I’d say they don’t make ‘em like Dog Day Afternoon anymore, but, you know, they sure do try to. Bank robbers under fire, hostage negotiations, panic in the streets. Why, moviedom is littered with films like Heat, Mad City, The Negotiator… some good, some bad.
But modern cinema’s template for the bank-robbery-gone-wrong flick is this one. What we have is a hero in desperate need of money, an astute student of how banks operate, and a deep, dark secret that will help to ruin his plans. Media circus ensues.
This of course is a quite faithful version of a true story, which happened in Brooklyn in 1972. If on the off chance you don’t know why John Wojtowicz (here called Sonny Wortzik, played by Al Pacino) needed all that cash, I won’t reveal it here. But here’s the gist: Sonny and pal Sal (John Cazale, best known as Fredo from The Godfather) hop into a New York bank branch and intend to abscond with their haul, quick. But things immediately go wrong. Their third crew member can’t take it and abandons the heist. And while Sonny effectively keeps everyone away from the alarms and from giving him the fake money (he worked in a bank for awhile), he can’t keep the guy across the street from calling the cops, who are outside the bank before Sonny can make his getaway.
What follows is a fairly standard negotation (with Charles Durning the head, semi-oblivious cop), followed by a media zoo. And it’s here where Dog Day Afternoon turns into something unexpected. Sonny is a working-class hero who panders to the crowd by throwing cash into the air and screaming the unforgettable ‘Attica!’ at them — reminding the onlookers of the atrocities committed not by criminals but by those who judge them.
As time wears on (the ordeal lasted about 12 hours), so do Sonny’s nerves. Pacino — who earned an Oscar nomination for his work here (he understandably lost to Jack Nicholson for Cuckoo’s Nest) — gets as frazzled as Sonny must have, sweating and gibbering and barely keeping it together. And yet at the same time he deeply cares for his hostages, whom he knows have nothing to do with his financial crisis. Midway through the movie Pacino is already a sweaty, crazy-eyed mess, and he looks like he’s about to snap. (In fact he did, and had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. You’d never believe the movie was shot in the dead of winter and not on a ‘dog day afternoon.’)
Today Dog Day Afternoon is an unabashed classic, a template by which other movies are based and a formula which is periodically tweaked and refined. There are few things you can complain about in Dog Day — a second act that relies on a few too many variations of the same ‘the cops are scheming’ bit, and that’s about it. But Pacino’s fiery performance and Sidney Lumet’s perfect direction does more than create a great crime movie. It captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom and John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.
Now available on a two-disc DVD set, the film includes commentary from Lumet and an extensive making-of retrospective, commemorating the film’s 30th anniversary.