There's a point midway in "Dog Day Afternoon" when a bank's head teller, held hostage by two very nervous stick-up men, is out in the street with a chance to escape. The cops tell her to run. But, no, she goes back inside the bank with the other tellers, proudly explaining, "My place is with my girls." What she means is that her place is at the center of live TV coverage inspired by the robbery. She's enjoying it.
Criminals become celebrities because their crimes provide fodder for the media. Many of the fashionable new crimes -- hijacking, taking hostages -- are committed primarily as publicity stunts. And a complex relationship grows up among the criminals, their victims, the police, and the press. Knowing they're on TV, hostages comb their hair and killers say the things they've learned on the evening news.
That's the subject, in a way, of Sidney Lumet's pointed film. It's based on an actual bank robbery that took place in New York in the 1970s. And it seems to borrow, too, from that curious episode in Stockholm when hostages, barricaded in a bank vault with would-be robbers, began to identify with their captors. The presence of reporters and live TV cameras changed the nature of those events, helped to dictate them, made them into happenings with their own internal logic.
But Lumet's film is also a study of a fascinating character: Sonny, the bank robber who takes charge, played by Al Pacino as a compulsive and most complex man. He's street-smart, he fought in Vietnam, he's running the stick-up in order to get money for his homosexual lover to have a sex-change operation. He's also married to a chubby and shrill woman with three kids, and he has a terrifically possessive mother (the Freudianism gets a little thick at times). Sonny isn't explained or analyzed -- just presented. He becomes one of the most interesting modern movie characters, ranking with Gene Hackman's eavesdropper in "The Conversation" and Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea in "Five Easy Pieces."
Sonny and his zombie-like partner, Sal, hit the bank at closing time (a third confederate gets cold feet and leaves early). The stick-up is discovered, the bank is surrounded, the live TV mini-cams line up across the street, and Sonny is in the position, inadvertently, of having taken hostages. Sal (John Cazale) is very willing to shoot them, a factor in all that follows.
There are moments when "Dog Day Afternoon" comes dangerously close to the clichés of old Pat O'Brien gangster movies and the great Lenny Bruce routine inspired by them (the Irish cop shouts into his bullhorn "Come on out, Sonny, and nobody's gonna get hurt," and Sonny's mother pleads with him from the middle of the street). But Lumet is exploring the clichés, not just using them. And he has a good feel for the big-city crowd that's quickly drawn to the action. At first, Sonny is their hero, and he does a defiant dance in front of the bank, looking like a rock star playing to his fans. When it becomes known that Sonny's bisexual, the crowd turns against him. But within a short time (New York being New York), gay libbers turn up to cheer him on.
The movie has an irreverent, quirky sense of humor, and we get some notion of the times we live in when the bank starts getting obscene phone calls -- and the giggling tellers breathe heavily into the receiver. There's also, in a film that's probably about fifteen minutes too long, an attempt to take a documentary look at the ways police and banks try to handle situations like this. And through it all there's that tantalizing attraction of instant celebrityhood, caught for an instant when a pizza deliveryman waves at the cameras and shouts, "Hey, I'm a star!"
The first hour of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon does
not seem like a queer film. There’s certainly political subtext there, but
nothing queer, at least nothing overtly so. There is, instead, a link between Dog
Day Afternoon and Vietnam, the Attica Prison riot, and a general tone
of anti-establishment. Yet, a critical part of the story (even the true story
on which the film is based) involves queer politics. So it seems almost strange
Day Afternoon, it its sweltering atmosphere and tension and legendary
performance from Al Pacino, isn’t better remembered as a queer film. The recent
release of the documentary The Dog, which examines the life of
john Wojtowicz, the man who inspired the film, demands that the film be
reexamined in that context.
An hour into the film, we are introduced to Sonny’s (Al
Pacino) lover Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), a transwoman currently living as a
man unable to afford sex-reassignment surgery. This character was based on
Elizabeth Eden (nee Ernest Aron), Wojtowicz’s former lover and for whom he
allegedly robbed the bank. The Dog seems to better articulate
him as a bit of a self-mythologizing egotist than an actual LGBT activist, but
his involvement (and the detail that the doc goes into) certain presents an
interesting impact on the legacy of Dog Day Afternoon.
Al Pacino’s Sonny seems, not unlike Wojtowicz, ego driven,
as if Sonny’s performance is an
amalgamation of the gangsters he’s seen in movies and in films. There’s a false
hardened quality to it, very much a performed masculinity. Perhaps this aspect
makes the film’s queer content, especially with regard to it applying to Sonny
himself, so interesting. While neither the film nor the person seems to
consciously want to challenge our notions of what queer means or what
performance means in any kind of overt way, it’s important to understand that
it registers regardless. So, while Al Pacino’s hyper-macho performance isn’t
necessarily subverting any preconceived notions of queer performance (he
doesn’t have a high voice or a lisp, he’s not dainty, he doesn’t fit cleanly
into a box), for 1975, it was nonetheless an often unseen version of what it
was to be queer. Prior to the film’s release, depictions of queer characters
were either based heavily in stereotype, very tragic characters (think The
Children’s Hour), or carefully coded (Spartacus).
It makes Leon’s character even more important, for the presence
of trans people was, at that time, nearly nonexistent. While it’s a shame to
see Leon a) addressed by male pronouns and her former name and b) as a bit of a
weaker character, it nonetheless feels revelatory. This ignorance regarding
trans people, though, is accurate with regard to the way that Wojtowicz treated
Liz Eden. Throughout The Dog, he refers to her by male pronouns
and by her birth name, which, as Daniel Walber points out,
makes one question how serious he is about accepting his (at point former)
lover’s identity. These problems aside, what is mined from the performances
within Dog Day Afternoon makes for some of the film’s most intimate
scenes. As the sweat drips from his messy hair, Sonny explains to the cops that
Leon, who is being held by the cops as a possible accessory to the robbery, had
nothing to do with it. But his acceptance of Leon’s desire to transition is
bittersweet: though the tenderness is undoubtedly there in his performance (the
typically loud and hardened voice becomes softer and more attentive), it feels
almost like concession and a little bit of condescension. There’s an internal
battle between ego and acceptance. Sarandon’s performance is as good as one can
hope, mimicking Liz’s distinctive voice without resorting too much to
There’s a scene in The Dog in which Wojtowicz proclaims
the bank robbery this great piece of queer history and of politics being shoved
down one’s throat. His openness about why he committed the robbery go into how
he continually constructs an idealized version of himself, someone who has changed
queer history. Lumet does seem to make time for this event, as in one scene a
group of LGBT activists chants, “Out of the closets! Into the streets!” The
events that took place during the film occurred in 1972, so the film’s ties
with the Stonewall Riots maybe don’t seem as fresh as they possibly should. But
as Wojtowicz details in the documentary, he was very involved in the Gay Rights Movement, despite his peers
somewhat more modest assertions regarding his work. Despite this, the
involvement of a man and a trans person (their relationship was too often
reduced and equivocated to a gay relationship) in a relationship (however
distant it was at that time) in the media is extremely important.
The film’s queer content seemed to have been brushed aside,
but now, with The Dog in release, we can visit it and recognize its legacy as
not only a great film about anarchy, but a queer one as well.
This Article is related to:Features and tagged