Sidney Lumet finds the soul of New York City in a bank robbery that goes comically–and tragically–awry. Based on an unbelievable true story.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is a picture that, for all its high comedy, social, irony and bizarre excitement, does not quite accomplish what it set out to do. I was entertained but somewhat less than satisfied, and I hope I can say that and still convey the idea that I think well of the film. Movie reviews today are too often rating services, and readers look for four-star banquets, forgetting that a one-star Michelin restaurant serves better food than they often eat.
The film is based on the magazine account of a one-day sensation that occurred in Brooklyn a few years ago – an attempted bank robbery that mobilized a large section of the New York police, agents of the FBI and the TV networks for fourteen hours of a hot summer afternoon and evening. The inventor of this ill-starred venture, as Lumet tells the story, is a young Brooklynite named Sonny (Al Pacino), whose most memorable characteristics are that he is singularly unfitted mentally and emotionally to rob a bank and that he is a homosexual. He has taken this desperate way of raising money in order to finance a sex-change operation for his friend, at the moment recovering in the Bellevue psychiatric ward from an attempt at suicide. Sonny is also burdened with a very small but very possessive mother and with a wife and two small children. His companion in crime is Sal (John Cazale), an ex-convict whose intelligence and powers of self-control are alike unimpressive; he speaks with feeling of the human body as a sacred vessel of the Lord, but no one – least of all Sonny – knows what use he will make of an automatic rifle if his own vessel is seriously threatened.
Sonny is very bright, but sadly ill-organized, and for a bank robber hopelessly disinclined to make a nuisance of himself. The crime -conceived as one of those elegant, split-second capers – starts to fall apart at the very beginning and one senses that Sonny would be glad to call the whole thing off (especially when he discovers that there is very little cash in the bank that afternoon). But his somewhat boisterous activity in and around the tellers’ counters has been noticed by people of the neighborhood and by now cops are deployed in solid ranks all up and down the street and on advantageous roofs; the cameras are poised and citizens of Brooklyn by the thousands have gathered to be entertained.
The police have brought to bear enough fire power to repel a military invasion, but cannot use it because Sunny and Sal have detained the bank manager, an elderly guard and eight or ten female tellers, cashiers, typists and, clerks. Negotiations begin: Sonny steps outside from time to time to talk with the officer in charge, demanding at each appearance that the hundreds of guns, pointed at him be put out of sight. This earns him the cheers of the crowd, which he greatly enjoys – and which turn to cruel catcalls when the running broadcast carries the news of his homosexuality.