12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice by Brian Brems

12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice #5 – ‘Dog Day Afternoon’

Dog Day Afternoon 1975 Movie - Film Essay About Justice

By the time the dust had settled on the uprising at Attica Prison on September 13th, 1971, “nine hostages were dead and at least one additional hostage was close to death. Twenty-nine prisoners had been fatally shot.” Author Heather Ann Thompson’s 2016 book Blood in the Water tells the story of the riot at the upstate New York prison that came to symbolize an era’s growing skepticism about American institutions; when the prisoners inside Attica revolted over dehumanizing treatment, it was the criminal justice system’s turn in the barrel. It got worse when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered in the New York State Police to quell the uprising before securing the release of the hostages — most of them prison guards and family men — and putting them at terrible risk. In Thompson’s carefully researched study, she confirms the barbarous truth: “from the instant [the troopers] entered the prison and began moving out onto the catwalks above Attica’s yards, they began shooting.” When bank robber Sonny Wortzik yells “Attica!” on the streets of Brooklyn in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 thriller Dog Day Afternoon, he primes the gathered crowd to sympathize with him, the criminal, and to turn against the representatives of the repressive police state aligned with the chaotic events at the prison. The film is based on true events and is set in the hot summer of 1972, when the memory of Attica was fresh. It was still resonant enough in 1975 to earn cheers from the crowd of extras when Al Pacino, playing Sonny, suddenly improvised the iconic “Attica! Attica! Attica!” shout while in a standoff with police interrogators. At the time, Pacino’s invocation of an obviously unjust use of state power “connoted struggle and resistance in the popular imagination,” according to Thompson. However, the tide would turn mightily against prisoners in the following decades, as the incarceration industrial complex reasserted its dominance on the strength of the War on Drugs. In Dog Day Afternoon, director Lumet deepens both his cynical outlook on the American justice system and counterbalances the film with profound empathy for its victims.

After their successful and highly praised collaboration on Serpico (1973), Lumet and Pacino reteamed for Dog Day Afternoon, with Pacino this time on the other side of the law, taking on the role of Sonny, the Vietnam veteran robbing a Brooklyn bank in order to get money to pay for a sex change operation for his wife Leon (Chris Sarandon), a mid-film reveal that still ranks among the most surprising narrative twists in the New Hollywood period. Inside the bank, Sonny and his wounded, dangerous partner Sal (John Cazale) hold the bank manager Mulvaney (Sully Boyar) and a group of female tellers hostage while Sonny intermittently negotiates with the police presence outside. Dog Day Afternoon has been written about extensively, with many critics heaping praise on Pacino’s performance — it may be his best — for its mania, vulnerability and intensity. Sonny is also one of the few queer characters represented in New Hollywood, and is the beneficiary of a narrative trick that first lulls spectators into identifying with him and then reveals his secret halfway through the film, when it is too late for many audience members to reject him on the basis of homophobia. Dog Day Afternoon is a groundbreaking, essential work of the period for a number of reasons, showcasing the performances by Pacino, Cazale and Sarandon, and exemplifying Lumet’s realistic direction that maintains the cynical bite that would propel his next feature, the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted television satire Network (1976).

Dog Day Afternoon Movie Film

For all the deserved praise that Pacino has received for his Dog Day Afternoon performance, it works so well because Lumet has paid close attention to characterizing the opposition force, the police who wait outside the bank for Sonny to make a mistake. Lumet, aided by Frank Pierson’s script — though a number of scenes were worked out in rehearsal in improvisation exercises, a freewheeling approach that extended to the actual shooting — imbues his major law enforcement characters with the power of the system they represent. For the first half of the film, Detective Sergeant Moretti (Charles Durning) is the lead police negotiator working to get Sonny and the hostages out of the bank. Moretti is a working class cop, given middle-aged paunch by the stocky Durning, who speaks to Sonny on familiar, conversational terms. He doesn’t have the cerebral, psychological approach that would define subsequent films that share Dog Day Afternoon’s premise; Kevin Spacey plays a police tactical crisis manager in F. Gary Gray’s The Negotiator (1998) whose main weapon is his intellect. Moretti has no such pretensions, and trades on his everyman appeal in trying to gain Sonny’s trust. During an early meeting outside the bank, Moretti approaches Sonny and throws his sportcoat into the street, his seafoam green short-sleeved button-down drenched in sweat, in a show of good faith. “I’m not packing nothin’,” he shouts, lifting his shirt to expose his bare stomach and lower back. He pats his beer gut affectionately, as if to testify to his barstool authenticity. However, Moretti’s first appearance in the film is layered with the kind of Attica-infused menace that promises violence, not trust. The phone inside the bank rings while Sonny and Sal are still attempting to make a clean getaway, and Mulvaney the bank manager answers it. He tells Sonny the phone is for him, and Sonny cautiously takes the receiver. “What are you doin’ in there?”, the voice on the other end croaks, its threatening undertone accusatory and punitive. It is Moretti, who has surreptitiously taken up a position in the barber shop across the street along with some blue-uniformed beat cops. From a vantage point inside the bank, Lumet spies Moretti and his officers through its double set of glass doors, across the street, and through the barber shop’s window. No sooner has Moretti spoken than the sound of wailing sirens begins to approach; the game is up, and Sonny and Sal are now trapped inside, the possibility of a getaway at once foreclosed.

Though Sonny has yet to mention Attica — the first reference actually comes before the famous moment on the street, in a conversation between Sonny and Mulvaney where the crook uses it to express his skepticism over the cops’ intentions —  he is already working to re-stage it in Dog Day Afternoon. Stuck on the outside of the bank — he never enters it — Moretti is a frustrated middle manager who has difficulty keeping the hundreds of cops in line. Lumet’s staging ascribes the same itchy trigger finger that turned the Attica uprising into a conflagration to the NYPD’s officers; snipers take up positions on the roofs and fire escapes across the street, rifles trained on the bank’s entrance, but they have ignored orders. At one point, Moretti upbraids a handful of officers on the fire escapes above the barber shop, yelling that he told them to go up to the roof. In sequences like this, Lumet shows the NYPD as a dysfunctional organization more driven by individual actors than coherent institutional mission. This flaw is made worse when Sonny actually steps outside onto the street, waving a white flag to signal his benign intentions, and the beat cops with their pistols drawn slowly creep towards him, even while Moretti tries to talk him down. When Sonny explodes, shouting at the advancing cops to step back and put their guns down, Moretti has to turn on his own officers, who have ignored his orders to restrain themselves. “He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it!” Sonny shouts, before launching into the “Attica!” chant that ignites the crowd and turns the onlookers against the police by reminding them of a flagrant example of law enforcement’s excessive force. Their willingness to use their weapons comes to a head when a group of rogue officers behind the bank decide, without explicit orders from Moretti, to break in the back door to flush Sonny and Sal out. Sonny catches them and fires his rifle, the first gunshot to go off inside the bank. When the police abort the mission and the bank is safe, Sonny has to run out to the front of the bank to challenge Moretti, whose authority he questions. Sonny feels lied to, believing Moretti ordered the raid on the sly while distracting him in the front of the bank. Though the cops in the back of the bank are given no dialogue and Lumet’s depiction of the raid begins in media res, sticking to Sonny’s point-of-view and surprise at the intrusion, it is clearly undertaken without coordination with Moretti; the Detective Sergeant has no control over his freelancing men, who want to turn to force rather than continue negotiating. He is also unable to stop the police officers from engaging in reflexive racial profiling; when Sonny releases the asthmatic Howard, the black bank security guard (John Marriott), a group of officers swarm in and seize him, throw him against a patrol car and slap cuffs on him, despite his uniform. Moretti charges up to them, screaming that the man is a hostage; the last glimpse that Dog Day Afternoon offers of Howard shows the cops hustling him across the street, but still in bracelets. From the beginning of his career, Lumet has shown sensitivity to the unequal treatment afforded to black and brown people by the justice system, and never misses an opportunity to remind viewers of its structural inequities. Moretti, in this fleeting moment of nobility, chastises his officers for their assumption of Howard’s guilt, but has to quickly turn his focus back to Sonny and the ongoing crisis.

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Moretti is a liar, however, something that Sonny discovers early on in Dog Day Afternoon. During their first parlay on the street in front of the bank, Moretti attempts to convince Sonny to give up by downplaying the jail sentence he’ll receive, and the wily Sonny responds, saying “Kiss me. When I’m being fucked, I like to get kissed.” He knows that the bank robbery is a federal crime and he’ll go to jail for a long time, calling Moretti’s bluff. The Detective Sergeant’s desire to appeal to his own working class background and honest cop routine begins to run into trouble from the first moments of the negotiation, an irreversible downward slide that ultimately renders Moretti impotent. He has little authority to fulfill Sonny’s demands for a jet at JFK airport, and his insistence that he is working to provide them is nothing more than a stall tactic. He is too low on the chain of command, too unimportant to flex any real authoritative muscle, and Sonny knows it. Later, when Leon is brought to the scene and shares a phone conversation with Sonny, Moretti listens quietly on the phone, surveilling the discussion surreptitiously. Lumet hides the ball, beginning the conversation intercutting between Sonny and Leon, and only later revealing Moretti listening in when Sonny accuses him of eavesdropping. Leon, who has been brought from Bellevue Hospital where he is being treated for a suicide attempt partially inspired by Sonny’s ill treatment of him, is only having the conversation at all because Moretti threatened him with an accessory charge, a dubious claim; Leon has been hospitalized and heavily medicated, an obvious distance having grown between him and Sonny, with whom he is reluctant to speak. Throughout Dog Day Afternoon, Moretti is portrayed as a man who is powerless against the situation spiraling out of his control; he is even furthering the chaos through his inability to effectively restrain the officers under his command. “What am I talking to you for if you gotta call your superiors?” Sonny asks, incisively undermining his negotiating partner’s lack of real authority. As the film goes on, Moretti is increasingly marginalized, eventually with little more responsibility than the bystanders watching from the other side of the police barricades.

While the NYPD is initially setting up the response to the crime scene, a car speeds up and parks near the command center at the barber shop with two agents from the FBI, sunglasses on, sitting inside. Though they wait until the second half of Dog Day Afternoon to take charge of the scene, their presence looms large. When Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) arrives, his first question to Moretti implies the Detective Sergeant’s incompetence: “Why didn’t you wait to take them outside?” Moretti, downcast eyes, admits, “I made an error in judgment.” The antagonistic relationship between local law enforcement and the FBI is a common trope in cop thrillers, but this is one of the first iterations that explores the conflict deeply. When films like Die Hard (1988) portray this tension to comic effect, they follow Dog Day Afternoon’s example. In Die Hard, the FBI agents are absurd figures: Agent Johnson (Robert Davi) and Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush), the former white and the latter black, feel compelled to tell the LAPD, “No relation.” The FBI’s overconfidence ultimately brings about the film’s final act, as terrorist leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) uses their procedures against them; when they cut the power to the building, the safe Hans has been waiting to raid suddenly slides open, fulfilling the next stage of his plan. The agents laugh to themselves about their perceived upper hand, and McTiernan cuts inside the building to the ebullient thieves loading bags with bearer bonds to the strains of “Ode to Joy.” In Dog Day Afternoon, Moretti operates under Sheldon’s surveillance: “Do you have to keep checking me out all the time?” he asks, annoyed at the government man’s skeptical and dismissive glances. Sheldon simply replies, “Yeah,” and walks out of frame. Die Hard’s comic counterpart to this interaction comes when the black Agent Johnson tells the film’s Moretti equivalent, Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), “When we commandeer your men, we’ll try and let you know,” and then pops a piece of fruit into his mouth. As it does with so many hostage-film conventions, Dog Day Afternoon establishes this convention of hostility between the local police and the FBI, while Die Hard shows knowing awareness of the motif by comically exaggerating its agents’ hubris. When they’re killed in their helicopter in the roof explosion in the final act, it sets up one of the film’s best jokes: Robinson mutters, “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.” To him, they are interchangeable, as their names suggest. In this comedic sendup of the FBI, Die Hard follows in Lumet’s tradition, casting a critical eye towards the justice system and its representatives; throughout Lumet’s work on the justice system, he continually explores the ways in which individual identities are subsumed into the institution, an essential means of systemic self-perpetuation, even survival.

Dog Day Afternoon Movie Film

The depiction of the FBI in Dog Day Afternoon emphasizes the agents’ duplicity, which is much more nefarious than Moretti’s; Sheldon and his partner Murphy (Lance Henriksen) are willing to lie flagrantly in order to get Sonny to release the hostages and come out of the bank, their dishonesty menacing and disturbing. Sheldon is introduced to Sonny after night has fallen in Brooklyn, an ominous floodlight casting him in silhouette. When Sheldon enters the bank after the FBI orders the power (and the air conditioning) cut, something Moretti never does, he surveys the scene quietly, with the tactical precision of a man sizing up what it would take to conduct a successful armed raid. His calculated demeanor contrasts mightily with his assurances to Sonny that he is working to facilitate their demands. Sal, having heard the news anchor on television say that two homosexuals were perpetrating the robbery, pleads with Sheldon to tell the reporters that he is not gay. Sal’s wounded vulnerability — Cazale gives a tragically affecting performance, as always — makes him sympathetic, despite his continued willingness to use violence. When Sheldon looks Sal in the eye and says, “I will, Sal,” it is such an obvious lie, but delivered with the kind of earnest sincerity meant to trick a desperate man into believing him. It seems cruel to lie to Sal so convincingly, especially when Sheldon has no intention of following up on his request — to Sheldon, what the media says about Sal is profoundly unimportant, but to Sal, it is everything. More than any other moment, this exchange between Sheldon and Sal expresses Dog Day Afternoon’s perspective on the FBI, personified by Sheldon, his flat affect and cold calculation making him into the near faceless representative of a dehumanizing organization. To Lumet, the NYPD is incompetent and trigger happy, but the FBI is frightening. Sheldon all but confirms this when he pulls Sonny aside on the way out of the bank and whispers, “When the time comes, we’ll handle Sal,” a brazen attempt to turn the partners against one another.

The dysfunction between law enforcement agencies and individual officers outside the bank contrasts mightily with the collective unity that begins to develop inside, with the hostages coming to share food and drinks with the thieves and even come to trust them. When Sylvia (Penelope Allen), the head teller, is given a chance to leave the bank, she casts the same skeptical eye at Moretti that Sonny does and goes back inside, feeling the need to protect her fellow tellers. Though Dog Day Afternoon’s 1972 setting predates the Swedish bank robbery that gave rise to the term “Stockholm Syndrome” by one year — it took place in 1973 — its 1975 release date shows that Lumet’s representation of the relationship between the thieves and the hostages takes its cues from the idea. Sal bonds with Maria (Amy Levitt), who hopes he won’t be afraid on the plane ride, and hands him a rosary for good luck. When things look bleakest, Sylvia helps Sonny compose a last will and testament, a remarkably emotional scene in which a woman Sonny put in danger helps him make plans for the future if something should happen to him. Everyone inside the bank is united by their working class status, a marked contrast from the sharply dressed Sheldon. The hostages and the thieves develop a strange sense of solidarity in Dog Day Afternoon, an image that Lumet literalizes when Sonny and Sal use the hostages to form a protective cluster around them as they exit the bank on their way to the bus that will take them to the airport.

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Lumet’s systemic critique of the justice system’s representatives –Moretti for his fecklessness and the FBI for its deceptions — has a correlative effect, humanizing Sonny and Sal. In the justice system films between 12 Angry Men (1957) and Serpico, Lumet develops a strong ability to use the formal and thematic tools at his disposal to level insightful critiques of institutions that crush individuals. However, a number of those films show a filmmaker more interested in dismantling systems than raising up its victims. Dog Day Afternoon is Lumet’s most humanistic film since 12 Angry Men, and surpasses his debut in its empathy for its characters. Leon’s arrival at the barber shop is profoundly emotional, as he tells Moretti and a group of gathered police officers about his relationship with Sonny and struggle with gender identity. Sarandon’s performance as Leon has long been divisive, and only seems more vulnerable to critique with contemporary concerns over problematic casting; he plays Leon as a Brooklyn housewife, his lines occasionally delivered in a lilting sing-song, his hand weakly clutching his robe closed around his chest. Whatever the perceived wisdom of casting a straight, cis man to play a gay man on the verge of transitioning, it is important to remember that in 1975, the presentation of a character like this on screen at all seems unthinkable, much less one portrayed with such empathy. Sarandon is not making fun of this person, and neither is Lumet. One telling moment in the barber shop confession scene makes this clear. When Leon reveals that he is “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” an unnamed beat cop framed over his shoulder, who has been suppressing laughter, lets out a forceful snicker. Lumet cuts around to Moretti, who scowls at the officer. In the reverse shot, once again centering Leon, the officer shamefully bows his head and walks away, never seen again in Dog Day Afternoon.

One reason Pacino is so good as Sonny is because of Lumet’s increased attention to his character’s emotional struggle. The performance showcase on display in thesequential phone conversations Sonny has with Leon and Angela (Susan Peretz), his female wife and mother of his two children, is a remarkable emotional minefield. Lumet shoots the sequence in tight close-up on Pacino, whose face is drenched in sweat, his black hair matted against his forehead. He looks exhausted, wrung out by the intensity of the day, which only gets worse after the contentious, heartbreaking conversation with Leon. Sonny does his duty and confirms Leon’s innocence, but the rest of their talk is an effort to connect as though these were normal circumstances. Both Leon and Sonny walk up to the line of apologizing to one another for a whole history of unseen mistreatment, but never quite do it. These are wounded people, kept apart by social structures and missed opportunities. Moments later, when Sonny is on the phone with Angela, he can barely restrain his fury at her selfish worry that she’ll be shot if she comes down the bank, her refusal to listen to anything he says, and her overriding sense of panic. She too is wounded, stammering out, “I can’t believe, I just can’t believe,” when she first picks up the phone. After Sonny hangs up the phone in the middle of one of Angela’s discursive rants, he nearly collapses, dropping his head on the desk. Pacino, it is easy to see, is emotionally gutted; he almost breaks down in tears, smashing his hands into his face and squeezing his own head, but stops himself when he has to attend to the doctor who has been given access to the bank to help the diabetic Mulvaney with a shot of insulin. Humanistic touches like this counterbalance Lumet’s institutional critique and make Dog Day Afternoon a remarkably controlled display the human costs of a justice system without feeling.

Dog Day Afternoon Movie Film

Dog Day Afternoon’s final sequence underlines this balancing act. Sonny tests the black bus driver (Dick Anthony Williams) given to him by the FBI by offering him money, and when the driver accepts, Sonny correctly exposes him as a cop. He prefers the honesty of Agent Murphy: “At least with you I know what I’m dealing with,” he says. It is a mistake. Murphy has stashed a gun in the limo on the driver’s side door, and when the bus arrives at JFK airport beside the waiting jet, he and Sheldon pull a fast one: Sheldon slams Sonny’s gun on the dashboard, pinning it there, and Murphy quick draws on Sal and shoots him in the forehead. The hostages make a break for it, running across the tarmac to safety while Sonny, who knows all too well what the police are capable of, whispers “Don’t shoot me,” a limp plea about as far from his defiant “Attica!” as possible. When Sonny is held outside the bus by the police, pressed against its hood, he looks over and sees the hostages in a group, drifting away. The image recalls the protective cluster they formed on their way out of the bank to shield Sonny and Sal from sniper fire, but this time, without the dead Sal and apprehended Sonny at the center. The solidarity he thought he had formed with them was an illusion. Sal’s body is wheeled by on a gurney and Lumet cuts back to Sonny, watching solemnly. The rebellious, radical Sonny who invoked a then-contemporary example of egregious excessive force, is silenced. By creating such a sympathetic, human subject, Lumet deepens the impact of his institutional critique of the justice system; its dehumanizing effect on American society seems all the more tragic when Sonny is its victim. In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet finds the virtues of intimacy, a small-scale story with a compressed timeline and a restricted group of characters. The next time he would interrogate the American justice system, it would be an epic.

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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.