Reuniting Serpico pair Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon is based on the true story of Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale), two Vietnam veteran's turned clumsy bank robbers.
Relying on second hand information, Sonny and Sal hold up a Bronx bank, stumbling through the motions of their poorly planned heist, the clincher when they realise that there is no money in the vault. Over their heads, they decide to cut their losses and leave, but do not get far when faced with a battalion of police patrolmen, detectives and sharp shooters.
Now a hostage situation, Sonny tries to negotiate a way out through Detective Sargent Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), while trying to please the hostages, his gloomy partner, and a large crowd of people who have decided to show their support for Sonny who - due to the mass media attention - has become an instant celebrity.
Yet the situation takes an unexpected twist, when Sonny's gay lover Leon (Chris Sarandon) appears on the scene, and confirms that the money from the robbery was to be used to fund Leon's sex change operation.
Dog Day Afternoon is a film which flows very well, regardless of its different sub genres, changing from brilliant melodrama, to comedic tragedy, to thrilling heist film in a flash, with the twist of Sonny revealing himself to be a bi-sexual (with the emergence of his "wife" Leon) a move that elevates the film to a new level. It also deals with the themes of celebrity and the media, which Lumet will continue to pursue a year later with his TV satire Network.
Perhaps the most messed up of the pantheon of flawed characters from the 1970's, Sonny is a man that craves attention, needs affection and desperately seeks approval from those around him. Living a bizarre double life (with an obese wife and two children on one side, and a gender confused male lover on the other), he has been led to believe he is a person of no worth (with only his babying mother offering any kind of support) and that his robbing a bank would rid him of all of his problems.
As Sonny, Pacino delivers one of his best performances, filled with intensity, sadness and -above all - excellent comedic timing, as seen in his bumbling attempt at pulling his rifle out of a box; his response to when a would be accomplice bails at the last minute; and his hilarious reaction when he finds out there is no money in the vault.
Pacino goes through an astonishing gauntlet of emotions; the dictation of his final will is a sincere, quiet moment when compared to the draining (and often improvised) phone conversations he has with his two wives, Chris Sarandon in particular giving as good as it gets.
Pacino's exchanges with Charles Durning almost come off like prize fights, and his chemistry with John Cazale (who is excellent as the introverted Sal) is electric. Had Cazale not have succumbed to cancer, he and Pacino could have been one of the better double acts if their work from this film and The Godfather Part II was anything to go by.
Frank Pierson's rapid fire screenplay is full of many memorable quotes, the majority delivered extremely well by Pacino, while Lumet's excellent direction reminds of the constricting atmosphere he brought to 12 Angry Men which - much like this film - featured only a few sets, only this time a jury room is replaced with a bank. Lumet brings a claustrophobic air, a real sense of danger without the benefit of a score to help establish mood.
Dog Day Afternoon is a movie stripped free of any tricks or effects, and Lumet captures it in all of its raw, sweaty and gritty glory.