The progressive social commentary of “Dog Day Afternoon” informs a remarkable Pacino performance

Sidney Lumet’s New Hollywood biopic screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 28.
A man (Al Pacino) in a white button-down shirt in the center of the frame stares out at an unseen crowd on the street. Pacino is in motion with a fiercely angry expression, and his mouth is open.
Outside the First Brooklyn Savings Bank, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) yells “Attica!” at police and onlookers.

Sidney Lumet’s New Hollywood biopic screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 28.

While so many of us are aware of Al Pacino’s magnificent performances in films such as The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983), his finest and most poignant work can be seen in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Based on real-life events that took place at Chase Manhattan bank on August 22, 1972, in Brooklyn, New York, the film follows Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Sal Naturile (John Cazale) as they attempt to rob a bank in order to fund a sex change operation for Sonny’s wife (Chris Sarandon). What follows is a tense standoff between Sonny, Sal, the police, and a complete media circus.

In Sonny and Sal’s head, their operation is supposed to be a simple get-in, take-the-money-and-run scenario. Unfortunately for them, an armored car had picked up a substantial amount of money at the bank the day prior, thwarting their plans before things even began to materialize. As they realize the weight of this blunder, the cops begin to swarm and close in on them. The only real leverage Sonny and Sal have are the people in the bank who they take hostage and use as a bargaining chip.

As the standoff progresses, the media descends upon the bank, with their own agenda in portraying the two men, vilifying Sonny by “othering” him and making light of his relationship with his transgender partner. Eventually, Sonny does come out of the bank to address the police. Through pained shouts of “Attica!” (referencing the prison riot), Sonny becomes something of a folk hero as a large gawking crowd surrounds the bank and appears to egg the two men on. When the crowd learns why the robbery is taking place, however, anti-queer bigotry begins to take root, and the tide turns.

So many aspects of Lumet’s film are ahead of its time. In 2023, fueled by vicious right-wing, anti-humanistic screeds, many Americans continue to target and demonize the trans community. Dog Day Afternoon‘s serious treatment of a character going through a gender change was truly groundbreaking for its time.

As Sonny, Al Pacino communicates more with his eyes than any actor of his generation. A scene toward the end of the film features an extended period of silence, but the soulful look in his eyes relays the fear, the pain, and the uncertainty of his fate.

Dog Day Afternoon is among my personal top-10 and has been for some years now, and its power is strongly enhanced on the big screen at UW Cinematheque on Friday, July 28, at 7 p.m.

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