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Dog Day Afternoon


Year of release

Directed by
Sidney Lumet

Written by
Frank Pierson

Al Pacino
John Cazale
Charles Durning
Chris Sarandon

Dog Day Afternoon


Whatever I was expecting from this film, it's certainly not what I got! I obviously only had the vaguest, most basic knowledge of the plot. I knew it was a film set during a bank robbery, starring Al Pacino but that was about it. So I was expecting a tense, edgy, gritty thriller with Pacino most likely playing a bad ass. While it remains tense and gritty what I also got instead was a fairly absurd, almost farcical debacle of a robbery/hostage situation. A film just as concerned with the robbery as with commenting on issues of the time such as the law, media exploitation and views on people's sexuality.

It all turns into a bit of a circus with Pacino's Sonny as the ringleader. And in this post-Watergate, post-Attica, post-Vietnam environment where there is much anti-authoritarian sentiment, those who have gathered on the streets are fully behind him and see him as a working class hero. And all of that is before the film takes a very unexpected turn as his 'wife' shows up, and we discover the real motivation for the robbery. If you gave me a solid month of guessing I'm not sure I'd have been able to predict that one. Their was also a surprising lack of violence, at least until the end. And when it arrives, powerfully and shockingly, in the searing finale it just adds to the feeling of a real gut punch.

It is impressively shot by Sidney Lumet on location in New York, I particularly enjoyed the free shooting style used for the footage out on the streets as he shows the crowds and cops etc. It really makes you feel like you are there as part of the assembled masses. While the scenes in the bank are shot with disciplined direction, and create a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere. You can almost feel the uncomfortable heat, and the sweating that it brings about. And while I did feel myself sympathising with the characters of Sonny and Sal, I don't think think it was down to Lumet, who I feel was able to keep an objective view of it. More down to just how inept they seem; two Vietnam vets doing this not because they want to, but because they feel life has forced them into it.

It's quite impossible to review this film without mentioning Al Pacino's wonderful performance. His portrait of this incompetent, nerve ridden guy who is in over his head is just full of charisma and energy, while at the same time always with an undercurrent of tragedy just below the surface. As the film moves along he goes from being an aggressive bank robber to an identifiable anti-hero. The film as a whole is the same in that while being offbeat and uniquely funny there is always this tragic feeling lingering there in the background.

And while it's close to a one man show those around him also contribute strong showings. John Cazale doesn't have much at all to do as the dim-witted Sal but does it well, matching Pacino in terms of making the character rather likeable in a way, mostly down to how naive and out of their depth they are. Sal in particular is so lacking in intelligence (when asked what country he wants to go to he replies "Wyoming") you root for him to make it out ok. Chris Sarandon takes a potentially difficult role as Sonny's pre-op transsexual wife Leon, and does wonders with it. The scene where Sonny and Leon converse on the telephone is funny at points but is mostly a mournful and surprisingly touching scene, one where both Pacino and Sarandon do some of their best work in the film. While those playing the cops/FBI agents and those held hostage in the bank all chip in with nice moments. The female hostages in particular provide a lot of funny moments to break the tension, whether it be needing the toilet or being more concerned with being on TV than any chance of danger due to the robbery.

So I was a bit thrown by this film, and while it fell just short of me absolutely loving it, I did greatly enjoy it, and it's one film that I could certainly see my appreciation growing for on repeat viewings. And the fact it is apparently all based on a true story is quite incredible. One of those great examples of something so unbelievable, that it could only be true.