If I had to pick one thing that ties together the films of New Hollywood, despite disparate genres and directorial styles, it would be that they tend to all start with character and then build the narrative out from there, rather than starting with plot and then writing characters into it the way a lot of films do. I’d wager a guess that this is a major reason why so many 1970s films retain their power over thirty years later. Rather than starting with the idea “let’s rob a bank,” Dog Day Afternoon begins with a character, Sonny Wortzik, who robs a bank, yes, but is much more than a guy who holds up a bank.
Granted, this isn’t any old bank robbery, either – it quickly turned into a hostage situation with a media circus and a huge crowd outside. But it started with Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) entering a sleepy bank branch on a sweltering day, nervous and jittery. Their actions are reasonably well-planned, and Sonny’s first-hand knowledge of being a bank teller helps him out, but it’s clear these men are not seasoned bank robbers and are pretty much just as terrified as the employees about to be taken hostage. By the time they get to the vault and discover that the vast majority of the cash has been picked up for transit to the bank’s headquarters, the police are already on the scene and there’s little Sonny can do but hold everyone as hostages and think of a way out.
From there the brilliance of this movie only grows. We discover Sonny’s dual life, married both to a rather shrill woman (with a couple of kids, a pretty typical cinematic portrait of a lower-income New York City family) and to a man, played with extreme sensitivity by Chris Sarandon. Of course, the famous logline of the film is that Sonny is robbing the bank to pay for a sex change operation for Leon, but I think this is a disservice in a couple of ways. First off, we aren’t told of Leon’s existence or the fact that Sonny has a gay lover or anything about why this man is robbing a bank until at least half way through the movie, and that lack of knowing would, I think, be beneficial. There’s a good bit of speculation within the film as to Sonny’s motives and I don’t think the audience knowing ahead of time is helpful. Secondly, it’s reductionary and sensationalizes the film when it doesn’t need it. The film is strong and worth watching for the deep characterization, electrically-charged scenes, and strong performances without drawing undue attention to the fact, true though it is, that this is one of the first times that a homosexual relationship was portrayed this straight-forwardly on film.
Because Sonny is more than a gay guy driven to extreme measures to help out his lover. He’s a guy who wants to make everyone happy, which at first makes him seem a little schizo as he veers back and forth between threatening hostages’ lives to the police and actually developing a camaraderie with the hostages, but eventually it’s clear that his behavior is a consistent though futile attempt to please everyone – to get the money for his lover, without bothering his family, to keep Sal safe, to keep the hostages as comfortable as possible, to deal with the hostage negotiator as well as he can, etc. He’s really a pretty likable guy in a lot of ways, and I think that goes beyond Stockholm Syndrome. His combination of courtesy, bravado, desperation, affection, fear, and intelligence is winning despite the situation, and Pacino hits every note exactly right.
But it’s not just him; everyone hits all their notes right. Sonny’s mother captures his sense of family entrapment in three minutes of screen time. Leon is both whiny and sympathetic, especially during his brief phone conversation with Sonny – it’s clear the two have problems even personally, but they can’t quit each other. The main cop, a classic NYC beat kind of guy, has his own little arc as he struggles for power with the incoming FBI agents. Sal is a sort of man-child who Sonny derides for not realizing Wyoming isn’t a country, but who he also clearly loves like a brother and by the end, his fate will certainly move any audience, too.
The specific timeliness of the film interested me, too. I’ll admit I had to look up Attica to fully understand the significance of the scene where Sonny works the crowd into a fervor yelling “Attica! Attica!” – the way he evokes the memory of recent prison riots and the accompanying police brutality and encourages both onlookers and cops to relate that situation to his own is pretty powerful. Apparently this film and the real event upon which it is based were influential on the way police handle hostage situations. Certainly I found a number of things odd on that front – like the way Sonny just came right out and talked to the police outside, and the way he continued to have outside telephone access. In more recent hostage films, those kinds of things are a lot more locked down.
I didn’t really expect to like Dog Day Afternoon. I wasn’t a big Pacino fan (though after seeing this film and learning to appreciate The Godfather more, I may be becoming one), and I didn’t have a particular interest in the story, not being drawn in by the sensationalism of the “bank robbery for a sex change operation” line. But each scene captivated me further, and I ended up loving it far more than I could ever have guessed.