Dog Day Afternoon
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazele, Penelope Allen, Chris Sarandon
Dog Day Afternoon is the first studio-produced film to feature an explicitly LGBTQ+ main character, one who dramatically deals with his orientation during the film’s runtime. Moreso, many gay communities at the time didn’t even consider the film “queer representation” because the movie was a heist film that happened to have a bisexual lead. Nearly 50 years later, Dog Day Afternoon stands as one of the most sensitive and subtle trans portrayals in film.
Seperately, Lumet’s film has a distinct anti-establishment bent, calling out trigger-happy cops, exploitative press practices, and religious hypocrisy. The movie resonates with today’s issues of police abuse, wealth inequality, and veteran neglect. Dog Day Afternoon is obligatory half a century later because, when Pacino’s character shouts, the audience still listens.
–is the theme of the day, so I looked up queer representation in classic films, surprised to find out Dog Day Afternoon was the first film with an openly LGBTQ+ protagonist. Even more surprising is Pacino’s appearance in both films I’ve reviewed this month; I had always known him for his gangster-film reputation. To see his willingness to explore queer communities in a time when members of those groups were considered outcasts and pariahs was astonishing (and shows how tall The Godfather‘s shadow still looms in American cinema).
Upon queueing up Dog Day Afternoon within the TCM hub on Max, I was further intrigued by the summary tags’ focus on “classic crime” and “heist,” as well as the omission of LGBTQ+. As I pressed play, I got the feeling that the movie was about many issues, but Pacino’s bisexual reveal is the only thing people remember about it.
In August 1972, Sonny and Sal, Vietnam-war veterans, decide to rob a bank. Sonny used to work as a teller and got a tipoff from a friend that money would be waiting for a transfer at the First Brooklyn Saving Bank—easy in, easy out… easier said than done. First, Sonny and Sal’s partner, Steve, loses his nerve, and runs away. Second, the armored truck picked up the money early. Third, a nearby witness gets suspicious and calls the police, turning the event into a full-blown hostage crisis on national news.
During the fourteen-hour standoff, Sonny becomes a folk hero, invoking police brutality incidents and various societal ills, claiming these factors led him and his partner to their criminal decision. Equally surprising is Sonny and Sal’s bond with their hostages, the working-class employees frightened yet understanding of their captors’ motivations. As the afternoon turns to night, Sonny’s complex motivations come to light and the public, who now lionize him, must grapple with all of his humanity.
Like other famous genre films, I felt bad for Dog Day Afternoon: Its reputation overshadows its story, and subsequent heist films have wholesale stolen the movie’s structure and character archetypes. Put plainly, I only knew about the trans subplot going in and many parts felt cliché. Thankfully, I believe that I was able to push those gut feelings aside and let the movie tell its story.
My biases somewhat muted, I noticed that the trans character is an emotional core to the movie, but she’s not the only standout. In a way, I felt relieved. The character is portrayed realistically and with nuance. She’s also not used in an exploitative way nor does the film view her as alien or subhuman (though some characters make remarks). In fact, I was taken aback by the soft volume of titillation/backlash present in the crowd. Then, I recalled that this movie was made nearly a decade before the AIDS crisis—the leprosy-level horror and disdain queer people experienced had yet to fester its way to our society’s surface.
More broadly, Sonny captures the public’s (and audience’s) fascination because he’s been dealt such a bad hand. Spit out by the military, rejected by his faith, estranged from his family, and unable to find a living wage—Sonny makes bank robbing come off as near understandable.
Additionally, I was fascinated by the film’s contradictory viewpoints. One scene in particular sees Sal, a gun-toting bank robber, chastising the lead teller, Shirley, for smoking because her body is a “temple of the Lord.” A dozen moments such as these keep Dog Day Afternoon from getting stale, though I knew exactly how the story was going to end. Also helping to keep proceedings lively are the characters as well as the actors inhabiting them. Pacino delivers a magnetic, distinct performance—no small feat considering this was his first film after The Godfather Part II. Penelope Allen also imbues the thankless role of hostage foreperson with simultaneous grit, defiance, and empathy. She doesn’t back down yet legitimately wants to see her captors find a safe, peaceful solution. In lesser hands, this character could’ve been forgettable or come off as shrill.
Finally, Sidney Lumet’s direction deserves praise for its naturalistic camerawork paired with tight, rhythmic editing. One scene, in which Sal fires off a warning shot, sees everyone both inside and outside ducking for cover, scrambling to take action. The camera alternates viewpoints from inside panic to outside panic in time to its pulsating action music. The result is organized chaos—the viewer’s heart is seizing yet characters’ positions and movement are easy to determine.
All in all, it’s no wonder so many movies rob from Dog Day Afternoon—its vault is overflowing!
It’s a coin flip. Tails, you find the plot beats too familiar, and the movie bores you into your own type of hostage situation. Heads, you become enthralled by Sonny’s tragedy and appreciate the timely messages of the film. Unfortunately, you won’t know until you pull the trigger.