I’ve always been pretty clear in my recollection that my first cinema visit for an adult film (as in grown-up) was in 1973 when my mate Alan and I went to see George Segal and Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class. But a few months ago, browsing a rack of cheap DVDs in a charity shop in a part of Stockport I hadn’t visited in years, I came across the Sydney Lumet-directed, Al Pacino starring Dog Day Afternoon, and immediately got a flash on that being my first grown-up movie.
It can’t have been, so the only question is why I thought that in the first place: the film was released in 1975, and whilst I did see it at the local Odeon in Burnage, it couldn’t possibly have been a first.
I enjoyed it then, and hadn’t seen it since, but for 50p (I bought four DVDs at the same price) it was irresistible, and it heralds the new/ongoing Sunday film season, renamed in the best Barry Norman fashion.
Dog Day Afternoon must be pretty near unique in being an adaptation not of a book but a magazine article. It’s about a New York Bank robbery in 1972 that turned into a farcical disaster, and the film is supposed to be very close to actual fact, in the way that even the most absurd murders from Homicide: Life on the Street were taken directly from David Simon’s non-fction book. The real-life robber, John Wojtowicz claimed it was only 30% true, but the consensus appears to be that it was mostly taen from the real-life event. Al Pacino plays the Wojtowicz role (renamed Sonny Wortzik) with John Cazale as his partner Sal Naturale (the true name of the other robber) despite both robbers being in their late teens instead of being in their thirties.
The robbery is supposed to take ten minutes. Right from the start, things go wrong. The third robber, Stevie, bottles it after about thirty seconds. The cash run has been a pick-up, not a delivery, so there’s only about $1,100 in the place, so Sonny grabs the travellers cheques to compensate. To make these untraceable, he burns the register, the smoke escapes, someone calls the Police and suddenly there’s a seige: two amateur robbers, eight hostages.
If you’re like me, you’re already seeing this as a Donald E Westlake Dortmunder Gang novel translated to film, and far more successfully than any of the official adaptations. It’s not really that, though it is very very funny in places, with a wholly natural absurdity reinforced by Lumet’s insistence on a very naturalistic approach. The film is funny because the reality is funny.
But the skill in Westlake’s books is in how he merges orthodox crime fiction with the inconvenience of real-life, and how people don’t always fit in with complex plans. Dog Day Afternoon moves a stage further: Sonny doesn’t have a plan, not a real one, nothing complex, just go in with three men, three guns. From the moment Stevie runs, the plan is gone and despite his efforts to convince himself that he’s in charge, that he can get them out of it, Sonny’s had it.
The thing about the Dortmunder Gang books is that there’s always a way out of it, some ultimate plot that allows Dortmunder and Co to escape with at least their freedom. Right from the start, with its New York street scenes, its sidewalks of ordinary joes and jills, the gritty film stock, the near-television style of narrowness, there’saworkaday blue collar aspectto the film that tells you that nothing clever will happen and Sonny and Sal will not get away with it. Some of the film’s most effective comedy is the neverending scenes of more Police arriving, cars and busloads, task forces, snipers, helicopters, complete overkill for two schlubs in a tiny Bank branch. We know there’ll be no fairytale endings, it’s only about how it will end.
In the meantime, the film picks up on the heat of the times. The seige becomes a rolling news sensation. The crowd outside multiplies. Sonny makes increasing forays outside, to talk to the cops (Detective Moretti – Clay Durning – and FBI Agent Sheldon – James Broderick). He denounces the Police as just wanting to kill them all, chants ‘Attica! Attica!’ referencing the then-recemt and inffamous Prison riot, gets the crowd on his side.
He gets another element on his side when he demands the Police fetch his wife, only his wife is Leon (Chris Sarandon), who Sonny has married desppite being married to Amgie, with whom he has had two children. It turns out Sonny was robbing he Bank to pay for Leon to have a sex-change operation, which has the television describing the robbery as being by ‘two homosexuals’, getting Sal’s back up because he isn’t, but bringing the gay community out to cheer the robbers along.
Inside the Bank, it’s Stockholm Syndrome in a very short space of time. Both the Chief Teller, Sylvia (Penelope Allen) and the Manager, Mr Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) refuse chances to leave rather than abandon the girls. The Brooklyn-to-the-core gum-chewing Jenny (Carol Kane) even plays with Sonny’s rifle, trying to learn drill from him.
The absurdities pile up. Calls come into the Bank; one twisted bastard tells Sonny to kill them, kill thm all. Another wants to know what he’s doing to molest the women: he passes that call to Jenny, who obliges with some heavy panting.
It’s very much Pacino’s film. He is the story’s prime mover, he’s a volatile character, anda trapped one with delusions of power through having the hostages, even as he’s acknowledging that they’re the only thing keeping him alive. But as the film rolls on, unhurriedly, his energy starts to wane. He’s demanded a helicopter and a jet to fly to Algeria, though it’s a limo bus not a chopper. He’s trying to speak to Leon, who is a completely up-himself narcissist, concerned only with his depression, his suicide attempt, his drug habits. And Angie’s no better, frustrating his attempt at a goodbye call by overspilling her fears, her concerns, his crazy behaviour towards her, she can’t come down there, how can she get a babysitter this late? You start to understand why Sonny is so clearly fucked up.
There’s even his mother, brought in by the FBI (never happened according to Wojtowicz, though it’s perfectly in line with the real stuff), and she’s full of unrealistic promises and ideas, down to suggesting that, on a Brooklyn street, at night, surrounded by 500 plus cops, press and TV and a thickly clustered crowd, her son could run for it and get away…
Eventually the bus arrives. Sonny plays clever over the driver, a cheery jive black, who he suspects of being an undercover cop. He takes FBI Agent Murphy as driver instead, the original suggestion. Murphy wants Sal to have his gun pointed up, they hit a bump, it goes off, don’t want any accidental shooting. Immediately, I saw it, equal measures a late recollection and an intelligent expectation. At the airport, ready to debark onto the jet, guards down, Sheldon neutralises Sonny by forcing his rifle barrel down onto the dashboard, Murphy withdraws a gun from an armrest and Sal’s gone pointed up, swivels and shoots him through the middle of the forehead.
And its over. Sonny is held, frisked, handcuffed. The hostages are removed. Sonny says nothing, turning only to see Sal’s corpse carried past on a gurney. There are brief credits about the aftermoth: Sonny serving twenty years in federal prison, Angie bringing up their kids on welfare, Leon now living as a woman, post-op.
In real life, John Wojtowicz served six years and lived with his ‘Leon’, Elizabeth Eden until her death twenty years after the film: he died of cancer in 2004. John Cazale, silent, glum, a figure of depression, could play Sal Naturale because Sal was killed and you can always use a dead person’s name.
The whole film is absurd, farcical and funny because the real thing was. But it’s also a very serious film and Lumet works to keep it utterly grounded. The performances are natural, the actors look real: Pacino is the only one with Hollywood looks and he’s playing average joe schlub. The whole film is like a social document of early 1970s New York, and it looks horribly dated in a was-it-really-like-this? fashion and yes, I was there (not in New York, mind you) and it was like that and it shocks me to see it again. Ultimately, it’s a story of two losers who did something completely stupid that bloomed into a short-lived circus, and a man was killed because he was carrying a gun that he didn’t know if he could bring himself to use.
It’s not a film I’ll want to re-watch again any time soon, and maybe I’ll end up not keeping it. But it’s like a TARDIS in the mind, almost as much as The Lovers!, crossing time and space to pull me back to 1975 and a Monday night at the Odeon, a mile walk there, a mile walk back, in flared jeans and a night out for, what was it, 5p? Only one-tenth of what it cost to strt a new year of Sunday morning viewings.