Dog Day Afternoon is a Sidney Lumet melodrama that draws from the true story of an unsuccessful robbery that took place in Brooklyn, 1972. Sonny (Al Pacino), an inexperienced criminal, attempts to rob a bank alongside his partner, Sal (John Cazale). The plan quickly goes awry when a third accomplice gets cold feet and flees two minutes into the heist and a hostage situation develops. The two are trapped in the vault with the bank’s female employees, while a crowd of media and police flock outside.
Most of Lumet’s movies are centered around New York and go on to show the various aspects of the city’s life. This is best displayed by the opening of the film wherein a series of images are shown that set the tone for the rest of the movie. A boat arrives at the harbor. A dog is rummaging for food in the trash. Workers are going to their jobs. People are stuck in traffic on the roads. Kids are playing in the pool. We see the average joe doing average joe things. From the get-go, there is nothing special about the film or the people. It shows only what happened, much like a documentary. It captures the reality of an absurd hostage situation—the masses get involved, the authorities fight over jurisdiction, and the criminals become celebrities. However, there’s no thrill or action you usually come to expect from a heist movie. This really eats into the emotional impact the film could’ve had. Nevertheless, it is still a great movie that engrosses you with its relatable characters and quirky humor.
We find out the real motivation behind Sonny’s actions—he is seeking money for a sex-change operation for his queer partner. He shouts “Attica” to the crowd in response to the Attica Prison incident and the crowd gets behind him, cheering for Sonny. But, when it is revealed that he is queer, they start jeering him.
The robbery receives plenty of media attention, and everyone is looking for an opportunity for immediate stardom. Knowing they’re on TV, hostages comb their hairs. A pizza deliveryman tasked with delivering food to inside the bank stops at the door to wave at the camera and shouts, “I’m a star!” instead of being hysterical about the ensuing situation. The movie is filled with irrelevant absurdity. This is an unfortunate critique of 70’s American landscape, where the crowd sides with the criminals and the hostages identify with their captors.
The movie is confined between only two sets: the bank where the robbery takes place and the barber shop across the street where the police have set up shop. The director briefly moves focus, only to show the regular neighborhood streets and a single long shot of the city.
At times, as an audience member, you feel like you’re just along for the ride. You can’t help but feel baffled by some of the things you observe. Like, why does the main character, Sonny, a war veteran, one day wake up and decide to rob a bank? Why does he have such dysfunctional relationships with his wife, lover, and mother? These characters symbolize so much of what is true of the city. In afterthought, the title “Dog Day Afternoon” perfectly summarizes the movie—just a sultry hot day of summer.