HAPPY BIRTHDAY AL PACINO. My favorite film of his is Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Here’s my review from last year.
“C’Mon you’ve seen DOG DAY AFTERNOON! You’re stalling”- Det. Keith Frazier, INSIDE MAN.
From this line in Spike Lee’s New York bank heist film INSIDE MAN, I thought DOG DAY AFTERNOON would be some sort of primer for enterprising bank robbers. So wrong. Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik puts on a brave face for the cops and cameras outside of the bank, but makes an affable, almost lovable captor. Still, Lee’s INSIDE MAN is the progeny of the great Sidney Lumet film in its depiction of a city as an organism with its own unique properties, life force, and peculiarities. In this matrix of political and personal agendas Sonny must find a way out, hopefully alive if not closer to his goal.
In the course of the film, Sonny Wortzik emerges as an unexpected everyman. At first I suspected he was a bumbling genius, anticipating all the angles and silent alarms in the bank. Yet, he comes a day late to an empty vault, an asthmatic security guard, and a gaggle of high spirited bank tellers. By his side is the nerve-racked Sal (John Cazale) clucking his gun. As crowds and TV cameras gather outside, Sonny tries to elicit support and protection by referencing various political agendas. To protect himself from trigger happy cops (who probably just want to end this standoff) Pacino as Sonny boisterously shouts “Attica, Attica! Remember Attica” to cheering crowds sick of NYPD brutality. One the phone with a TV reporter, he channels the labor movement in this exchange:
Sonny: I’m robbing a bank because they got money here. That’s why I’m robbing it.
TV Anchorman: No, what I mean is why do you feel you have to steal for money? Couldn’t you get a job?
Sonny: Uh, no. Doing what? You know if you want a job you’ve got to be a member of a union. See, and if you got no union card you don’t get a job.
TV Anchorman: What about non-union occupations?
Sonny: What’s wrong with this guy? What do you mean non-union, like what? A bank teller? You know how much a bank teller makes a week? Not much. A hundred and fifteen to start, right? Now are you going to live on that? A got a wife and a couple of kids, how am I going to live on that? What do you make a week?
TV Anchorman: Well I’m here to talk to you Sonny…
Sonny: Well I’m talking to you. We’re entertainment, right? What do you got for us?
Sonny’s true motivation for robbing the bank- a sex change operation for his new wife Leon- adds another layer of advocacy to the character. Yet, I still wondered what Sonny really believes in and want wants. His motivations are uncovered beautifully by Pacino in conversations with his three loves Leon, Heidi, and his mother. These exchanges show us his desire to be the hero of their lives without having the resources to do so. His frustration of not being able to give Leon his operation or be the son and husband he’d like to be has driven him to this act.
As Sonny’s plan evolves, the crazed force of the city quickly adapts and transforms this little bank robbery into street theater. Underneath the chaos a new standoff forms between Sonny and Sheldon- a creepy bureaucrat from the FBI. Playing the part of cold-blooded bank robber, Sonny promises the cops that if his demands are unmet he and Sal will start shooting people. Sal, who seems more inept at crime than Sonny, asks if he was telling the truth. Sonny reassures him he has no intention of killing anyone. Shaking, Sal delivers the most shocking line of the piece:
Sal: Were you serious about what you said?
Sonny: About what?
Sal: About throwing.. about throwing those bodies out the door?
Sonny: That’s what I want him to think
Sal: I wanna know what you think
Sal: Cause I’ll tell you right now… I’m ready to do it.
Now, Sonny has to be the wall- keeping Sal from killing the hostages and shielding Sal from the police. Sonny, not a bank robber, not a bread winner, not an activist, cannot meet this challenge. Lumet lets the tension overwhelm Sonny and us as the imminent final confrontation plays out.
In DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Lumet cleverly subverts the bank robbery plot to show us what diversity really looks like. From Sonny’s political schizophrenia, the morphing jeering crowds, over eager cops, and silently lethal Sal; Lumet’s New York is a place of real danger and love by those we least suspect. DOG DAY AFTERNOON nails how cities behave and how it feels to love, hate, and live in them.
Rest in peace, Sidney Lumet. New York was lucky to have you.