DOG DAY AFTERNOON, 1975
What starts out as a simple bank robbery by first-time crooks: Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) soon explodes into a media frenzy live on-air! With everything from helicopters to sex change operations… this is the greatest show on live television!
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After being shot into the limelight as a brilliant new talent with The Godfather (1972) Al Pacino began seeking out different roles to broaden his range. With his fellow Godfather graduate John Cazale, Pacino embarked on his second film with director Sidney Lumet. Pacino’s first collaboration with Lumet had proven very successful with Serpico (1973) and in 1975 audiences eagerly anticipated this second effort from Lumet and Pacino.
The film opens to the sound of Elton John’s Amoreena which plays over the sunny morning streets of New York. A car pulls up and out climbs a scruffy Pacino as Sonny… a far cry from the immaculate Michael Corleone. As soon as the robbery gets underway we can see that Sonny and Sal are not professional crooks. Even though they’re robbing a bank there’s a certain endearing quality about them that tells us that on any other day they would be just be two regular guys. Pacino is brilliant at getting us to empathize with his character from the beginning.
Soon the police gather outside the bank and shortly after, the local news team has their cameras fixed on the building. With Sal inside, Sonny assumes the role of criminal diplomat! He starts to liaise with Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) and then Sonny realizes that he has an audience! Pacino shows us how the attention taps into the exhibitionist in Sonny. Sonny performs to the bystanders, news cameras and police with a dazzling cash giveaway that creates frenzy on the street outside. Sonny also attacks the police over the Attica Prison Riot adding a somewhat political and social edge to his cause. Like the prisoners in Attica he too is rebelling out of a frustration with his own living conditions.
Sonny fast becomes a small cultural hero as he gathers support from his audience. It is here that things go far beyond expectation. like with modern day television reality shows, as a person’s celebrity grows the audience demand to know more about their lives and background. And in the case of Sonny there lies some interesting facts! One of the reasons for the bank job is so Sonny can fund a sex change operation for his lover Leon (Chris Sarandon). Very soon Leon is on the scene, but the media is already reporting that Sonny also has a wife (Susan Peretz) and kids. Within minutes Sonny is a Gay Rights icon as well as a celebrity bank robber! Lumet and Pacino explore the sheer power of the media as it controls Sonny as if he were a puppet.
In perhaps the most skillful part of his performance, Pacino plays out the phone call where Sonny speaks to his lover Leon. Both Pacino and Sarandon are on top form as two vulnerable people trying to comfort each other while all manner of privacy has been stripped away from them. The cops snigger in the background but the tenderness of the moment between Sonny and Leon stops the scene from becoming farce. By this point we have been shown how much pressure Sonny has been under and he’s beginning to lose it: “I'm a fuck-up and I'm an outcast. If you get near me you're gonna get it, you're gonna get fucked over and fucked out.” Like with Frank Serpico, Pacino is playing an outsider who is alone despite having friends and family.
Dog Day Afternoon is perhaps the best movie about the power of the media and how it makes a hero out of its celebrity. Then when their commodity has been exhausted… spits the individual out into obscurity. In the film we see Sonny become that media hero and then end up in police handcuffs after he has served his purpose. It’s crushing to see how superficial and fickle media worship really is as everyone goes back to their lives not caring what will happen to Sonny. Even Sonny’s accomplice Sal gets away, albeit by dying but it serves to illustrate further the loneliness and isolation of Sonny as media celebrity.
With the advent of popular television shows like: American Idol and X Factor, Dog Day Afternoon is even more relevant now as it was back in 1975. The desperation to be a celebrity is still ripe in today’s society and Dog Day Afternoon is the perfect cautionary tale about the over-night celebrity. It’s also a reminder of the great work Pacino did in his early career. In his younger days Pacino had the platform to show how fearless he was as an actor. Of late, Al Pacino has had to limit his range in order to get film roles much like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffmann. But Dog Day Afternoon is a testament to the golden age of cinema where actors like Pacino had the roles to complement their talent!