By Jill Gettelson
“I’m dyin’ here” groans Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) several times throughout Dog Day Afternoon. Not in the literal sense, although he may be the first bank robber having an existential crisis. He’s desperate, exhausted, misunderstood. Pacino’s Sonny is alternatively despondent, reckless, panic-stricken and sexually confused. This is THE Pacino, the awe-inspiring one, the one who turned the reticent college bound boy into an autocratic, offer-refusing, tyrannical Mafia don- in-training cementing his place in permanent actor canonization. This time, he is even more incredulous with nary a shred of Michael Corleone to be found. He’s an effusive, sweaty, twitchy, paranoid dynamo.
Dog Day Afternoon, is the you-can’t-believe-it’s-true story, of two Brooklyn-based dimwits who try to rob a local bank. The one of a kind Oscar-winning screenplay by Frank Pierson and brilliant direction by Sidney Lumet tells the story of the ersatz bank robbers who fail at their mission so spectacularly, you wonder if they came up with the idea in between shots of Patron.
What should have been a 15 minute heist degenerates into a 12 hour demented circus with Sonny as the bellicose yet scrappy impromptu ring leader.
The entirety of the action takes place in either the bank or the street where Sonny is ground zero for everyone’s needs. The hostage negotiator (Charles Durning) wants at least one hostage. The caustic head teller (Penelope Allen) wants him to watch his language. Sonny’s partner, Sal (John Cazale) wants to throw bodies out the door. The mocking onlookers want the festivities to continue at any price while a tsunami of cops want him dead. And Sonny’s boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) … proves to be the dysfunctional raison d’etre for the entire loony spectacle.
If ever there was a movie to reflect the gritty style realism of the 70’s, this is it. No Colgate smiles or centerfold bodies here. This is a pure 70s artifact; 4 inch neck ties, hair before de-frizzing serum, taupe pantyhose and God Given boobs. We believe that these women work at a bank for 115 dollars a week. It works brilliantly here: we care about these people, all of them. We don’t want to pick a side because we don’t want anyone to lose. I was rooting for Detective Moretti, I was rooting for the tellers, I was rooting for Sonny and Sal.
Well known now is that Lumet allowed the improvisation to flow freely. (Attica! Attica!) The results are dark and the absurdity gives rise to a lot of humor. When Sonny asks Sal if there is any special country he would like to go to, Sal replies, “Wyoming.” This was ad libbed on the spot by Cazale with Pacino and Lumet attempting to stifle their laughter. The film has quotable lines galore ranging from crazy “I have to pay for the food, where are the marked fives?” to crazier, “When you shoot, aim for white meat!” to raunchy, “Kiss me! When I’m getting f**ked I like to be kissed.”
Lumet moves the action along at a gallop and considering that 80% of the action takes place inside a drab bank lobby, this is an amazing feat. His absence of score (save for “Amoreena” in the opening montage) seems to illuminate the growing discomfort inside the bank. We can feel the increasing panic, the urgency, the stifling heat. Make no mistake, this is Pacino’s film. He is in all but one short scene and he carries this on his shoulders to victory. He built Sonny from the ground up from his heavy Brooklynese to his facial tics to his choice to slide across the bank floor to the window (he’s wearing dress shoes).
The acting is stellar across the board all the way down to the pizza delivery boy. The standouts are Charles Durning, who’s overweight cantankerous police detective cum hostage negotiator keeps the tension with Sonny going at a riotous clip. John Cazale, (reuniting with Pacino post Godfather) as an almost mute, creepy suicidal oaf with a zombie-like gaze. And the biggest revelation, Chris Sarandon, who’s effeminate, fragile, yet feisty boyfriend with a huge secret was jaw-dropping. His final phone call to Sonny was soul-crushingly accurate.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, folks. Don’t miss it.