to arrested felon in the space of a day. His hostages, in what has since been dubbed the "Stockholm Syndrome," became his biggest boosters. Naturile, a pretty but angry and sullen 18-year-old whose main crime was trusting Wojtowicz, wound up dead. As per usual, NYC and its citizens got over it and moved on.
Ironically (given the description of Wojtowicz penned by Moore and Kluge), the Life article was picked up by Hollywood and made into a film starring none other than Al Pacino. The project reunited Pacino—at that point, one of the hottest stars in Hollywood, thanks to his award-winning turn in the Godfather films—with "actor's director" Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Network), who had recently directed him in Serpico. With a hand-picked cast, including veterans Charles Durning (Tootsie), James "I'm Matt's Dad" Broderick (Family), and Pacino's acting soulmate John Cazale (The Deer Hunter), a taut, crisp script from Frank Pierson (Cat Ballou, The Anderson Tapes, A Star is Born), and an on-location New York City shoot, the film was marked for greatness from the start.
And greatness it delivered. Dog Day Afternoon is one of the truly great films of contemporary American cinematic history; a perfectly-acted, perfectly-plotted pressure cooker of a film. But for its horrible timing, it would likely be one of the most decorated films in Academy Awards history. Instead, it had the misfortune to premiere in one of the richest years for quality films in the past forty years—its competitors for Best Picture at the 1976 Oscars were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, Barry Lyndon, and Nashville. Instead of racks of Oscars, it had to settle for a Best Original Screenplay statue, and the honor of just being nominated (in five other major categories).
As part of its "Controversial Classics" series, Warner Bros. has released a "Special Edition" of Dog Day Afternoon, superseding a 1997 bare-bones DVD release of the film. Although the package as a whole is underwhelming, the film itself overcomes any reasonable doubt as to a purchase. If you're serious about film, you absolutely have to own this one.
Facts of the Case
It's a hot, lazy August day in Brooklyn. The rollicking blues of Elton John's "Amoreena" (from Tumbleweed Connection, if you're curious) echo from the AM radio of a car parked outside a small bank branch. Looking nervously nonchalant, two men—whom we will soon know as Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (Cazale)—enter the bank. Before long, Sal has pulled a gun on the branch manager, and Sonny is spray-painting the security cameras. A robbery has begun.
However, Sonny and Sal aren't the brightest criminals in the world. Disorganized and rattled, they tarry too long in the bank, giving the police time to respond. When an old-school police captain (Durning) arrives and demands their surrender, Sonny and Sal are forced to change their plans. They take the bank personnel hostage, demanding that the government provide them with a helicopter and a fueled jet, which will fly them out of the country.
For the next twelve hours, a mini-drama plays itself out inside and outside the bank. We learn the motive behind the bank robbery: Sonny needs money to pay for his gay lover's sex change operation. Leon, the lover (Chris Sarandon, The Princess Bride), is one part mincing queen, one part Queens housewife, and one part exasperated friend. His main concern isn't Sonny's well-being; it's getting Sonny on the record as saying that he, Leon, wasn't involved in the robbery. Sal is brooding and frightening in his silence; when he does speak, he reveals himself to be very unintelligent, but extremely complex. He's also clearly on a hair-trigger; he's as menacing as Sonny is engaging. And Sonny is an engaging criminal—he's almost desperate to please, even as he's threatening these people's lives.
Surprisingly, the NYPD is almost as inept at handling the situation as Sonny and Sal. They fail to control the ever-increasing crowds of spectators gathering around the scene—now being covered live by several New York radio and TV stations, nor do they have any real plan on how to negotiate with Sonny. Hoping that Leon can talk him out of the bank, they bring him to the scene. He promptly faints, further adding to the multi-ring circus. Since a bank is involved, the Feds technically have jurisdiction; before long, an FBI agent-in-charge (Broderick) is on the scene, with a calm demeanor and a plan involving the mysterious Agent Murphy (Lance Aliens Henriksen, in his first major motion picture role). As the situation slowly builds to its violent climax, we come to pity Sonny and Sal, two men who just didn't fit in. They are criminals of the worst kind: ones who, deep down, aren't truly bad people.
There's just too much to say about this movie. I could sit here for hours and type literally thousands of words about it. Do I discuss the beauty of seeing Pacino at the absolute height of his powers, paired with a director who knew how to pull every drop of talent out of him? Do I praise Lumet, one of the great (and relatively unsung, compared to his peers) directors of recent times, and place the film in its proper context as part of his unbelievable run of quality in the '70s and early '80s (Serpico, this film, Network, Murder on the Orient Express, Equus, Deathtrap, and The Verdict)? Do I highlight the incredibly overlooked Chris Sarandon, who takes Leon—who could have been just a "fag" caricature—and turns him into possibly the first realistic and sympathetic openly gay character in cinema? I think he was—I just haven't done the research to back up such an assertion. (Note, too, that both Sarandon and Cuckoo's Brad Dourif gave outstanding, Oscar-nominated supporting performances in their very first film roles, in the very same year—but both lost out to a "let's give him one before he croaks" award to George Burns for The Sunshine Boys. Stupid Oscars.) Should I shout out crazee madd propz to Pierson's script, which is a textbook example of how a strong, coherent structure (the entire film is built around twelve core scene sequences) enhances and amplifies the dramatic heft of a story?
None of the above. I'm going to do something I've wanted to do for a long time. I'm going to talk about John Cazale.
Cazale is, quite simply, the greatest supporting actor I've ever seen. Few people know his name, but everyone knows him. They just know him as Fredo, the black sheep of the Corleone family. Cazale made only five films in his too-brief career, cut short by his death from bone cancer in 1978 at the age of 42. All of them were nominated for Best Picture. Three of them won (the two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter); one (The Conversation) was beaten by one of his three winners (The Godfather: Part II).
Cazale and Pacino had known each other since high school. They would, in the space of three films, become possibly the greatest acting tandem of their era, carving their performances deep into America's psyche. The kiss. The rowboat. The window. You know exactly what I'm talking about—it's part of our shared culture now. Had Cazale lived, there's no telling where these two would have taken us. Pacino hasn't really been the same since John Cazale's death; sometime around Cruising or Scarface, I think he stopped being a frighteningly talented actor, and started just being Al Pacino. Today, with very rare exceptions, he's almost a self-caricature.
But I digress. Cazale was brought into Dog Day Afternoon at Pacino's request, despite the obvious fact that he wasn't exactly an 18-year-old. Lumet, in his commentary, notes that he didn't even want to read Cazale, because he was so obviously inappropriate for the Sal part. Pacino prevailed upon him to reconsider, which he did. Lumet says that it took him about five minutes to hire Cazale—his reading was that good. In real life, Sal Naturile was somewhat of a cipher. He was violent, and apparently easily manipulated. But that's about all anyone knew about him. Cazale turns his version of Sal into a deep and complex character—and does so despite having virtually no lines to work with.
There's one scene that perfectly summarizes Cazale's brilliance. Sonny has convinced the cops to procure a jet for them; now they need to decide where they're going to flee. Sonny asks Sal what country he wants to go to. Cazale looks at Pacino with all his natural sadness etched on his face, plus a dash of confusion, and says, quietly, "Wyoming."
That one word, combined with Cazale's delivery (which is impossible to accurately describe in words), tells us almost everything we need to know about Sal. Sal is, clearly, dumb. But he probably knows he's dumb, and it embarrasses him. More importantly, Sal is very, very simple. He probably doesn't truly understand what he's gotten himself into; he's just relying on Sonny to tell him what to do. He is, in the truest sense of the word, pathetic. Although he still scares us, we can't help but pity him.
One word. That's all it took John Cazale to turn Sal from a cipher into a real, and pitiable, human being. I had already decided to mention this scene when, while listening to Lumet's commentary, I learned that Cazale had improvised that one word. Sal was supposed to be nonresponsive to Sonny's questions. Instead, Cazale came up with "Wyoming." Pacino's response is also improvised—and completely natural, because he was taken completely by surprise. It really doesn't get much better than this.
I don't want to give short shrift to the other actors in this film. Pacino is, as mentioned, at the absolute top of his form here. Sarandon is a revelation. (Sadly, much like Dourif, he's never really equaled this, his first performance, since—he's actually done more stage work than film work.) Durning, Broderick, and the non-big-name supporting cast are all very good in their roles. Everything feels very real and natural, true to Lumet's form.
Besides Lumet's commentary, which is informative and engaging, there's a solid "30th Anniversary" documentary included, which covers all phases of the movie's development and filming. It's a substantial documentary, although it does rehash a lot of the factoids that Lumet mentions in the commentary. A second featurette, a contemporaneous puff piece called "Lumet: Film Maker," is less substantial, but vaguely interesting. The film's theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Bros. has done nothing with this film. The transfer appears to be the same anamorphic transfer from the 1997 disc—at least I hope it's the same transfer, because I'd hate to think that a new transfer of a not-terribly-ancient film would look this grainy and weak. It's not horrible, mind you; but it looks like a '70s film. Really good digitally-cleaned-up transfers of contemporaneous films—say, Jaws—look practically new. This film should look the same, but it doesn't. It's also in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which (I believe) is cropped from the original theatrical widescreen aspect. (But hey—at least it's anamorphic.) Color me disappointed.
The sound is nothing to write home about, either—but it's hard to criticize Warner Bros. for keeping the original mono soundtrack intact. There's no real need to fancy up the sound with a faux surround mix or the like, to be honest. The film is solid dialogue, save for "Amoreena" at the very beginning. The track is clear, and gets the job done.
There's only one way I can close here, and it's to say something I've never said about a film before. I can think of no way in which Dog Day Afternoon could be improved. There is no such thing as perfect in our world…but this film is damn close.
Guilty of armed robbery; not guilty on all other counts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Sidney Lumet
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