By Richard Winters
My Rating: 9 out of 10
4-Word Review: Money for sex change.
Dog Day Afternoon is a 1975 film based on a true story that took place on August 22, 1972. It tells the tale of a man by the name of John Wojtowicz, who robbed a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his gay lover’s sex change operation. Here the character’s name has been altered slightly to John ‘Sonny’ Wortzik (played by Al Pacino), but otherwise this Oscar-winning script by Frank Pierson pretty much sticks closely to the actual events in this incredible saga about everything that can go wrong will.
Just about everyone who has watched this film will tell you how it manages to grab and pull you in right from the start. It achieves this without having any special effects, pounding soundtrack, elaborate camera work, or artificial lighting. Instead of ‘telegraphing all of its punches’ the film draws back and puts more emphasis on the little subtitles like the character’s facial expressions, side conversations, and other nuances that put together make this film very rich and textured. In essence it successfully ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells’, which is a remarkable achievement since so many Hollywood films seem to want to do the exact opposite.
Director Sidney Lumet allowed for a lot of improvisation by his actors and gave each performer full rein on how to create their character, even the minor supporting ones. The result gives each and every one of the characters a distinct personality. The bank hostages become almost as fascinating as the thieves and it is interesting seeing all the different ways each one responds to the situation and how they interact with the robbers, which at times is both amusing and surprising.
The film also vividly captures 1970’s Brooklyn atmosphere. The sights and sounds of the area as well as the people’s personalities and the anti-establishment sentiment that was still quite prevalent at the time are all right on target. After you finish watching this movie you feel like you just got back from a trip over there. I really liked how during the opening credits you are shown all sorts of shots and scenes of Brooklyn, so by the time the story actually begins you are already well entrenched in the setting.
Pacino gives a dynamic performance in the starring role. Some insist this is the best performance never to be nominated for an Oscar and I might have to agree. If you are a Pacino fan than you absolutely have to see this, but if you are not a Pacino fan you still should see it because afterwards you might become one.
The supporting cast is stellar. Sully Boyar, who was a real-life lawyer who did not enter into acting until he was in his 50’s, leaves a strong impression as the stoic bank manager. As the police captain, the always durable Charles Durning is a blast especially during his frenzied and frantic negotiations with Pacino that almost become the film’s highlight. Another memorable moment is the improvised phone conversation between Sonny and his gay lover played by Chris Sarandon. John Cazale is also amazing as Pacino’s bank robbing partner. The partner in the actual incident was only 18 while Cazale was then 39, which created some controversy. However, Cazale is so convincing in the part that it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well.
In the end the film’s brilliance comes from its ability to convey the humanity of its characters. You can’t help but feel for the Sonny character despite his many flaws. This a man who craves acceptance and yet goes through life being betrayed and hurt by everyone he meets. The shocked expression he shows at being betrayed by his own hostages, who he felt he had ‘bonded’ with, is, in my opinion, the most memorable shot of the whole film.
I only have two negative comments about this film and they are both minor. One is the abrupt ending. Since the film was made only a few years after the incident there wasn’t much of an epilogue to the characters. The real John Wojtowicz, who really did look a lot like Pacino, didn’t end up dying until the year 2006. It would have been a stronger conclusion by showing what happened to the Sonny character through the years and maybe even how he might of changed or grown. My only other complaint is the fact that actress Carol Kane appears as one of the bank employees, but is shown very little. A quirky and unique talent such as hers should have been given a bigger role.
Overall this is a great movie that I would recommend to any serious movie fan who can appreciate great film-making in top form.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Released: September 21, 1975
Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: VHS, DVD (2-Disc Special Edition), Blu-ray, HDDVD, Amazon Instant Video