There is so much to love about Sidney Lumet, whether his earlier message movies like Twelve Angry Men (1957) or the behind the scenes screed Network (1976), but he really hit his stride filming in the streets of New York, spotlighting the gritty characters who make it their home. The angst-ridden weirdo Sonny (Al Pacino) is one of those perfect subjects, whose botched bank robbery is the focus of Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Lumet turns what could be a comedic series of mistakes into something much more, a study in crowd dynamics, hostage crises, and the temperament of a city changed by crime, war, and social upheaval. He accomplishes this with a couple of tricks in his director’s bag, which I want to talk about.
The story starts out pretty light. First of all, during a pretty straight hold-up, one of the gunmen (Tom Towles) leaves. Sonny negotiates with him, to no avail, and has to escort him out—all in the first few minutes. The first act is riddled with jokes on the robbers—but as the afternoon ends, the lights dim, casting shadows of seriousness on a bank robbery that becomes a hostage crisis. Lumet sets us up for a darker second half, one with heightened stakes.
Lumet changes up the characters to signal a change in tone. We move from the loud police negotiator Moretti (Charles Durning) to the much more soft-spoken FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick). Suddenly, the negotiators are less concerned with the money than the hostages’ lives. They take Sonny’s ravings seriously, even going so far as to order him and the hostages dinner. The crowd, too, becomes angrier; unable to decide whether or not they like Sonny, who has been revealed to be a homosexual (still slightly taboo at the time), they alternately jeer and applaud. It’s an angrier mix of emotions, one encapsulated not only by the new characters but the bank robbers themselves.
This brings me to Al Pacino, who works hard steering this movie from comedy to high stakes drama. No actor, before or since, is able to control a scene, taking Sonny from a rock star pose outside the bank one moment, to sobbing on the phone with his wife Leon (Chris Sarandon) the next. He works all angles, moving from angry to hurt, to delusional, and to frightened and ultimately repentant by the final scene. It is his acting that moves this movie—without him, its full capability, to take a botched robbery and make it into a portrait of a man estranged from society, never would have worked.
The screenwriter Frank Pierson had a great deal to do with this film’s success, but it was Lumet’s direction, and Pacino’s performance that made it work. There are few actors who can make you feel so strongly. On the one hand, we love this guy, a plucky unemployed Vietnam veteran living a double life, yet we also disapprove of his violence. In the end, Lumet doesn’t make a definite decision on Sonny, leaving it to the audience to decide. It’s a testament to Lumet’s direction that I couldn’t decide whether to love or hate this strange product of a tortured, estranged New York City—and that I didn’t want to, either.