Movie directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by Frank Pierson
This film was released just over three years after the attempted theft that inspired it. P.F. Kluge wrote a magazine article about the bank robbery. Those participants in the actual event who survived were available to the filmmakers. But this is not a documentary- not reportage. Yet it emphasizes the truth of the created world within the story, the validity of its themes as commentary on the world that we all share.
Why is this movie not more ridiculous? At every possible turn of events, the plot precariously dances along the edge of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Assuredly, the story started as real life, but how often real life falls into parody in the hands of film makers. Parody, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the fact that Dog Day Afternoon does not take that path is a testament to the sincerity of the vision shared by everyone involved.
Watching the movie again, one is struck by the solidity of the presentation. The bank feels like a crappy edifice built around a central safe, just like so many bank branches. The employees are all distinct individuals, coping with a situation vacillating between the terrifying and the absurd. They care for each other and for their jobs about as much as any of us care for our co-workers or our places of employment. The thieves are not brilliant or unusually brave. They are not heroic. The police behave admirably in their effort to avoid unnecessary violence, but the situation is no model argument for negotiation. The shear weirdness that develops as negotiations proceed demonstrates the uniqueness of the situation. If anything, the film argues for the individual treatment of desperate occurrences. Circumstances always defy expectations, especially yes/no decision-making under duress.
Dog Day Afternoon plays like an epic, though far shorter than three hour period pieces. It is most certainly of its time and not just the decade, but the season. This is New York before AIDS, before cell phones, before Giuliani. Sure, the film explores themes of media exploitation and misplaced moral outrage, but these all develop within the confines of a small bank branch on a commonplace block. The protagonists are just some average bank robbers that would not have merited more than a sidebar buried deep in the pages of the dailies if they had succeeded in their initial escape. What started with Arthur Miller, among others, on stages tears the crime film here, Al Pacino as Willy Loman as bank robber, just as caught out in his indiscretions, though far more publicly. In the end, he is no more mourned.
American film in the Seventies brought a furious list of anti-heroes, protagonists for an angry nation. Many were id run rampant, like Dirty Harry, allowing communal purging of all that disillusion, confusion, and anger. Dog Day Afternoon presented someone more sympathetic for the doomed foreshadowing apparent the moment his co-conspirator runs away. He is no hero, but he is a human being. Any art that is willing to show us humanity in all its myriad forms cannot be, should not be dismissed.
More than all that, Dog Day Afternoon requires us to decide where our sympathies lie, much as the radio and television audiences within the film itself must decide. Their loyalties shift as the crime carries on and they become familiar with the criminals’ backgrounds. Like them, we also only have hints about their real pasts as low level thugs. Instead, we see desperation, love, and confusion. Arguably, the law stationed across the street is as much audience (Greek chorus if you will) to the bank robbery as we are. Their reactions offer a point of view that ultimately makes the final act of brutality more than inevitable- rather understandable as another footnote on our path toward a world view.
An important side note: no actor has the career batting average of John Cazale: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, and the present piece under consideration. That’s it- not a drop in quality in the lot. Like Lou Gehrig, he died too young, but left greatness to be remembered and studied. While his character was inspired by a youth half his age, more than anyone else in the cast, he gave body and soul to someone more of fiction than of fact.
An odd side note: at its best, the Netflix series Bloodline feels like the machinations of Game of Thrones scaled to the reality of Dog Day Afternoon.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 294 more to go.
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