ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA! ATTICA!
On August 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz, Salvatore Naturile and Robert Westenberg attempted to rob a branch of the Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn, New York. Westenberg would flee before the robbery was in fully under way, Naturile would be killed by the FBI before the day was out, and Wojtowicz would be apprehended and eventually wind up serving six years in jail.
This was no typical foiled bank robbery, however. The bank manager was able to alert a manager at another branch shortly after the robbery began, and the police were able to surround the building with Wojtowicz and Naturile still inside. With Naturile holding the branch employees as hostages, Wojtowicz left the bank to talk to the cops openly out in the streets, in full view of the throng of press and spectators that had assembled.
When Wojtowicz revealed his motivations for the robbery, the story took on an entirely different dimension. After divorcing his first wife, the mother of his two children, Wojtowicz had begun exploring homosexuality. He met and fell in love with a man named Ernest Aron, and the two were married in December of the previous year. Aron, however, was a transgendered individual who longed for a sex change operation. At the time of the robbery, he was in a psychiatric institution, following a series of suicide attempts related to his gender discomfort.
Wojtowicz was robbing the bank to fund Aron’s sex change operation.
Life Magazine wrote an article about the events of that hot summer day entitled “The Boys in the Bank“. It detailed not only the circus like atmosphere of that day, but the backstories behind the robbers, and the motivations of John Wojtowicz.
An associate of producer Martin Bregman brought the article to his attention. Bregman was intrigued. Aside from the robbery, the story featured a lifestyle that Hollywood hadn’t explored much previously. He felt that if he were to turn it into a film, it would be a first, it would be different.
Though Wojtowicz was convinced to sell the film rights to the story, he refused to cooperate with the screenwriter, leaving the production to come up with their own interpretation based on the factual records and interviews with people involved and people who knew Wojtowicz (Wojtowicz would later write the NY Times disputing several of the events).
Al Pacino was mentioned for the role even before Bregman put the film in motion. The “Life” article said that Wojtowicz had the “broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman”, and indeed, there were physical similarities. Pacino had actually heard of the event as it was happening. He got a kick later on out of hearing people say it might make a good role for him.
But when Bregman actually sent him a script and offered him the role, Pacino passed. He had just finished shooting “The Godfather: Part II”, and didn’t feel up to the demands of working with director Sidney Lumet again (he, Bregman and Lumet had done “Serpico” a few years earlier, in 1973). Lumet was well known for extensive rehearsals and favoring “method acting”, and Pacino didn’t feel he was up to it at the time.
Bregman pleaded, however, asking Pacino to read the script one more time before giving his final answer. He did, and it was on the second reading that he realized what an incredible role it was.
Pacino’s high profile and his relationship with Bregman and Lumet resulted in him wielding extraordinary influence on the picture, including casting choices. He begged Lumet to read John Cazale, in spite of the fact that the real Salvatore Naturile was only 18 years old, and the part was written that way. Pacino and Cazale were friends who had worked together, famously, in “The Godfather” movies, and Pacino had great respect for him. Lumet let him read, and was convinced. He decided to rewrite the role for Cazale after all.
Pacino also sold Lumet on Charles Durning.
Chris Sarandon and Lance Henrikson would each have their first movie role, here.
Lumet had the cast rehearse for three weeks as opposed to his usual two, due to the fact that they would be playing characters who were in such close quarters for such a long period of time. He felt the extra long rehearsal period would help simulate the conditions. He wanted the actors to be themselves, however, so towards the end, he held a couple of days of script-free improv. The exercise turned out so much better than he expected that he began recording the improv sessions and working lines from them into the script.
On a sweltering August day, three armed men enter a bank at closing time, and demand access to the vault. One of the men loses his nerve and flees, just as things begin. The other two take what they can from the safe, and from the teller’s drawers, but are unable to get away before the police arrive.
Once the authorities have the bank surrounded, however, things really begin to get bizarre. While Sal (John Cazale) guards the hostages, Sonny (Al Pacino) takes to the streets, negotiating with the police out in front of the bank. Surrounded by television crews, newspaper photographers and a throng of cheering onlookers, Sonny begins to put on a show. He screams at the cops, and he incites the crowd, screaming, “Attica! Attica! Attica!” (in reference to the riots at the Attica Correctional Facility the year prior). At one point, he even throws handfuls of cash out to the people beyond the barricades.
It’s when the police bring Sonny’s wife Leon to the scene that “Dog Day” shifts into another gear.
Sarandon’s spacey, whining, effeminate Leon bemoans what’s become of Sonny, regaling the police with the tale of their relationship, his gender issues, and Sonny’s recent character problems. He initially refuses to speak to Sonny on the phone.
He eventually accedes, however, and he and Sonny have a phone call worthy of movie history. It’s there that the two rehash their relationship, Leon’s experiences in the psychiatric ward, and Sonny’s motivations for robbing the bank. It’s at this moment that we’re fully let into Sonny’s character… everything that motivates him, all of his temper issues, his desperation. We’re shown the love between the two, but also the frustration of not being able to make their relationship work. Even though both know that this may be their final chance to speak to one another, the audience is left with the feeling that many things were left unsaid.
Immediately following, Sonny calls his ex-wife, the mother of his children, and is treated to a rambling, panicked stream of worry. We’ve been given a full picture of where he comes from and what his life is like.
It’s no wonder he’s losing his mind.
It’s arguably the finest performance of Al Pacino’s storied career.
Sonny is earnest and endearing, yet occasionally violent and unstable. In spite of the circumstances, you get the feeling he would never hurt anyone. He’s the mastermind of a poorly thought out plan, trying vainly to hold it all together on the fly. He needs to reason with his partner in crime, his hostages, the press, the crowds, the cops, the FBI and the people in his life all at once. It’s a pressure cooker that can’t be withstood, and Pacino lets us see and feel every ounce of it. It’s an unforgetable, tour de force performance. It’s a huge part of the reason why Al Pacino became known as being one of the foremost actors of our time.
In 2006, Premiere Magazine ranked it the 4th best performance of all time, behind only Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice.
“Dog Day Afternoon” was a critical and commercial success upon its release in 1975. It grossed $50 million on its $1.8 million budget. Dog Day Afternoon won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for five other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet), Best Actor (Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon) and Best Editing. Several of the awards it didn’t win (Picture, Director, Actor) went to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, a film that had a dominated that year’s awards.
It currently sits at #179 in the IMDb Top 250.
In 2009, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
John Wojtowicz served six years of his twenty year sentence. He was paid $7,500 plus 1% of the film’s net profits for the rights to the story, which allowed him to fund Ernest Aron’s sexual reassignment surgery after all. Aron became Elizabeth Debbie Eden and lived out the rest of her days in New York. (She died from AIDS in 1987.) Wojtowicz died of cancer in January 2006.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a unique cross between a character study and a heist movie. You get the intensity of a police standoff, with the brilliant character work and performances of a serious dramatic piece. Al Pacino has never been better.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.