Dog Day Afternoon: Classic Tale of a Bank Heist Gone Weirdly Wrong

Dog Day Afternoon
Afternoon, all.

Righto, Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Bank robbery films have been a cinema staple for many decades (The Place Beyond the Pines being a recent example), but few are as strange, introspective, and memorable as this cinema classic. Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino and John Cazale on top form, this production was an adaptation of a robbery on August 22nd of 1972 in Brooklyn, America.

Back then, Sonny Wortzick (Pacino) and Sal Naturale (Cazale) decided to rob a bank to fund Wortzick’s partner’s (Elizabeth Eden) sex change operation, whilst Naturale wanted to hand a small windfall to his poverty stricken relatives. What transpired was a bizarre media circus which involved the police, a huge crowd, the press, a pizza guy, a plane, and all sorts of other strange happenings. The incident has since been immortalised in this film, so put your DOG on a LEASH and let’s have a look this rainy…

Dog Day Afternoon

This Oscar winner was adapted from novelist P. F. Fluge’s LIFE magazine article called the Boys in the Bank. This was changed to Dog Day Afternoon, which refers to long summer days when dogs prefer to take a sleep rather than bother doing anything. Metaphors abound!

Again, as a reminder, the film was adapted from the real life event in ’72. Sonny and Sal head into a local bank and quickly whip out their guns. Sonny, having worked in a bank, is able to block any alarms from being triggered, but a calamitous development arises when it turns out there’s only $1,000 to steal. Then a local businessman notices a problem, calls the police, the coppers arrive, and a tense stand off develops.

The media then get in on the act and pile on down to the bank to document events – blood and guts sells papers, after all, but this irritates the police and leads to an enormous crowd developing outside cheering on Sonny as if he’s some maverick rock star. Simply put, what was supposed to be a straightforward robbery has descended into a somewhat farcical media circus.

The famous “Attica!” scene above has become the film’s defining moment. It didn’t happen in the real incident (see a real news broadcast below), but its use here lifted the movie towards the anti-establishment status it’s now achieved. It’s a reference to the Attica Prison Riot in 1971 – during that one, the American police were accused of being overly heavy-handed.

Pacino’s genius as an actor certainly shines throughout the film. After the Godfather I and II, he enjoyed further success in Serpico, and then Dog Day Afternoon. That’s quite a roll! Here he’s a charismatic, if bumbling, oddball whose inner desperation has boiled over into a bout of madness.

Anxious, sparky, desperate, and sweaty, he dominates the film with his performance and many film critics consider it above the likes of the Godfather I and II. In the below clip, Sonny snaps due to the strains of the day and rants at his first wife (they’d divorced in 1969).

The real life Sonny, John Wojtowicz, faced an unusual outcome. In a bizarre twist, the film rights bagged him $40,000 and inadvertently helped fund his partner’s sex change operation later in the 1970s.

As something of a spoiler, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail but eventually only served five of them. He wasn’t thrilled with the final film as he claimed it was only 30% accurate. It was released whilst he was in prison, of course, and several inmates made an attempt on his life due to it. In 1978, he walked free and would die in 2006 aged 60. 

Summarising Dog Day Afternoon as another bank robbing film certainly does it a disservice. You have two powerhouse performances here from Pacino and Cazale, with one very odd story turned into an enthralling piece of storytelling. On a budget of just $1.8 million, it raked in over $50 million and landed a batch of Oscars. All it took to get there was one baking hot summer day in ’72, two desperate men, and the local media to sensationalise every minute of it. Wouldn’t happen these days.

John Cazale

One of the saddest stories from Hollywood in the 1970s was the sudden loss of this brilliant actor. Cazale died 40 years ago in March of 1978, but it’s touching to see he remains well respected amongst his peers. Terminally ill with lung cancer during the filming of the Deer Hunter, his scenes were shot first to ensure he’d be in the film – he also married Meryl Streep shortly before his death.

Despite the desperation of some of the characters he played (Sal, in particular, from Dog Day Afternoon is a damaged individual), by all accounts he was a wonderful bloke. So it’s a shame when we lose someone like this at only 42, but he’s left an impressive legacy behind which even 40 years hasn’t dimmed.

4 comments

  1. I’m always looking for more classic films to watch, so I’m definitely going to seek this one out. I saw the first two Godfather films several years ago, and I watched Scarface over the holidays when visiting my brother last year, so I get the feeling Dog Day Afternoon would be a great watch as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely one to catch up with. It predicted the media crazes of the future as TV started to take off, but it’s also just a riveting film. Surprisingly long at 230 minutes, but you don’t notice that at all. Good film-making right there!

      Liked by 1 person

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