Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Dog Day Afternoon is a 1975 film based on actual events that took place on August 22, 1972. It tells the story of a man by the name of John Wojtowicz who robbed a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his gay lover’s sex change operation. Here the character’s name has been changed slightly to John ‘Sonny’ Wortzik (played by Al Pacino), but otherwise the Oscar-winning script by Frank Pierson sticks pretty closely to the actual events in this incredible story proving everything that can go wrong will.

Just about everyone who has watched this film will tell you how it manages to grab and pull you in right from the start. It achieves this without having any special effects, pounding soundtrack, elaborate camera work, or artificial lighting. Instead of telegraphing all of its punches the film draws back and puts more emphasis on subtleties like the characters’ expressions, off to the side conversations, and other nuances that put together make this film very rich and textured. In essence it successfully ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells,’ a remarkable achievement when so many Hollywood films seem to want to do the exact opposite.

Director Sidney Lumet allowed for a lot of improvisation by his actors and gave each performer full rein in creating his or her character, even the minor supporting ones. The result gives each and every one of the characters a distinct personality. The bank hostages become almost as fascinating as the thieves and it is interesting seeing all the different ways each one responds to the situation and how they interact with the robbers, which at times is both amusing and surprising.

The film also does a really good job of creating a very vivid 1970s Brooklyn atmosphere. The sights and sounds of the area as well as the people’s personalities and the anti-establishment sentiment that was still quite prevalent at the time are all right on target. After you finish watching this movie you feel like you just got back from a time traveling excursion. I really liked how during the opening credits you are shown all sorts of shots and scenes of Brooklyn, so by the time the story actually begins you are already well entrenched in the setting.

Pacino gives a dynamic performance in the starring role. Some insist this is the best performance never to be nominated for an Oscar and I might just have to agree. If you are a Pacino fan than you absolutely have to see this, but if you are not a Pacino fan you still should see it because afterwards you might just become one.

The supporting cast is stellar as well. Sully Boyar, who was a real-life lawyer who did not get into acting until he was in his 50’s, leaves a strong impression as the stoic bank manager. As the police captain, the always durable Charles Durning is a blast especially during his frenzied and frantic negotiations with Pacino that almost become the film’s highlight. Another highlight is the completely improvised phone conversation between Sonny and his gay lover played by Chris Sarandon. John Cazale is also amazing as Pacino’s bank robbing partner. The partner in the actual incident was only 18 while Cazale was then 39, which created some controversy. However, Cazale is so convincing in the part that it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well.

In the end the film’s brilliance comes from its ability to convey the humanity of its characters. You can’t help but feel for the Sonny character despite his many flaws. This a man who craves acceptance and yet goes through life being betrayed and hurt by everyone he meets. The shocked expression he shows at being betrayed by his own hostages, who he felt he had ‘bonded’ with is, in my opinion, the most memorable shot of the whole film.

I only have two negative comments about this film and they are both minor. One is the abrupt ending. Since the film was made only a few years after the incident there wasn’t much of an real-life epilogue to the story and the film doesn’t provide any epilogue at all. (The real John Wojtowicz, who really did look a lot like Pacino, didn’t die until 2006.) It would have been a stronger conclusion to show what happened to Sonny through the years, and maybe even speculate about how he might have changed or grown. My only other complaint is the fact that actress Carol Kane appears as one of the bank employees, but is shown very little. A quirky and unique talent such as hers should have been given a bigger role.

Overall this is a great movie that I would recommend to any serious movie fan who can appreciate great filmmaking in top form.

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Possibly related posts: (Commentary Track generated)

Tom mourned the Pacino of the 1970s in his review of Righteous Kill. The based in fact 2008 English film The Bank Job looked back to another sensational 1970s bank robbery.

One response to “Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

  1. On a tangent, your comment about filmmakers too often telling instead of showing reminded me of a recent blog post by David Bordwell (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=6625) that I think you’d find interesting. He speculates that heavy contemporary use of “fragmentary flashbacks” is a product of filmmakers’ determination to obey at all costs the “show, don’t tell” adage and offers some examples of films where “telling” instead of “showing” created narrative richness.

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