Has American director Sidney Lumet had any missteps in his long and prolific career? You bet, but Dog Day Afternoon is not one of them.
Starring Al Pacino and his Godfather co-star John Cazale, the film is based on a true story in which two men, John (called Sonny) Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile robbed a bank in order to pay for Sonny’s partner’s sex reassignment surgery. The police and the media arrived on the scene before the two criminals could escape, and they were forced to take hostages.
There are no heroes in Dog Day Afternoon, nor are there any villains. Lumet’s direction is objective, with the camera capturing solely the events and characters involved rather than interpreting and analyzing the characters’ moral justifications. The police are simply doing their job, and Sonny and Sal are doing theirs. It’s a unique perspective, and one that helps the audience to sympathize with those, who, in a more conventional film, would have been the bad guys.
Sonny is eminently likable, displaying a desperate charisma that brings him into favor with the spectators and his captives. In fact, the robbery imbues Sonny with celebrity status, creating a contrasting, often humorous dichotomy between the events taking place inside and outside; it’s a crime scene in the bank, and the red carpet outside. One scene, in which the head teller, after urged by the police to escape, responds by saying that her place is with her coworkers, before shyly smiling at the cameras and walking back inside with Sonny, illustrates how much of a show the crime has become; the head teller is enjoying the attention.
Sal is a more difficult character to understand. He’s quiet, uneducated, and certainly more dangerous than Sonny (although he seems to be entirely in Sonny’s thrall). He is the one who seems most committed to killing the hostages, and, while Sonny is busy making friends, Sal often seems distant, detached. Still, there are scenes in which he’s shown interacting, being even friendly, with his victims, and it’s clear that the hostages are enjoying his company (at least as much as they can enjoy it, considering the circumstances).
Sal’s motives for joining his friend in the crime are never revealed, and, with less knowledge about the character, it’s harder to predict how he’ll act. However, withholding information, something the film does often, unexpectedly helps the audience sympathize with the two perps. The audience is fed tidbits of Sonny and Sal’s pasts (mostly Sonny’s), but the little pieces we are given are never explored further. What we do find out though, serves to illustrate the two as fairly normal people. Ok, so it’s true that Sonny is married to a woman and a man at the same time, which, let’s face it, is pretty out-of-the-ordinary, but we also discover that Sonny used to be bank teller and that both he and Sal served in Vietnam. Sonny has two children with his wife. Sal is scared of flying. These facts may be superficial, not revealing any deep-set character flaws or past emotional traumas, but they articulate and support an important point: these two men are average, everyday men, not coldblooded criminals, and their ineptitude, relatively congenial personalities, and motive seems to lessen, but not diminish, the threat they pose.
With unique characters and perfect direction, Dog Day Afternoon is an absolute must-see from one of the greats of American cinema.
Memorable Lines: “You think you got problems? I’m with a guy who don’t know Wyoming ain’t a country.”
Recommended Films: Badlands