I added this one to our list soon after watching Network because it is another film by Sidney Lumet that was deemed significant enough to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry. It stars a very young Al Pacino, just after he had become famous due to The Godfather and is loosely based on a real bank robbery that took place in 1972.
Three men led by Sonny Wortzik arrive to rob a small bank branch one afternoon. They plan to be as discreet as possible so as not to raise any alarms but one of them loses his nerve and abandons them. Sonny is then incensed to learn that there is very little money left in the vault as they have arrived after the daily cash pickup. He decides to take traveller’s cheques and being familiar with bank procedures, burns the register to prevent them from being traced. The smoke however alerts outsiders that something is going on inside the bank and before they know it, the police is all around them. The other robber Sal indicates his willingness to kill hostages or even die in a blaze of glory. Sonny instead tries to keep things calm and even make the hostages comfortable. As the stand-off drags on a crowd of onlookers and media gather outside. Sonny reminds the crowd of police brutality during the Attica Prison riot of 1971 and gains their sympathy. Eventually, after negotiating with first the local police and then the FBI, Sonny asks for the authorities to bring his wife to the scene and transport to the airport to a jet in which he and Sal can flee to another country.
This film is obviously smaller in scope than Network and The Pawnbroker but then this is the same director who made 12 Angry Men as his first film. Now that we’ve watched a few of Lumet’s films, it’s easier to notice how they are often commentaries on society and current events. Though on the surface of it, this is a straightforward portrayal of a simple bank robbery, Lumet takes this opportunity to delve into the question of who Wortzik is, what would drive someone like him to crime and how amidst an economic depression, someone like this can be seen by the public as a hero. The fact that he is a decently educated white collar worker who nevertheless finds it impossible to make a decent living is what causes the crowd to sympathize with him. Criminal or not, the fact that he manifestly does not mean to harm the hostages also makes it easy for the audience to like him. One of the bank staff is so excited about being a hostage that Sonny even lets her play with his rifle.
Yet this still isn’t everything. When the police track down and bring the wife that Sonny asks for, it turns out not to be the portly woman with the two children who was previously shown. Instead they show up with Leon Shermer, a pre-operative transgender who Sonny did indeed marry in a church though performing that ceremony caused the priest involved to be defrocked. It’s a truly bizarre case of real life being stranger than fiction as this was indeed what happened at the time. The revelation that Sonny is homosexual or at least bisexual elicits the predictable derision but it also causes Sonny to gain the support of some of the homosexual community, turning the scene into even more of a media circus than before. The expression on the police detective’s face as he realizes that Sonny must be doing the robbery to get money for Leon’s sex change operation is pure gold.
Dog Day Afternoon isn’t quite the same level as the previous films. We already know how crime films like this end for the perpetrators and this one doesn’t have as much emotional depth. I also felt sad for Sal’s character as we never find out the nature of his relationship with Sonny and his personal motivations. Still I found this to be a wickedly funny and engaging tale of how a straightforward bank robbery goes wrong in all kinds of unpredictable directions.