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In Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet, a true story unfolds in the form of a bank robbery committed by two outcasts. A story with real characters with strengths and flaws that are not easily put into a category of good or bad. The multidimensional, complex characters are what drives this movie to perfection. Al Pacino and John Cazale reunite after co-starring together in The Godfather Part I and II in 1972 and 1974, respectively.
I’m not going to give away any spoilers. I want to talk more in depth about characterization and acting here, but that’s not undermining the story or script in any way. The story is incredibly unique and unfolds in such a personal way as these “Boys in the Bank” (as Life magazine once called them) navigate the crime.
The opening titles read as follows: “What you are about to see is true – It happened in Brooklyn, New York, on August 22, 1972.”
Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) is the protagonist with his sidekick, Salvatore “Sal” Naturile (Cazale). “Protagonist” is used loosely here because he is the character who is the brains behind the operation of heisting the bank, making him a “bad guy.” But it’s not that easy. It’s not that one-sided, which is what I loved about Lumet’s interpretation and direction. Lumet was miraculous in building this character so much in a way that the audience is rooting for Sonny and his sidekick to maybe even get what they want.
Usually, there are clear good guys and bad guys, but in this movie there’s these two boobs who have clearly not thought about robbing or doing wrong ever. They’re putting a lot of people in distress, but they’re not evil.
In one scene, Sonny wants all the hostages locked up in the safe. One lady says something along the lines of “Please don’t close that door. How will we breathe?” Then Sonny just closes the gate. He doesn’t want them dead; he doesn’t want them hurt. The very next thing the lady, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), says is that she has a fear of being in small spaces and will have to go to the bathroom. Sonny asks who needs to go to the bathroom and escorts them.
“Did you have a plan or what?” “You don’t have a plan, it’s all a whim!” Sylvia lectures him from inside the safe as the door isn’t even closed anymore. The hostages aren’t scared of him or Sal. Sal’s practically having a breakdown himself. His motives seem good. Am I supposed to cheer for him? It makes me giggle a little bit at this guy who is so distraught himself that he has no idea what to do now that he’s gotten himself so deep into this. I want this boob to rob a bank!
No one can execute this as well as Pacino. Pacino was one of the best actors of that generation. Lumet wrote in his book, Making Movies, that in a take where Sonny makes a call, the end of the second take, Pacino didn’t know where he was anymore. This was the case because of Lumet’s direction, telling Pacino to go again after Pacino had been shattered by playing drained. “He [Pacino] finished his lines, and, in sheer exhaustion, looked around helplessly. Then, by accident, he looked directly at me. Tears were rolling down my face because he’d moved me so. His eyes locked into mine and he burst into tears, then slumped over the desk he’d been sitting at.” That take is some of the best film acting I have ever seen, and according to his book, Lumet agrees.
The story takes place mostly in the bank, which means the film has to rely on other things instead of crazy cinematography and aesthetics. And boy, does it.
Going into this film knowing nothing and simply watching for the actor that is Al Pacino, I strongly recommend doing the same. Though I’ve never met or watched an interview with the Dog that is the real “Sonny Wortzik,” I can understand that it’s a big story about a little man fighting against tyranny. Pacino plays the character so unhinged from the dramatic wave of his arms and his jumps. It contrasts with his tired, sweaty look.
In the end, Sonny’s just a silly little guy. An airhead who cares and loves too deeply. The film also knows it’s a little comedic and it plays on that. Wasn’t NYC just so gritty back then? Take a helicopter and fly to the tropics, but if you can’t do that, just go watch this story unfold here at The Frida.
Dog Day Afternoon screens starting Wednesday, November 1st.
Wednesday, Nov 1st – 7:45pm
Thursday, Nov 2nd – 5:30pm
Saturday, Nov 4th – 2:30pm
Sunday, Nov 5th – 12:45pm