It's closing time at the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. Three men enter the bank. One pulls a gun on the manager. A second pulls a gun on the tellers. The third covers the bank's aging, unarmed security guard, but soon gets scared and leaves. Sonny (Al Pacino), the mastermind behind the robbery, informs the bank's employees that he and his accomplice, Sal (John Cazale), will be in and out in less than half an hour. But things quickly begin to go downhill. There's not much cash in the vault, as most of the bank's funds, which Sonny had intended to use to pay for a sex change for Leon (Chris Sarandon), his lover, had been picked up by an armored car earlier in the day. The guard's asthma begins flaring up. The manager is a diabetic. The insurance salesman across the street realizes something is wrong and calls the police. Half of New York's finest, the FBI, every Brooklyn resident with nothing better to do, and the media suddenly descend on the bank, and what was meant to be a grab-and-go robbery becomes a twelve-hour standoff.
Director Sidney Lumet may have stumbled a bit during the latter half of his career (The Wiz, Power, and Guilty as Sin come to mind), but you only have to look at his early films to see why he belongs in the top of the pantheon of American directors. Honestly, how many directors debut with something as undeniably classic as 12 Angry Men? And his output in the '70s ranks right up there with that of Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman (I still don't understand how Rocky took the Oscar over Network). This leads us to the film currently under consideration: 1975's Dog Day Afternoon. Inspired by true events from a broiling August day in 1972, this is another Lumet masterpiece. The acting is impeccable, Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning script is sardonically funny and brilliantly constructed, and Lumet's direction is tense, tight, and sweat-inducing.
Aside from a few brief asides and the airport climax, the story's action is confined to three locations: the bank, a barber shop across the street, and the street between the two. Despite this, the film never becomes stagy. Lumet and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper favor tight shots and close-ups during the interiors, while many of the exteriors scenes utilize wide shots and a bit of aerial photography, and the juxtaposition works brilliantly. Another nice touch on Lumet's part comes during the opening montage, when it's clearly established that New York, both the city itself and its inhabitants, is a major character in the story. Given the time frame, it's hard to imagine this story taking place anywhere else; even had it not been based on fact, Pierson and Lumet couldn't have possible set the story in any other location. In both a broad sense and in its particulars, this is a distinctly New York story.
As misguided as their sentiments are, it's easy to understand why the spectators cheer Sonny on. Here's a guy who's only trying to take care of everyone around him, but his efforts always backfire. He's a folk hero and an anti-hero rolled into one, a Vietnam vet taking on the establishment that thrust the country into that war. And although they're just as misguided in this case, it's not surprising the public turn on him the moment it's revealed he is in love with another man (an aspect of the story Pierson treats matter-of-factly and non-exploitatively). Robbing a bank at gunpoint is one thing, but engaging in behavior such as that is, as far as the average person is concerned, beyond the pale (take a look at Sal's reaction to being branded a homosexual in a news report; regardless of how enlightened and secure in their own sexuality they may claim to be, the majority of heterosexual men would react in the exact same way). Lumet and Pierson wisely use the arrival of Leon to shift gears; the film becomes less humorous and more introspective, and the situation becomes more desperate, and a feeling of fatalism begins to creep in. And while it's a quick, abrupt change in tone, it's a completely natural one.
It's usually Pacino people think of when they hear this film's title, and while this is undeniably one of his signature performances, I think his work here is equaled by Cazale's. John Cazale appeared in only five films before his untimely death, but each has gone on to be recognized as a classic. As the director has pointed out, Pacino suggested a hesitant Lumet read Cazale for the part (as originally written, Sal was in his late teens), and a few minutes into the audition Lumet knew Pacino was right. Sal has very little dialogue, and only a handful of scenes truly focus on him, but Cazale was able to turn him into an undeniably complex, fascinating, believable human being. Had cancer not claimed his life at far too young an age, I think it's safe to say Cazale would have gone on to become one of our most celebrated character actors.
Up first is an excellent commentary from director Sidney Lumet. He admits to not having the seen the film in a while, so there are moments when he's waiting for his memory to catch up, but he's extremely engaging and informative when he hits his stride.
The Making of Dog Day Afternoon (58 minutes) is a fairly comprehensive documentary. It's broken up into four parts covering the events that inspired the film, the casting, the actual production, and the film's legacy (unfortunately, there's no play-all option).
Lumet: Film Maker (10 minutes) is a vintage featurette shot during the film's production. I'm a fan of these old school promo pieces, and this one doesn't disappoint.
Closing out the package is the film's theatrical trailer.