I first saw Dog Day Afternoon when I was in high school- it was a time in my life when I forced my family to sit through countless gangster and detective movies in order to feed my growing infatuation with Al Pacino. I assumed that I was sitting down to watch an average heist movie, and to see Pacino at his dreamiest. Only one of these assumptions was true, and I would implore you to look at the screenshot below and guess which one.
Dog Day Afternoon is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, a man who robbed a Brooklyn bank to obtain money for his lover’s sex change operation. The robbery failed and became a hostage situation and a media circus. Al Pacino plays Sonny, the character based on Wojtowicz, and John Cazale plays his accomplice, Sal. The film starts with the robbery, which quickly goes awry and hundreds of police officers surround the bank. The film focuses on Sonny’s negotiations with Police Detective Sargent Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning,) and his attempts to regain control of the situation by demanding a jet out of the country in exchange for the hostages.
Dog Day Afternoon is unique for its many unusual filmmaking decisions. Beyond the intro credits, the film has no score. Much of the dialogue is adlibbed around the original script, especially Pacino’s. These factors contribute to a heightened sense of realism, and draw attention to the struggles of the characters and the tension of the situation.
The film is also notable for its strong characterization, and its realistic handling of the social issues surrounding the robbery.
Sonny is a highly completed character, and he is played beautifully by Al Pacino. Sonny is endearing from the start, we first meet him entering the bank with a large gift wrapped box, which he busts open to reveal a rifle. The ribbon on the box gets caught on the gun and Sonny flails to shake it off- he is obviously out of his element. He attempts to spray paint over the security cameras, but is too short to reach them without standing on a chair. Sonny shouts out orders and swears emphatically when things go wrong. One of my favorite moments from the beginning of the movie is when Sylvia, the head teller (Penelope Allen) scolds Sonny while emptying the cash registers for him.
“Listen, we got young girls here, you could watch your language.”
Pacino could have angrily barked out his next line, “I speak what I feel!”
Instead he looks chastised for a moment, before sheepishly responding “I speak what I feel… y’know?” and then, trying to regain his gusto, he mutters “Watch my language…Empty the drawer out!”
Sonny is an unusually conscientious bank robber, it’s clear he truly doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He lets the guard go when he is stricken by an asthma attack, and calls a doctor in when the bank manager requires treatment for his diabetes. Sonny is charismatic and quickly charms the tellers at the bank, as well as the spectators outside. The most famous scene from the film is that of Sonny and Moretti’s first face to face confrontation. Overwhelmed by the amount of police surrounding him, Sonny begins to chant “Attica! Attica!” invoking the memory of the Attica prison riots of 1971, in which police killed 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. This reinforces the crowd’s anti-authoritarian feelings and sympathy for Sonny.
Later in the film we hear about another side of Sonny from his loved ones. Leon, Sonny’s transgender lover who he married in an illegal ceremony, tells the police of Sonny’s recent violent and unpredictable nature. “He’s been crazy all summer. He’s been trying to kill me since June. He put a gun to my head, and he cut me with a knife, beat up my friends.” In the next breath, however, Leon is talking about Sonny’s easygoing nature, and how he agreed to get married despite already being married to his wife, Angie. Police speak to Angie, a high strung, talkative woman about her husband. At first Angie is adamant that Sonny could never rob a bank and that he could never harm anyone. She then goes on to rapidly recount a recent incident where she found a gun in Sonny’s car and he screamed at her in public. She assures the police that this is unusual behavior and there’s no way it could be him robbing the bank
“He might’ve done it, his body functions might’ve done it, but he himself, he didn’t do it.”
It’s mentioned repeatedly in the film that Sonny and Sal are Vietnam veterans, and I think it’s possible that Sonny’s out of character abusive behavior might be due to PTSD.
We get the best feeling for Sonny’s character in his conversations with Leon and Angie, and the way he acts around them.
Sonny answers the telephone, Morretti is on the other line. “Sonny,” he says “They’re bringing in your wife.” A police cruiser pulls in through the crowd outside the bank, and to everyone’s surprise, a thin man in a hospital robe is escorted out.
“What’s that?” Moretti asks the driver, baffled.
“Said he was his wife, they were married in a church.”
“Jesus Christ…” Moretti sighs.
As Sonny’s wife is led to the barber shop across the street, Sonny calls to him from outside the bank, addressing him as Leon. Everyone is crowding to get a better view, and the cops are snickering among themselves, “he’s a queer?” Despite the chaos, Sonny is intent on getting Leon’s attention.
“Leon!” He calls, grinning and waving his hands over his head. “Happy Birthday!”
Dog Day Afternoon is revolutionary for it’s time in that it features LGBTQ main characters without that being what the plot is about. Based on the trailer and promotional materials alone, the viewers would have would have been just as surprised as the characters in the film to learn about Sonny’s sexuality. Also notable is the way the film presents the gay community as multi-faceted and complex- some call in to news stations to condemn Sonny’s actions, while others rally outside of the bank in solidarity. The faces of Sonny’s supporters outside the bank include people from multiple ethnic backgrounds and display varying levels of gender conformity, representing the diversity of the gay community in the 70’s.
Sonny and Leon (played by Chris Sarandon) themselves are not caricatures, but well-rounded characters who have a believable, if turbulent, relationship. Leon and Sonny have been together for over six months and are struggling together to come to terms with Leon’s gender identity. Sonny refers to Leon simultaneously with male pronouns, and as his wife. Leon has recently been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and is set on having a sex change operation, which Sonny backs fully. Distressed by Sonny’s erratic and at times violent behavior, and feeling hopeless and fearing that the that the sex change operation would never be a fiscal possibility, Leon attempted suicide and was hospitalized. After seeing Leon in the hospital, Sonny decided to rob a bank to fund the operation. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is a phone conversation between Sonny and Leon. The two chat awkwardly, argue, and Sonny asks if Leon wants to come with him when he flees the country. Leon refuses. They argue some more, and joke with each other. Seeing both the positive and the negative sides to their relationship makes their eventual goodbye immensely bittersweet.
“Are you still going to have the operation?” Sonny asks
“Yeah… yeah!” Leon replies
“So then what, what am I supposed to say to you.”
A long silence, which Leon eventually breaks with:
“Well… thanks a lot. And uh, bon voyage.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you sometime.”
“Yeah,” Leon laughs. “I’ll see you in my dreams, huh?”
“All right I’ll write a song.”
Leon laughs again and Sonny sighs.
“Oh…. Well you know, life’s so funny.”
“You said a mouthful sweetheart.”
Another silence, broken by Leon.
“Well. Goodbye, huh?”
Sonny’s goodbye is almost inaudible, and they hang up.
Years after seeing Dog Day Afternoon for the first time and declaring it my favorite movie, I still find myself as affected as I was when I first watched it. I remain attached to the characters, engrossed by the dialogue and riveted by the suspense. It is, in my opinion, the greatest of the Al Pacino films I forced my family to sit through, and I hope to introduce many more people to it in my life.
Whether they like it or not.