Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) is up against it in Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet. 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 a mesmeric performance 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 harrassed 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 is based on a real-life event (nothing surprises New Yorkers) and was tautly scripted by Frank Pierson, drawing on an article by B.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore. The real-life Wortzik was sentenced to 20 years in prison, of which he served six and a half. He was paroled in 1978.
In 1973 Warner Bros paid him $7,500 – the exact price of a sex-change operation. Leon became Liz Eden and lived in New York.
Marcia Jean Kurtz