A Robbery That’s Still Relevant – Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

A Special Feature by Vikki Layton.

The Film

Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is the true story of an attempted bank robbery in Brooklyn in 1972, by two men (Sonny and Sal).  Things get bad, they take hostages, and then it gets worse.

I have wanted to see Dog Day Afternoon for a very long time, and much in the spirit of the Late Reviewer, I have only just got around to watching it.  I dislike the term “left agog,” but that’s the best way to describe my ‘mouth-open-eyes-wide’ facial expression during this film as my mind was blown multiple times – for both good and bad reasons, but I will get to that.

Just a quick note – this article is my own opinion and is not representative of all LGBTQ+ people or their points of view.  For those who haven’t seen this film, the following contains spoilers, for those that have, we may not share the same sentiments about the film….and that’s ok! 

I am always up for a bit of passionate film debate… but let’s keep it respectful, folks.

My Experience With Dog Day Afternoon

I saw Dog Day Afternoon (which will now be referred to as DDA going forward, because, word count, people) on a Monday morning and it was more than two hours of revelation, astonishment, joy and regret – how had I not seen this sooner?!

It was one hell of a rollercoaster, and I’ll explain these reactions in a bit, but first I wanted to make it clear why I loved this film so much.

*Deep breath in*

It proved me wrong. 

There I said it. 

*Exhale and pat on the back*

Scene after scene it punched holes in my resolve and managed to shatter some of my own ingrained beliefs about movies; beliefs that I have upheld for years! I’ll admit, my beliefs may have been flawed to begin with, but hey, explore them with me and see what you think.

First up… 

Films of the 1970’s are boring/weird/poorly acted/too method (tick as appropriate)

Please don’t leave yet… I was young and foolish before that Monday morning viewing! 

I’ve had an aversion to films of the seventies after I was made to watch Apocalypse Now, All The President’s Men, and A Clockwork Orange, assured they were “classics for their time” and films I would “absolutely love” because they were “excellent”. 

Readers, I did not absolutely love these movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate the artistry and respect them greatly, but I was definitely put off seeing more of the same, problematic, style over substance presentations that went nowhere. These were my thoughts, folks, and how blind I was. 

Enter the greatest robbery film I have ever seen.  DDA does not waste a single scene. Everything has a purpose; there are no long shots to show how visionary the director is or how awesome the landscape is, nor were there lingering close ups to promote the beauty or coolness of the protagonist. 

Every shot and scene of the film is used to push the story along, to show the characters developing during a traumatic event, and in short, it makes you feel invested, emotionally and physically with the characters and the situation – crikey, it was tense.

Right from Sonny (Al Pacino)’s clumsy gun reveal at the start – the bank staff ignore him as he frantically pulls at the ribbon which tangles the gun and the box he’s carrying it in – it was clear to me that the finer details and subtleties mattered. 

In the beginning, Sonny handles some of the pressure well; his accomplice bailing seconds into the robbery, managing the bank staff who try to raise the alarm, reassuring an already unsteady Sal – and this, for the record, was the beginning of the buttock clenching tension for me.

However, as it gets sweatier, Sonny loses his grip.  The rampant eye and body contact he has with the hostages, his painful silences during the difficult decisions he is having to make, even asking the bank staff what they would do, all tell us that Sonny is in over his head, he is seeking approval, desperate for help… he is a guy doing what he feels he has to do, but doesn’t know how. 

He’s not exactly a hardened criminal and he genuinely doesn’t want to hurt anyone – he got them rumbled by setting a fire in a little bin for goodness sake! 

His excitement of the public support, his giddy enthusiasm to stick two fingers up at the police, it all adds to the sense of chaos, the threat of losing control – for both Sonny and the cops. 

In parallel, Sal (oh my, just a beautiful performance by John Cazale), makes us do a dangerous dance between having utmost sympathy for him to being absolutely terrified of him, over and over again.  I have never seen an actor use so little dialogue or emotion to convey the devastation of PTSD, whilst in a situation that makes him an unpinned grenade in an already volatile environment. 

SONNY: “Is there any special country you wanna go to?”

SAL: “Wyoming”.

SONNY: “Sal, Wyoming’s not a country”.

Lumet smartly avoids using any incidental or background music (apart from a brief snippet of Looney Tunes and Uriah Heap on the TV and radio), and this really adds to the tension of never knowing what is going to happen or how we are meant to feel.  Is Sal going to lose it and kill a hostage?  Is a hostage going to turn ‘robber’ and help Sonny escape?  Should we be laughing at Sonny’s incompetence and anxiety?  Should we love him unconditionally for sticking up for the working class and sticking it to the man?  Lumet fits so much into this film, and I was never bored, it definitely wasn’t weird and my word… the performances. Cue learning point number two.

Improv is just so darn awkward

I had been convinced that De Niro and Scorsese’s improvisation in Taxi Driver was the best that seventies cinema could offer, and it was good… a bit clunky… and a little awkward… ok, I felt really awkward and I wasn’t convinced.  I basically thought they hadn’t quite worked it out in the 70’s. 

Oh Layton, you fool.

Lumet absolutely bloody nailed it. The director gave quite a few scenes to improvisation and it paid off, especially as they were the right scenes to experiment with – fun fact, Lumet noted the improvisations during three weeks of rehearsal and wrote them into the screenplay, which went on to win an Academy Award. 

The natural, unscripted phone call between Leon and Sonny just gave me the feels. It’s a heart aching and raw revelation of the characters at their most vulnerable, and the reality of their relationship is made more powerful with the language of abuse, sadness, fear, love and regret.

Equally, the improvisation between Sonny and Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning), after Sonny fires a shot at the back door of the building, is just fantastic.  As they reconvene at speed at the front of the bank they are shouting over each other, they’re confused, they’re nervous, and they are both trying to keep their cool and maintain respective control in this explosive situation – the fact both actors went into it unscripted made it feel unnerving and unpredictable.  It is a genuine “how the hell do we handle this without anyone dying” moment and it is just gold. 

Of course, there’s also the famous improv from Pacino as he riles up the crowd for support with his cries of “Attica! Attica!” – a reference to the massacre at the Attica correctional facility, where prisoners were protesting for better living conditions and political rights. 

I think it’s due in part to the improvisation that DDA is far from boring, but more importantly, everyone and everything in it matters and this movie feels as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Sonny could hold up HSBC on the high street with the exact same motive and it would still stand as being realistic and current. 

Lumet does an amazing job of keeping the tension going, using very few sets and letting us think he has given us all we need to know, and then… ‘boom’. It helps to have a couple of the best actors in cinematic history in the movie, and seeing Al Pacino and John Cazale together again gave me the warm and fuzzies.  It promised that it was going to be a well-acted, character driven film and it was. 

Which leads me to…

Hollywood struggles with being gay

When I say “struggles with being gay”, what I mean is I always found that mainstream and popular movies are just not confident in telling inclusive stories featuring gay characters or LGBT+ communities as part of a wider plot. I felt they couldn’t write films integrating diversity as a norm (apart from Star Trek of course).

I’ve consistently felt a pang of disappointment when Hollywood pats itself on the back for making a film about LGBTQ+ issues where sexual identity is the central reason for a plot being dramatic or comedic – I want to see characters I can identify with being part of a bigger story and done so in a natural way. Sexual identity and Academy Awards go hand in hand but I want more than all or nothing.

Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Call Me By Your Name were breakthroughs, but I want to see how LGBTQ+ is represented when it isn’t the only thing that drives a plot.

To be crystal clear, these stories need to be told and these films need to be made (and New Queer Cinema is outstanding at this), but narratives where sexual orientation is a reason for things happening and stories happening to people who just happen to be queer are two very different types of film.  

My eyes were opened as Dog Day Afternoon builds the characters first, and then slots in the additional layer that Sonny happens to be gay. It is a simple and beautiful approach that blew me away and made me jump for joy. Here is a film – made in the 1970s, no less – that doesn’t resort to a shock ‘dum dum duuuuuuuum’ reveal of “he’s gay!! And his wife is trans*! That’s why this is happening!!!”.

Instead, it just allows the sexuality of the protagonist to be an additional angle rather than a pivotal twist. Sonny has held up a bank at gunpoint, the fall out and everything thereafter is from his actions, not from his sexual orientation or Leon’s identity.  The reason why he’s doing it doesn’t matter, and it’s only when Sonny asks to speak to his wife and the cops need help in negotiating, that it plays into the narrative. 

Other, lesser Hollywood films – especially, but not exclusively in the seventies and eighties – would have focused on this, sensationalised it, made it the big twist. Bearing in mind this film was made a few years after the Stonewall riots, the incredibly sensitive, realistic and bold approach it took to addressing gay and trans rights within a film that is not specifically about those issues, is mind blowing, and that’s what challenged my belief. 

Chris Sarandon (in his only Oscar nominated performance) is a marvel as Leon.  Transgender representation in mainstream cinema has either been absent or problematic. Transgender women in particular have been portrayed as caricatures, from villains (Psycho, Dressed to Kill and Silence of the Lambs) to figures of comedy (Ace Ventura) and revulsion (The Crying Game… and Ace Ventura again). 

Reading up on Dog Day Afternoon, it appears a trans actor was turned down for the role, and that saddens and angers me.

Well-known male actors have played trans women roles (Eddie Redmayne, Terence Stamp, Jared Leto to name a few), and sidelined the actual representation of the trans community in films about the trans community – that’s daft and infuriating, right?! 

I could go on about this but that’s probably for another blog. For me, a trans actor would have been a better choice for the role, but Sarandon gave a bloody incredible portrayal as Leon. Leon’s fragility and fear are wonderfully conveyed even before it becomes clear how he** has been brought directly to the crime scene from hospital still feeling the effects of the drugs they put him on.

Actually, while we’re on the subject of inhumane treatment, Sal’s PTSD was clearly considered to be execution worthy by the FBI quite early on – wow, they clearly didn’t have a clue about what constitutes human rights and mental health. 

Favourite fact: The real-life robbery was held as an example of dealing with hostage negotiations and crowd control, and incorporated into police training.

Leon describes his trauma of domestic violence from Sonny while being thrust into the middle of what could be the demise of the man he married who turned to armed robbery in an effort to pay for the one thing that could save Leon – the sex change operation. It’s a lot and could have been easily overacted, but Sarandon nails it. 

Similarly, Pacino as his gay husband is a radical portrayal… simply because he wasn’t radical. No gay stereotypes, no overdramatising, just Pacino casually acting his socks off. Not so fun fact, he collapsed with exhaustion during this film, but not before the director made him improvise the phone scene with Leon twice, so he could capture the fatigue Pacino was going through. 

In conclusion…

There is so much more I could say about this movie which could be blogs in themselves;

Stockholm Syndrome, police brutality, domestic abuse, racial stereotypes, media sensationalism, working class rights, “Attica! ATTICA!”, and what is the best time to rob a bank?

Days later this film still gives me so much to think about. Dog Day Afternoon has allowed me to see how Oscar-nominated cinema was once so progressive – yes, I am being passive aggressive… but I know things are slowly changing in the Academy.

The fact is, the social and political issues this film dealt with 50 years ago are still so, so, SO relevant now. Altogether, the film offers incredible performances, directorial brilliance and a robbery gone wrong that really is edge of your seat stuff.

Footnotes

*Trans/Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

**The only pronoun given to Leon in the film is he/him.  There is no intention of offence, nor did I want to assign a pronoun based on assumption.  Therefore, throughout this review I have used he/him as indicated by Sonny and Leon in the film.

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