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May 30, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon - Classic Film Pick

Dog-day-afternoon-poster Sidney Lumet's unforgettable crime drama is impeccably anchored in time, place, character, and story. Screenwriter Frank Pierson won an Oscar for his script based on a Time magazine article about a Brooklyn bank robbery committed by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile during the summer of 1972. 

Al Pacino's bank robber Sonny is as complex a character as the celebrated actor ever played. We marvel at Sonny's shameless humanity in the face of a doomed situation. Over the course of the film Sonny becomes an anti-hero of epic proportions. Character revelations come after Sonny and his two accomplices set foot inside a bank at closing time. John Cazale plays Sonny's partner Sal with a suicidal intensity. Sal is afraid of everything except his ability to kill. The third accomplice gets cold feet and abandons the robbery. Sonny has worked in a bank so he knows things like how to avoid alarms and marked decoy money. True to the spirit of the times, he is also a Vietnam veteran. More importantly, Sonny genuinely cares about the female bank employees he and his nervous partner Sal corral into the bank's vault. His compassion for their comfort will cost him their getaway. 

Lumet eschews music, allowing the dialogue and background sounds to carry the material's intrinsic drama. The quickly barricaded street outside the bank fills up with New York cops and local onlookers who feed the story's sense of urban claustrophobia. Panic strikes when Sonny releases the bank's asthmatic black security guard. In a scene that has since been copied countless times, evidently racist plain-clothes cops handcuff the hostage under the assumption that he is an accomplice. News photographers jockey for a good angle when detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) invites Sonny to come out on the street to see the rooftop police snipers and flatfoots itching for a clean shot. Sonny seizes the tense moment to incite the crowd with chants of "Attica! Attica! Attica" in reference to the recent prison uprising where guards indiscriminately gunned down prisoners. Suddenly the balance of social order shifts. Intimidated cops are ordered to put their guns down. For an instant Sonny has the power of public support. That power will recede when the crowd learns of his bisexuality—a facet of his personality that has contributed to his motivation for robbing the bank. 

As much as it is about a deeply troubled individual, "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) is about a shift toward exploitation in the American media via live television. The bloodthirsty public which feeds off of its pernicious influence wishes it had what it takes to be someone like Sonny.


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