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.
Meanwhile, the bank takes on the atmosphere of a community besieged, with Sonny and Sal gradually becoming part of that community. The women try to clean up Sonny’s language, which is rather overburdened with the two most common four letter words even for a Brooklyn boy under considerable stress. And Sonny worries about the comfort and health of his charges, calling for a doctor when the manager needs an insulin injection and sending out for pizzas and soda pop when the, group gets hungry. The robbery is soon forgotten; they are all suffering from the same fatigue and they all have the same goal, which is to get out of the predicament with their shins intact. In this long central part of the picture the interest gradually shifts from cops and robbers to the human relationships within the bank, and these are all tied in one way or another to the basic enigma of Sonny. He is obviously a charming, quickwitted, sassy-tongued city boy (after all, Pacino is playing him to the hilt and with evident delight) who, for all his ghoulish threats to throw a succession of corpses out into the street, is certainly going to hurt no one (unfortunately, the cops don’t know him as well as do his charges, and no one has a clue to what the taciturn Sal is thinking). But the difficulty here is that as one gets to know Sonny as more than a mannequin in a thriller, one wants to knew him much more thoroughly; melodramatic thrills no longer seem to be the point of the film. What does he really feel for his hysterical friend in Bellevue; is he a decent husband and father; what does he do when he isn’t robbing banks (he says he works in one, but Sonny isn’t always truthful)? How, since he doesn’t seem to suffer from megalomania, did he get the idea that he was up to armed robbery – what pushed him over the edge from an unconventional double life to a nutty project like that? You can think of a number of possible answers to these questions, but the film touches on them only superficially, and then with cliches and sentimentality. There is a real Sonny, serving time somewhere, and some effort might have been made to find out what made him tick so erratically. But perhaps Lumet had neither the time nor the energy, within the framework of his pseudo-documentary thriller, to give his hero more than an immediate presence as a human being. It is exceedingly difficult to work psychological insights into the hugger-mugger of melodrama, and we must not complain too much if a good, fast-action picture falls to meet the standards set by Dostoevsky. Still, Lumet does suggest, increasingly as the story proceeds, that an engrossing study of human complexity lies just beneath the grotesque adventure, but he never gets around to displaying it.
Instead, Sonny recalls that fellows in his fix have sometimes traded hostages for a jet plane and safe passage to some country where the international laws of extradition are not observed. He proposes this expedient; the police jump at it; the FBI takes over, and the last section of the picture is an engrossing account of the arrival of an airlines limousine, the emergence of the hostages, walking awkwardly as a human wall around Sonny and Sal, a tense trip to Kennedy Airport, photographed from a low-flying helicopter, the appearance out of the night of the great jet and the last-minute double cross of the FBI.
By this time, one’s allegiance is entirely to Sonny, and the final moments come as a scene of blackest treachery. Lumet’s attitude toward the forces of law and order is interesting. He is amused at the spectacle of the regular police baffled by a crazy kid who waves a white handkerchief of truce while prancing up and down the sidewalk hurling insults at them. The law is present in such ludicrous numbers that even their chief can’t keep track of them all, and one group, zealous for glory, almost sets Sonny and Sal to blazing away at their new friends in the bank. Still and all, Lumet seems to say, the cops of New York are a decent bunch of average Joes.
But toward the FBI he shows cold hatred. He represents them as emotionless straight arrows, prudish, self-righteous, beautifully tailored robots with death in their eyes. The fact is that, if we are to believe this account, they did free the hostages and without giving Sonny a transoceanic jet for his personal convenience. They also killed Sal, but, though I can’t prove that that was necessary, I would not, from what I saw of him, have recommended trying to take him alive out of a crowd of innocent people. It isn’t often that I feel impelled to defend the Bureau, but that’s because, in my opinion, it is not good enough at discouraging armed robbery and much too ready to break the law in pursuit of mythical threats to the national security. Does Lumet seriously think that the FBI should have kept its word to Sonny? If that became general practice, we might soon run out of jets. But see the picture–it is less than perfect, but for the most part it is astonishingly good..