If Network is director Sidney Lumet’s high-flying satirical masterwork of media madness, Dog Day Afternoon is his antithesis, a ground-floor exploration of desperation, sadness, and anger, all told through the lens of a man whose forbidden love and inherent desire to please drives him to unimaginable depths. While I adore Network and admire its timelessness and energy, Dog Day Afternoon carves an emotional ravine. It’s a seminal work, dealing in the currency of pure despair, told across the theater of the airwaves, judged amongst the mob of onlookers.
The man in question is Sonny, played by Al Pacino in what is the legendary actor’s finest hour. Sonny has a plan, foolproof, were it not for the fools he employs. He plans to rob a bank for reasons unknown to the audience for some time, and he brings along his hapless friend Stevie (Gary Springer) and his dimwitted partner, Sal (John Cazale). Things immediately go awry in a comedy of errors and poor planning. Before long the heist has been foiled and the law is alerted. A crowd builds outside thanks to the increasing police presence, and news choppers begin circling like vultures. Desperate times give way to desperate measures as the mercury rises. What was once a simple smash-and-grab robbery for Sonny and Sal becomes a sensationalized hostage situation, a standoff between these two and the police outside, spearheaded by Moretti (Charles Durning).
It’s here where Dog Day Afternoon transforms, subverting the standard suspense thriller into a tale of manipulation in the court of public opinion. Sonny wisely plays to the crowd, exciting their anger against the police in the film’s most famous scene. The reference to Attica – a 1971 prison riot where inmates took over the New York penitentiary, demanding better living conditions, only to have the standoff end in 43 lives lost, including ten hostages – works the crowd into a rabid frenzy, turning them against the police and placing them firmly in Sonny’s corner. In a moment of despair, Sonny’s quick thinking helps create an army of allies who will, hopefully, keep him out of a sniper’s scope.
Emotions stretch thin throughout the film’s first half, where the heat rises and the desperation of the situation becomes more and more apparent. The FBI intervenes. And then, out of left field, comes one of the finest twists in cinematic history. Enter Leon, Sonny’s gay lover played by Chris Sarandon. As it turns out, Sonny is robbing this bank to get Leon his sex-change operation. And the layers of the onion peel back further and further, while the crowd shifts from supportive to snarky and mocking of poor Sonny.
The twist is a watershed moment for Dog Day Afternoon, and for the very idea of a cinematic protagonist in 1975. It is a bold stroke from Lumet. Despite borrowing from a true story, he could have easily eschewed the homosexual about face to deliver a more conventional thriller. He opted in, however, and the decision sets Dog Day apart from its heist-film peers. It becomes less a story about desperate thieves, and more a social commentary. Just as Sonny gained the favor of the masses, he now loses it, simply because he is no longer like them. He is a joke. The rise of hope falls to the depths of despair once again, and it is Sonny against the world. Desperation is back; Sonny handles it by trying to think his way out of his current conundrum, the simple-minded Sal is itching to go out in a bullet-fueled blaze of glory.
Relationships are captivating all throughout. From Sal and Sonny, to their burgeoning friendship with the hostages – a band of female tellers and one bank manager – to the situational rapport Sonny builds with Moretti, all of the players involved are feeding off their own unique desperation. Consider for a moment the kinship Sonny builds with the tellers; it is not a simple case of Stockholm Syndrome, but an understanding from the women that Sonny is a nice man, lost in despair, eager to please, albeit in the worst way imaginable. These women do not commiserate with Sonny because he is their captor, but because they secretly pity him. He is no longer a threat to them, but a sad man whom they want to survive this ordeal.
These crucial narrative threads create an undeniable fluidity, making Dog Day Afternoon not only a film, but a living thing. While the amassed crowd outside the bank flips from admiration to disgust with Sonny, Pacino’s performance commands nothing but empathy from the viewer. His desire to please anyone and everyone brought him to this situation to begin with, and most certainly was the reason for including the dangerous Sal in the plan. Sonny is adrift in this 70’s world of unemployment, though his heart is full of love. Except his love is not accepted, not in these times. Pacino conveys the sadness, hidden beneath the despair of the situation. He looks appropriately exhausted, and we feel his fatigue.
Forty years later, Dog Day Afternoon feels as relevant as ever. Given the subtext of homosexuality and gender reassignment, it almost feels like essential viewing in our modern culture. Desperation leads people to do things they would never have considered, as is the case with poor Sonny. Sidney Lumet’s film is essential, unforgettable, a timeless masterpiece.