Dog Day Afternoon
by Karyn Kay
from Jump Cut, nos. 10-11, 1976, p. 3
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
On August 22, 1972, Richard Nixon was renominated to the Presidency at the Republican National Convention. On the same fateful day, two other crooks, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Natuarale, found themselves trapped within a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank. When it was learned that the abortive robbery was committed to raise funds for John’s lover’s sex change operation, three thousand witnesses gathered to cheer on the bandits. In a night they were more popular than Bonnie and Clyde, or Dick and Spiro. At dawn it was all over. Natuarale was dead—shot through the heart by an FBI agent’s bullet—and Wojtowicz was on his way to twenty years in prison.
Director Sidney Lumet and scriptwriter Frank Pierson grabbed onto the events, transforming news and magazine articles into DOG DAY AFTERNOON, a film which remains philosophically faithful to the journalistic facts. However, in playing the pseudo-documentarist, pretending to a facade of objectivity, Lumet stands above and outside the volatile and perplexing political implications of the Wojtowicz affair.
Why is DOG DAY AFTERNOON so popular in the cities? Perhaps because Lumet, with a vigilant eye to the new sexual consciousness (both real and professed) of the young, liberal urban audience, has taken the opportune cinematic and historical moment to spring a homosexual hero from the closet. In fact, Lumet teases with tempting script references to all the BIG ISSUES of the seventies—not only gay rights, but police brutality, Attica and Vietnam—they are red herrings, each and every one. Ultimately Lumet throws over sociology for psychology. He turns DOG DAY AFTERNOON into heavy melodrama, a long and wearying case history of the beaten, sobbing, despairing and ultimately powerless antihero. In place of an important exploration of sexist, violent, unemployed, and inflation United States. Sidney Lumet spends his directorial energy guiding Al Pacino through to a possible Academy Award.
The two men caught inside are Sonny (Al Pacino in the Wojtowicz role) and Sal (John Cazale). Sal is scared, and Sonny, the “mind” behind the stickup, is growing distraught. He is a Vietnam Vet without much cash, but with an ex-wife, two children and a gay lover to support. His romanticist’s dream—to steal his money when an inflated economy fails to provide him with sufficient income—has gone awry. His political action has proved self-destructive, as this fast acting but loose thinking chump is about to sacrifice his friend’s life and back his own dumb self into a lengthy stretch in prison. Sonny is surrounded by hundreds of well armed police.
Lumet draws strange populist distinctions between various law enforcement agencies. First there are the local cops—the warm hearted, bumbling, ethnic good guys—needed to control the mercurial mob. (As they hold back from the bank the rowdy, crazy crowd—one minute cheering Sonny as a gay brother, the next hurtling rocks at him when it seems he’ll escape.) Then there are the FBI agents, the cold and cunning Waspish killers. They manipulate Sonny’s family, trying to use his wife, mother and lover against him. And, finally, they kill Sal. But how is authority behind the FBI any different than the power instructing the local police?
Whose rights does either group really protect? When Sonny steps outside the bank to see the police and screams, “Attica! Attica,” his cry would be less an abstract, crazy joke, if the sign on the bank door did indeed read, “Chase Manhattan.” (It has been changed for Hollywood.) The Rockefeller militia will get vulnerable Sal and Sonny, just as they besieged the citizenry of Attica.
Finally, one must wonder why, in a film so intensely concerned with questions of sexual preference and identification, Lumet seems so antifemale? Lumet pictures nearly all the women as mean mixtures of shrew and idiot. Sonny’s mother, Vi (Judith Malina), is a bizarrely made-up, pushy dame, who begs her boy to turn traitor against his friend Sal. And Sonny’s wife (Susan Peretz) is a corpulent, frenetic, nonstop talker, who never listens, not even long enough to hear Sonny say he loves her.
Are these shrill images of women used to support some challenged stereotypic notion that men become homosexual because women are aggressive, hideous, neurotic? And why is Lumet compelled to plant a snickering cop in the back of the frame as Sonny’s lover Leon (Chris Sarandon) tells of his desire for a sex change operation?
While Lumet falls short in offering a coherent or satisfying political analysis, he is terrifically sharp in directing Sonny—Al Pacino—who dominates the screen in clowning, crying, sweating through the horrible night. He is magnificent. (So also is Dede Allen’s editing.)
For Al Pacino, DOG DAY AFTERNOON is a fine film. For gays and women, it is not so fetching.