Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Directed by Sidney Lumet. Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, James Broderick. (125 min) Rated R
What seems like a simple bank robbery at a sleepy Brooklyn branch bank on a hot summer afternoon turns into a scary comedy of errors for Sonny and Sal. They don’t really want to have to take the whole staff hostage and have a stand-off with a tsunami of law enforcement and gawking crowds. Sonny’s desperate, he needs $2500.00 so his wife, Leon can have a “sex change” operation. As the hours drag on, Sonny realizes his dream is falling apart in midst of an uncontrollable media circus.
Sidney Lumet was a poet of gritty cinematic New York. He was born there in 1924, growing up on the Lower East Side. His father was a Yiddish theater actor and this was the family business; as a child, young Sidney acted in both Yiddish-language theater and radio, then English language plays with Jewish themes, typecast as a streetwise kid. He attended the Professional Children’s School in New York and then Columbia University, but quit his freshman year to join the army during WW II. After the war, he returned to acting, but he also taught acting, and that led to being hired as a director for that pesky offshoot of radio, television.
The 1950s was considered the Golden Age of Television (or, perhaps, the first golden age). Televisions were expensive in the early 1950s and only the well-off and well-educated had one. Thoughtful dramas dominated the airwaves, and directors who could work quickly with minimal sets and be ready to go live after brief rehearsals were valued. Performances had to register strongly on a 14” black and white screen and “bring the viewers back for another act after a commercial break for Kraft cheese or Philco television sets” (Blake 46). Lumet had the reputation of getting the job done during seven years of solid productions.
Lumet’s greatest films were all made in three years during in the 1970s, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, along with Murder on the Orient Express and the more obscure, Lovin’ Molly. In six years, his films were nominated for a total of thirty-one Academy Awards, with twelve for acting.
Lumet and Pacino shooting on location.
Italian neo-realism influenced early television dramas in New York, and Lumet brought this aesthetic to the big screen. After WW II there was a hunger—not for escapism—but for a reflection of real life. Dog Day Afternoon has the feeling of a docu-drama, and basically it was, based on an incident that occurred on August 22, 1972, and reported in a Life magazine article by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, “The Boys in the Bank” (a rather lame pun on “The Boys in the Band” a gay themed play from 1969). John Wojtowicz and his partner, Salvatore Naturile took eight hostages in a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank. The siege lasted eight hours, with a circle of one hundred police officers and an estimated three thousand spectators, drawn to the scene by media reports. Wojtowicz was demanding the release of Ernest Aaron from the hospital, whom he had married and considered his wife. The point of the robbery was to finance Aaron’s gender reassignment surgery, or, in the parlance of the day, a “sex-change.” Lumet wanted to show the way the incident was portrayed in the media, then reflected back on the participants, changing their behavior and the outcome of the siege. He wanted the film to feel as real as if you were watching the news. There is natural lighting, no score, and the sound editor had the crowd noises seem to be emanating from the right or left side of the screen, coordinating with the visuals. Inside the bank, Lumet wants the audience to feel the claustrophobia of the characters.
Recreating a real-life event on a block of Prospect Park West in Brooklyn demanded a lot of consideration for the neighborhood residents. Lumet offered locals a paid hotel stay away from the shooting, although he did not mind them watching if they preferred, rubberneckers being a part of the circus-like atmosphere. The mob of background actors, sirens, cars, helicopters would make for a lot of noise and commotion. But, he promised that things would be quiet at night, and lights would not shine into nearby apartments (Spiegel 261)
In an earlier era of moviemaking, this would have been filmed on the studio back lot. But, like many other New York set films of the era it almost has the quality of a city symphony. The beginning of the film shows a series of descriptive shots, showing different facets of New York City, which, as part of the history of an always evolving metropolis holds great interest today. We may not want to live in the gritty NYC of Taxi Driver, but we love seeing it on film. The physicality of the location, only blocks from where the incident actually took place, becomes a character in the film. “Some of the film’s most effective shots are those shot from a helicopter, making clear the scene’s extraordinary context: from above, we see exactly how the block has been temporarily carved from the matrix of surrounding streets to serve as the improvised set for this bizarre combination of hostage crisis, political rally and street theater…reminding us—as only a location shot can—that this volume of space really exists, in all its three dimensional fulness, in the middle of Brooklyn” (Sanders 352).
At first, with the last bank customers of the day gone, and Sonny apparently familiar with standard security systems, he and Sal plan to rob the bank quickly and leave. Another accomplice panics and leaves before Sonny makes his move, but it’s his fumbling with a beribboned box meant for roses that actually holds a gun, that is the definitive sign that things will not be running smoothly that day. “I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anyone” Sonny comforts the jittery tellers, but he’s horrified to discover that the bank’s deposits have already been picked up, and there’s only $1100.00 in the building. Even worse, he’s screwed up somehow as far as the alarm systems, and what seems to be the entire New York police force plus the FBI suddenly descend on the building. “We’re Viet Nam veterans so killing doesn’t mean anything to us,” Sonny warns unconvincingly, as the situation spirals out of control with dizzying speed.
When Sonny carefully leaves the bank for a little hostage negotiation, he realizes he has an audience, and the vocal crowd feeds into his coiled energy. “Attica! Attica!” he gets them to chant, referencing a recent prison riot that centered on police brutality. One fascinating aspect of the film’s dialogue is that it was at a time when the word “fuck” was not in the mainstream culture, but was being imported into common parlance by returning veterans and the counterculture. Using the word in polite company, with women present, was still considered rude, and characters react differently to Sonny’s rough language.
Cazale and Pacino
A relationship develops between the victims and the hapless bank robbers, as the day morphs into a reality tv show. Sonny periodically struts in front of the bank to entertain the crowd, tossing money in the air, creating theatrical chaos. We’ve already seen Sonny’s wife, Angie, a motormouth curvy girl and his two squirmy little kids. But almost exactly half-way though the film, when his wife is summoned to help the hostage negotiators, we discover it’s not Angie, but Leon, currently confined to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital for a suicide attempt. We quickly learn that Sonny has married Leon in a church, with a phalanx of gay bridesmaids, and the viewer is forced to reevaluate opinions about Sonny. Although some of the uniform cops laugh at him (“He’s a queer?”) Sonny’s emotions about Leon are quite tender, in spite of intimations of past physical abuse. Durning listens to Leon, played by Chris Sarandon in an Oscar nominated role, quite seriously and doesn’t mock him, which is quite striking for the time period, in which mockery is de rigeur for gay and trans characters. Leon’s still dressed in his Belleview seersucker robe, with his hair teased up, he’s wearing pearlescent pink nail polish. But, Sarandon is not directed to overdo the swishy cliches of the day. In 2015, he recalled that a gay friend had invited him to a dinner party where the other guests were young trans women dressed as office workers. He called it “a transformative evening, that changed how he thought about the whole idea of being transgender” (Macias).
“A psychiatrist told me I was a woman trapped in a man’s body” Leon explains, he needs $2500.00 for his “sex change” (gender reassignment). Durning tries to reason with Leon, “Don’t you think he did it for you? You’re up to your neck in it—you’re an accessory, an admitted homosexual…” This exciting new development has intrigued the news media. “Phone calls have begun to arrive at our switchboard from various factions of the gay community, some in support of Sonny and his actions and others totally condemning events and calling it a farce, and a case of sheer exhibitionism.” Sal becomes agitated when the newscaster says the bank is being robbed by two homosexuals, and he wants to correct the broadcast. “It’s just a freak show to them, it don’t matter. Tell them to stop saying there are two homosexuals in here.”
The real Sonny
Angie is enlisted to try and help as well, but her contributions are even less useful. “It hurt me. Can you imagine marrying another man? Did I ever do anything to make you do that? Did I ever turn you down or anything?” Sonny’s mother also is more hindrance than help, “You wouldn’t need Leon if Angie was treating you right.” Now there is an additional audience to the police and FBI hostage negotiations, a group of gay rights protestors, with signs that say things like “Sonny All The Way.”
Since there is so little money in the bank, Sonny has decided to ask for additional cash and a plane to Algeria (Why Algeria? There’s a Howard Johnson’s (motel) there). The FBI appear to be arranging his escape, so Sonny dictates his will to the head teller, dispersing his $10,000 life insurance policy. The grim face of the FBI agent, (played by James Broderick, Matthew Broderick’s father) lets you know that his escape is highly unlikely.
Lumet did not generally like improvisation on his sets, but during the three week rehearsal time he had the actors improvise, and then he and the script writer, Frank Pierson, reshaped the scripted dialogue. Sonny’s whipping up the crowd with “Attica, Attica” was not in the script, nor was Sal’s reply of “Wyoming” when Sonny asks him what country he’d like to flee to. Lumet had to stifle his laughter to keep from ruining the take. Lumet wanted the film to be a comment on the power of the media, and how Sonny is both the center of a spectacle, and an observer of it. “We don’t know enough about the media, yet. We don’t know its effect on us. It’s new, it’s got to do something to us” Pacino said (Yule 118). In Network, Lumet would explore this idea to what at the time seemed like an extreme, and now seems like an inevitable evolution.
In Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, he talks about this era of gay characters in films as creating a “freak show.” “The 1970s would continue to reflect the freak show aspects of homosexual villains, fools and queens. The most successful film of the decade that dealt with an openly gay homosexual, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) was the ultimate freak show film that used the sensation side of a true story to titillate a square audience” (Russo 178). But, that book was written in 1981, and to a modern eye, Leon is treated with unaccustomed seriousness.
Leon’s difference stands out amongst all the straights, he is not humiliated, and is allowed to tell his own story. He is not manipulated by the cops any more than Sonny’s cis-wife or ultra-dramatic mother. Pacino, having acted in The Godfather and The Godfather II (for Francis Ford Coppola) as well as Serpico (for Lumet) thought playing a sympathetic gay man would ruin his career. Up to that point, his films consisted of a “string of Oscar nominations for roles that exaggerate masculine power…a rogue hero for the 1970s” (Macias). He said yes, and then he backed out. Dustin Hoffman was rumored as a replacement. Producer Marty Bregman only wanted Pacino. “I believed that only Pacino could bring the sensitivity and the vulnerability needed here. Al and I opened up the subject again. It took a tremendous amount of courage because he was a leading man, not a character actor, and he’s being asked to play someone who is gay. It was a big risk. When you play a character, you become a character, especially when you’re Al, and that might have been a world he did not want to explore. You have to remember that back then no major star had ever played a gay, he was the first. Imagine if someone like Bogart had suddenly played in a movie where he had a male lover. It was a big jump, and he was nervous about it. But, I didn’t want to make the movie with anyone else” (Yule 114-115).
The real-life wedding, shown only in a photo in the film.
He refused the part a second time but finally, he was satisfied with the director, the script and the character of Sonny, and pleased that he would be acting with his friend, John Cazale. Pacino had insisted on script changes that would not foreground his sexual orientation. There would be no footage of his wedding to Leon (although a bridal portrait of Leon in his gown and veil is shown on tv in the bank) and a farewell kiss would be replaced with a phone call. The phone call was completely improvised between Pacino and Sarandon, and they never share the screen in a single shot. Lumet spoke with the Gay Activists Alliance in New York, asking for their approval, and they appeared as extras in the crowd of gay rights protesters, including a teenaged Harvey Fierstein. This was their signal that Lumet’s film was approved by their membership, and the gay press was positive.
Because of the time period in which the film was made, long before “born this way” became a touchstone, there was elaborate justification for why Sonny was gay. Wojtowicz, watching the film from prison, said, “the actress playing my mother overdid her role, especially the over-protective Mother-type baloney in it” and he objected that his wife was “the scapegoat for everything that happened, especially because of the gay aspects involved” (Brown). Although the bank robbery failed to finance his wife’s gender reassignment, selling the movie rights to his story, did.
Leon was the first openly trans character in a mainstream American film. In the auditions, “We had every performer, every drag queen performer in New York and all they ever did was Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke. They almost were identical, until we got Chris Sarandon. His approach was, ‘All I gotta do is be in love with this guy, want to marry him and get a sex change operation. Simple.’” And that fit with Sidney’s idea to treat what could be seen as outrageous in a matter-of-fact relatable. Not to milk it. His famous one like direction to Sarandon: ‘A little less Blanche DuBois. A little more Queens housewife’” (Spiegel 261).
Today, the film is considered a classic of 70s cinema art. Reviewers at the time were less convinced, and reviews were definitely mixed. Movie audiences loved it, it was the 7th highest grossing film of the year, and Pacino received his 4th Oscar nomination, although One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest swept the awards. Dog Day Afternoon only won for Best Original Screenplay.
James Broderick and Chris Sarandon as Leon.
It can’t be emphasized enough that when this film came out, gay protagonists or trans characters were unheard of, unless they had a psychotic streak. Coding a character as gay in the late 60s-early 70s invited either ridicule or pity. Asking for our empathy for Sonny and Leon is unusual for a day when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. Until Sonny comes out to us, the audience has no way of knowing that he is not a regular straight bank robber. The film was a catalyst in the acceptance of gay rights in mainstream Hollywood films.
Blake, Richard A. Street Smart: the New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese, and Lee. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005
Brown, Christopher R. “Homosexuality in Dog Day Afternoon (1975): televisual surfaces and a ‘natural’ man.” Film Criticism, vol. 37, no. 1, 2012, p. 35+. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A319975372/ITOF?u=duke_perkins&sid=ITOF&xid=565c837e. Accessed 22 Feb 2021
Macias, Anthony. “Gay Rights and the Reception of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 48, no. 1 2018, p 48-56 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/701452 accessed 2/23/2021.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet. p 178-9, New York etc., Harper and Row, revised edition 1987.
Sanders, James. Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Spiegel, Maura. Sidney Lumet: A Life. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2019.
Yule, Andrew. Life on the Wire: The Life and Art of Al Pacino. New York, Donald I. Fine, 1991