Two years after making the police corruption thriller Serpico together, Al Pacino and director Sidney Lumet collaborated again on another dramatic true crime story ripped directly from the newspaper headlines.
Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) is up against it in Dog Day Afternoon. He has a mountain of debts, an unhappy wife and a male lover who wants a sex-change operation. So he enlists the help of Sal (John Cazale) to rob a Brooklyn bank on a hot August day in 1972.
The heist goes catastrophically wrong – the third member of the gang bottles out within minutes of the robbery, kicking off and asking if he can use the getaway car to go home – and Sonny and Sal wind up holding the bank staff and clients hostage while the incident snowballs into a city-wide ordeal.
Pacino delivers one of the best performances of his career as the loser who begins to relish the notoriety he wins while negotiating with the cops in the sticky heat of a New York summer.
Charles Durning is the harassed police chief trying not only to prevent a bloodbath inside the bank but also to control his own trigger-happy cops while contending with the oppressive heat, tension and ultimately surreal action as various pressure groups arrive outside to cheer or decry the bisexual bank robber in front of the impotent NYPD.
Chris Sarandon delivers an effective turn as wannabe woman Leon and the film’s handling of gay issues, though it looks dated today, is remarkably advanced for the mid-70s – though Pacino baulked at a kiss outside the bank, and the scene was re-written as an effective telephone conversation.
The film was tautly scripted by Frank Pierson, drawing on an article by BF Kluge and Thomas Moore. The real-life “Sonny”, John Wojtowicz, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, of which he served five years. He was paroled in 1978. He died of cancer in 2006, aged 60.
In 1973 Warner Bros paid him $7,500 for the film rights to his story. He paid for the sex-change operation for the real-life “Leon” (Ernest Aron), who became Liz Eden and lived in New York. She died of AIDS in 1987.
Marcia Jean Kurtz