This is a review of Dog Day Afternoon that I wrote
in the summer of 1999 while taking a creative writing course at Northwestern
University's Center for Talent Development.
If there was ever a sensational news story, this was it. One afternoon in New York City,
during the dog days of summer, a homosexual man and two accomplices (one of whom got cold
feet and deserted) robbed a bank in order to pay for the homosexual's lover to have a
sex-change operation. In doing so, they tripped an alarm and were forced to take several
employees in the bank hostage. Over the course of the next several hours, everybody
showed up- the police, the FBI, and, yes, the pizza guy.
Director Sidney Lumet, however, was determined that this true story would not be sensationalized when
he made it into a movie. His stated theme was to show that the "freaks" and outcasts in
society were a lot more like the rest of us than we would like to believe. His first
goal, he felt, was to convince the audience that the events they were watching were real.
As a result, there was no musical score, no costumes, no unnecessary makeup, and no
artificial lighting. Although Frank Pierson's screenplay won an Oscar, about 60% of the
dialogue was improvised. This approach worked wonderfully, as this is one of the few
films I have seen were I did not feel like I was watching something that was staged. The
characters behaved like real people, and this made it easy for me to identify with them.
Indeed, one of the many brilliant aspects of Lumet's movie is his ability to make the
audience identify with characters who are so unlike them in many ways. Lumet chooses to
concentrate on they ways that they are alike. The emotions felt by the main character,
Sonny - fear turning to desperation turning to hopelessness, a desire to do the right
thing without getting killed - are things we would all feel in his situation. Dog Day
Afternoon presents homosexuals as real people- something which is still rare in American
Something else Lumet uses his movie to do is make a statement on the relationship between
the media and society. As the hostage situation intensifies, a large crowd gathers in the
street outside. Much of the crowd is actually sympathetic to Sonny, especially after a
wonderfully realized scene in which he reminds them of the state police massacre at Attica
prison. Television news crews also show up, and their coverage can be seen inside the
bank, leading to several memorable episodes. Sonny's remaining accomplice, Sal, get mad
when he hears the robbers described as "two homosexuals." The guy who delivers pizza to
the bank turns toward the crowd and cameras and shouts "I'm a f---ing star!" The bank
tellers taken hostage receive an obscene telephone call. Hostages refuse to be released
because they love being the center of attention.
Lumet also uses his New York City setting well. The media circus which takes place could
have happened anywhere, but only in New York would such a large crowd of people gather,
forming almost a Greek chorus on the ensuing action. The crowd cheers Sonny's "Attica"
chant, treating him almost like a rock star. Then it is revealed that he is gay. Some in
the crowd don't take this well, making catcalls when he pats down an FBI man preparing to
enter the bank. But soon a group of gay protesters from Greenwich village show up to
cheer him on, shouting "Out of the closet and into the street!"
Throughout everything that goes on, it is Lumet's realistic tone that sustains the movie.
The opening consists of a song played over a montage of everyday events on a hot afternoon
in New York City. When the bank robbery starts, the scene is played with no sound at
all. I at first thought there was a problem with my television's volume control, but then
I realized that this was intentional. The movie begins in earnest when Sonny rips open a
package he brought into the bank, produces a rifle, and loudly announces that this is a
The tone of these first few moments is tense, dramatic, and action-packed. Then the movie
begins to have a comic side. This is where the aforementioned realism has its biggest
effect. No matter how close the events come to being farcical, they never seemed staged
for comic effect. They always seem to be realistically absurd. In the movie's
second half, the tone deepens toward drama. In his book, Making Movies (the source
for many of the details in my essay), Lumet talks about how he added about two minutes
of "filler" footage to the first half of the movie so that the slower-moving second half
wouldn't seem too slow and therefore boring by comparison. But by that time, the audience
cares so much about the characters that the slow scenes serve to draw them in, to make
them feel the air of futility tinged with hopelessness. One of the most emotionally raw
scenes, a telephone conversation between Sonny and his lover, works despite breaking
almost all the rules. It does nothing to forward the plot or shade it in thematically.
It reveals absolutely no new information. Much of what is said are things we have heard
or seen before. In Making Movies, Lumet writes of his decision to film the scene,
which was broken up in the movie, as one continuous ten-minute take. Since a camera only
holds eight minutes of film, this required an elaborate setup involving two cameras and
a tent specially designed to keep the film from being overexposed, but in the end it
allowed a nearly unprecedented level of emotional authenticity to be achieved.
I have discussed the movie's director so much that I have neglected to mention the
contributions of the cast. Al Pacino gives a simply incredible tour-de-force
performance as Sonny. This character is the complete opposite of Pacino's acclaimed role
the previous year - Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Michael was cool,
collected, confident, and cold-blooded. Sonny is high-strung, flamboyant, perpetually
nervous, and torn apart by his desperate attempt to do the right thing by everyone
concerned - his lover, his wife, his family, his partner, and the hostages. The fact
that Pacino could completely delve into both characters is an indication of his amazing
range as an actor.
John Cazale, who played Sal, was a talented character actor whose career was cut short
by a fatal heart attack after only 5 films. He is almost entirely unknown, despite the
fact that 3 of his films won Best Picture Oscars, and the other 2 were both nominated.
Hopefully this injustice will be rectified when Dog Day Afternoon comes out of the
shadows of "cult classic" and reaches the widespread audience it deserves. Another great
performance is given by Charles Durning, playing the police detective who first contacts
Sonny. As Sonny's lover, Chris Sarandon has the challenge of playing a "swishy"
homosexual while incurring the audience's sympathy, not ridicule. He does so amazingly
well. Most of the rest of the cast are unknowns playing small roles, but not one of
them ever appears affected or unrealistic.
Ultimately the success of Dog Day Afternoon comes from the fact that it is about
life. Like life, the movie is funny, scary, touching, thought-provoking,
suspenseful, and wholly unpredictable. And when the ending finally does come, its
character - swift, pointless, depressing, and absurd - says more about life than a
thousand philosophers ever could.