a critiQal film review Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Plot: When inexperienced criminal Sonny (Pacino) leads a bank robbery in Brooklyn, things quickly go wrong, and a hostage situation develops. As Sonny and his accomplice, Sal (Cazale), try desperately to remain in control, a media circus develops and the FBI arrives, creating even more tension. Gradually, Sonny's surprising motivations behind the robbery are revealed, and his standoff with law enforcement moves toward its inevitable end.

813 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 3s)

Trying to decide what to watch for today’s #TBT review, I ran across Dog Day Afternoon. I hadn’t heard much about it, except for three things: it starred Al Pacino, and it was based on a true story…and it got amazing reviews (95% on Rotten Tomatoes!). Since the whole point of this #TBT review series is to catch up on the classic films I’d missed, this seemed a perfect time to finally watch this one.

But, would the reviewers be right, and Dog Day Afternoon was one of the classic films? Or has this 40+ year-old film lost a bit of its luster?

According to the main credits, the only star of Dog Day Afternoon is Al Pacino. While this isn’t really true, Al does lead the way in the film. As a bisexual inept bank robber, he gets to emote to his heart’s content, and viewers will definitely find him worth watching on-screen. While his character isn’t as deep as one would expect (more on that later), the viewer gradually comes to see him as the main protagonist of the film. Despite his criminal activities, he’s just a guy in a tough spot who seems to have gone to extremes simply because he could see no other way out of the situation. While viewers may not exactly agree with his choices, Al’s performance turns him into kind of a likable guy anyway.

The other stars of Dog Day Afternoon – including John Cazale as Pacino’s partner-in-crime and Charles Durning as a negotiator – are decent enough, but it’s obvious from the start that this film is all about Pacino, and he gets most of the screen time. It is fun, however, for the viewers to catch glimpses of familiar faces in smaller roles, like Carol Kane as a bank teller, and Lance Henriksen as an FBI agent. That’s half the fun of watching these older films – catching glimpses of familiar faces before they really hit their stride. It’s like watching A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and noticing in the credits that it is “introducing” Johnny Depp.

Based on a true story, Dog Day Afternoon manages to capture a realism that isn’t typical for a Hollywood blockbuster…and that’s probably why it’s gotten all those rave reviews. Unfortunately, the film glosses over lots of the depth of the characters it’s portraying, and the viewer is left with the distinct feeling that, while the film is engrossing, it’s mere window dressing for what really happened.

Sometimes that’s a bad thing (for example, who Sal is to Sonny and why they are in this together), but at other times it is a bit refreshing. Sonny’s bisexuality, for example, is never really exploited. It’s just accepted – a rare thing for Hollywood of today, much less of the time period this film was made. Nobody – except for the raucous crowd who seems to turn on him once his gay behavior is discovered – makes a big deal out of it. Both of his wives – both male and female – just accept it, and even his mother doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. That’s sort of refreshing for the times.

And then there’s the whole point to all this. The entire film seems to be an early precursor to Natural Born Killers (1994) in terms of the media glorifying the bad guy as a hero, with the police portrayed as woefully inept and the FBI as just plain dangerous and untrustworthy. Because the film is based on a true story, isn’t the film sensationalizing the bad guy as well? In fact, he’s the sort of anti-hero of the pic, and thanks to Pacino’s performance, the viewer starts rooting for him to get away with it all. Is the film trying to showcase how easily it is to get behind the bad guy, thus tricking the viewer into agreeing with the media’s sensationalizing of events? Or is it ignoring the obvious irony of the situation (since it’s based on a true story), and just out to make a couple bucks by turning the bad guy into an unlikely hero itself? The whole point is a bit confusing.

With a top-notch performance by Al Pacino, and a realism that is hard to come by in a Hollywood blockbuster, Dog Day Afternoon is an entertaining film. But, with it’s lack of depth in its character (especially when trying to suss out its main character), and it’s obviously amused look at media turning the bad guy into a hero (even while doing so itself), the viewer may come away somewhat disappointed anyway.

Still worth it to watch Pacino in his heyday – and the straightforward way a film of the 70’s accepted bisexuality in an era where homophobia ran rampant, Dog Day Afternoon wasn’t as good as I was expecting from it’s rave reviews, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it either.

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