Few fictional thrillers are as tense or as funny as this real-life recreation.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Some days, nothing goes right. Ask Sonny Wortzik.

There was a time before Al Pacino began playing the same character again and again that he was more than willing to take chances. Certainly, playing the role of Sonny Wortzik, a fumbling, bisexual bank robber in "Dog Day Afternoon," was a gutsy move after his breakthrough performances in the first two "Godfather" movies and "Serpico."

The preface to the 1975 movie about Sonny's experience says, "What you are about to see is true--- It happened in Brooklyn, New York on August 22, 1972." What the preface might have said is that what you are about to see is almost too good to be true. Sonny and two accomplices tried to stick up a Brooklyn bank that hot afternoon, and everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong. The results are dramatic, seemingly spontaneous, tension filled, and, until the very end, often very amusing.

Director Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail-Safe," "Serpico," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Network," "The Verdict") and screenwriter Frank Pierson ("Cat Ballou," "Cool Hand Luke") couldn't have wanted a better story. The movie practically wrote itself, nudged along by the sometimes improvisational style of Pacino and the cast of pros.

It begins on an ordinary summer day, a leisurely montage of New York location shots establishing the mood. Then, Sonny and two accomplices enter the First Brooklyn Savings Bank at 2:57 p.m., just minutes before closing. From that point on, what should have been a ten-minute bank robbery becomes a terribly bungled, fourteen-hour siege, funny yet frightening for its having actually taken place.

Pacino's Sonny Wortzik is the leader of the team, but he's not the cool, calm, calculating Michael Corleone or the daring undercover cop Serpico that audiences might have expected. He's a bundle of nerves, an essentially nice guy driven to distraction by his disordered personal life, his recent unemployment, his wife and two children, and his boyfriend with whom he has recently "wed." He needs the money from the bank job to finance a sex-change operation for the boyfriend. If that isn't bizarre enough, just wait until Sonny and his buddies pull out their guns. Inside the bank Sonny and Sal take nine employees hostage, only to find out there is almost no money in the bank. Sonny cannot believe his bad luck. Then, to his horror, he no sooner gets this bad news than he discovers the police are on to them. Within minutes the bank is surrounded by hundreds of cops, SWAT teams, helicopters, crowds of people, the press, and, before long, national television crews and cameras. The robbery becomes a major media event.

Sonny's younger accomplice is Stevie (Gary Springer), who decides thirty seconds into the operation that he can't go through with it and flees. Sonny has to plead with him not to take the getaway car. "But how will I get home?" asks Stevie. "Take the subway," says Sonny.

The second and more important accomplice is Sal (played by John Cazale, who worked with Pacino on both of the first "Godfather" pictures as the brother, Fredo). Sal is a morose ex-con, incapable of making his own decisions, who freezes up in shock as things go bad and practically turns into a zombie. His character is amazingly dumb, but it gets him one of the best lines in the show. When it looks as if the only way for the robbers to extricate themselves from the situation is to demand a jet plane out of the country, Sonny asks Sal, "Is there any special country you want to go to?" Sal replies in a perfect deadpan, "Wyoming." Sonny has to explain to him that Wyoming is not a country.

The movie's material is slight. We witness the siege outside the bank; we watch in amusement the developments inside the bank, and that's about it until everything comes to a crashing halt. Yet director Lumet does it up with such precision, with such a sense of reality and sensitivity and appeal, that one's attention is riveted for almost the entire two hours running time. Admittedly, there are a couple of soft spots in the middle and toward the end where the action drags just a tad, but it's not much. Moreover, the location shooting in and around Brooklyn and Queens lends an authenticity to the proceedings. For much of the time, it feels like we're not so much watching a recreation of the real-life events as we are watching the real-life events themselves.

Sonny is a bum and something of an idiot for what he's doing, but he gains the sympathy of the crowds outside the bank and the audience watching the movie. He is, as I mentioned before, essentially a nice guy. He announces to the bank employees after pulling out his gun, "I'm a Catholic; I don't want to hurt anybody." Before locking the hostages in the vault, he allows them to go to the bathroom. When he steps out of the bank to confer with the police, he shouts "Attica, Attica, Attica," a reference to the Attica Prison riots of a year or so before in which the police killed innocent bystanders along with the rioters. The crowd supports him and cheers him on. Sonny becomes a celebrity in their midst because he's one of their own, and the press come to love him equally. One reporter asks him, "Why are you robbing banks?" Sonny responds in an appropriate Willie Sutton style, "Why? Because they got the money here." Even the hostages begin feeling like celebrities, especially when the press start calling the bank asking for interviews.

The cast is small but couldn't be bettered. Pacino and Cazale play wonderfully off one another, Pacino's character frantic, Cazale's frozen. Charles Durning plays the frazzled officer, Det. Sgt. Moretti, heading up the police blockade. James Broderick plays the FBI agent, Sheldon, sent to oversee activities and eventually take charge. Chris Sarandon plays the boyfriend, Leon Shermer, recently hospitalized for what doctors diagnose as a psychiatric condition. And look for Lance Henriksen in his first screen role playing an FBI driver at the end of the film.

Sonny seems like a genuinely intelligent person committing a genuinely stupid act, but he's surrounded by people in his personal life who in the movie appear like genuine morons. Stevie quits and runs away; Sal is a automaton; Sonny's wife is an overweight motor-mouth; Sonny's boyfriend is a basket case; Sonny's mother is a nag. It's no wonder he cracked up.

"Dog Day Afternoon" is a comedic thriller whose tone eventually turns deadly serious. It follows the incidents of the actual story in basic outline if not in detail, but it largely retains the real-life ending. It is perhaps not a great or classic movie, but it is gripping throughout, and it will have you smiling quite a lot, too. Be aware, however, that it is rated R for profanity and plenty of it.

The Academy nominated the movie for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Best Editing (Dede Allen), and Best Writing (Frank Pierson), with only Pierson taking away the award.

The picture quality is about as good as we might expect from a thirty-year-old film, given Warner Bros.' best, high-bit-rate, anamorphic treatment. The transfer engineers retain most of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio, black levels are deep, and there is little grain except that which probably is inherent in the film stock. Colors sometimes seem a little off, though, with facial tones, especially, looking at time too orangish. There is some minor line flutter in Venetian blinds; definition is only average; and some shots can be too intensely dark, further muddying detail. Still, the image is more than adequate.

The audio is rendered via an excellent Dolby Digital mono track, with good dynamics; a smooth, natural-sounding midrange; and clear, vibrant highs. There is no stereo spread, though, no deep bass, and no surround information, but one hardly notices.

Disc one contains the feature film, plus English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; thirty scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; and an audio commentary by director Sidney Lumet. Lumet, now in his eighties and still going strong after directing movies for close to sixty years, calls the shooting of "Dog Day Afternoon" an "adventure." A "dog day," he explains, is "a hot, miserable day when nothing is happening in New York," the perfectly ironic title for the ironies of the movie to follow. He admits that when he started out to do the commentary, he hadn't watched the film in over twenty years, and there are long pauses among his comments where he is obviously enjoying the film again himself. Late in the commentary he tells us it took only about thirty-two days to shoot, almost completely on location; and apparently I was right about the improvisation, much of which was Pacino's own doing. This is an attentive and loving commentary that makes for easy yet informational listening.

Disc two contains two documentaries. The first and most important is a new, widescreen, four-part, thirtieth anniversary affair called "The Making of Dog Day Afternoon." It's divided into four parts, which can be accessed separately or all at once. The first part is "The Story." It is about twelve minutes long and includes comments from producer Martin Bregman, screenwriter Frank Pierson, and star Al Pacino. One of the things they mention is that the story came to their attention via a Life magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore. The second part is "Casting the Controversy," about thirteen minutes with further comments from director Sidney Lumet, who earlier had worked with Bregman and Pacino on "Serpico"; co-stars Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, and Lance Henriksen; and editor Dede Allen. The third part is the longest, "Recreating the Facts," twenty-one minutes. It contains remarks from director of photography Victor J. Kemper and assistant director Burtt Harris in addition to comments from all of the above-named filmmakers. Finally, there's "After the Filming," an eleven-minute segment in which Lumet tells us there is a difference between realism in films and naturalism, and that he tried hard to get "Dog Day Afternoon" to be as naturalistic as possible.

The one minor disappointment I had after watching the documentary was not finding out what had become of the real-life film characters today. The end of the movie tells us that the court sentenced Sonny to a twenty-year prison term, and that's all we get. However, doing a little research, I discovered that Sonny Wortzik's real name is John Wojtowicz and that he served seven years of his sentence before being paroled. Where he is today is something of a mystery, however, one rumor suggesting that he is alive and well and living on welfare somewhere in New Jersey.

The second item on disc two is a vintage featurette, "Lumet: Film Maker," ten minutes long, in fullscreen. The two discs come housed in a double, slim-line keep case, but WB include no slipcover or chapter insert.

Parting Thoughts:
Sometimes real life can surpass anything a scriptwriter can come up with. Certainly, the occurrences in "Dog Day Afternoon" would seem like pure, exaggerated fiction to anyone who didn't know they had actually happened. Credit the filmmakers and stars, however, for bringing the events to life with such zest, such enthusiasm, and such broad appeal. Few fictional thrillers are as tense or as funny as this real-life recreation.


Film Value