Movies That Everyone Should See: “Dog Day Afternoon”





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.

DDAThis 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.

Real Dog Day

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.


shot0025Pacino’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.


shot0015The resulting film is one of high intensity and drama… a pressure cooker with comedic flashes and character moments mixed in.

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.

shot0047Once 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.

shot0089He 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 shot0140Sonny’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 shot0152their 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 shot0163poorly 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.


shot0170“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. 

shot0176John 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“.



Daniel Fogarty


55 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Dog Day Afternoon”

    • Yeah, it’s a tough call for me. I would actually go with Godfather over part II, but in either of those films, I dont think he’s as unhinged as he is here. There’s a much wider range of emotional states that he goes through in Dog Day… that’s why this one usually gets the nod from me as his best. He was great in all of them though, Obviously. 😀

  1. I didn’t realize Cazale was in this too! I’ve been meaning to see this for awhile but I haven’t gotten around to it. That’s pretty impressive if Pacino is indeed better here than in The Godfather. I didn’t realize Charles Durning was in this either…

    • Well, now you know! 😉

      Definitely a classic you should check off your “to see” list, Hunter. Pacino’s best role is debatable, but there’s no denying how great he was in this movie… 😀

  2. “I’m a Catholic and I don’t wanna hurt anybody” – Sonny. Awesome job on this essay, Fogs! Loved all the background info. One of my favorite performances from both Cazale and Pacino. Brilliantly directed. Just saw “Serpico” recently too. Lumet should have won the Oscar for DDA though. Again, great job, man! I like this one just as much as your MESS post for JC’s “The Thing!”

    • Hey, thanks man. Cool of you to say.

      Tough call on that Oscar though. Rough year. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an all time great as well. I would have hated to have had to have picked between them that year…

      I probably would have given Pacino best actor over Jack Nicholson though. Not that RP McMurphy isnt great, but I think Pacino’s performance here was a little more demanding. 😦

  3. The act of observing an event changes the very nature of the act being observed. This is so much more than a bank heist movie. Its a look at human natures’ perverse sense of curiosity and obsession with being known. It’s the grand example of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. The head teller has a chance to escape, but no she’d rather go back inside where the media’s interest is. The pizza delivery man says “look at me, I’m famous”! From the frenzied circus of “Dog Day…” it’s not far to “Jerry Springer” and “reality TV”! This is a great penetrating and influential movie and indeed an MTESS!

    • Thanks Ray. You’re the first commenter to bring the Heisenberg Uncertaintly Principle into play, so you should get credit for that as well. LOL 😀

      There is a lot of commotion in the background here, there’s no doubt. From the media to the prank callers… its just hard to believe that this kind of thing could happen today.

  4. Fogs man, this is my favourite category of your blog. I get so hooked on it!
    I just wanted to say, stellar review as always. And also, these are probably on the list for this page already but I would love to see Planet of the Apes and The Great Escape included in this feature.

    • Heh. Thanks Smash. The MTESS is the showcase series, here, no doubt. Glad to hear you enjoy it! 😀

      Indeed, those two are on the list. 😀 Of course, they’re mixed in with a bunch of others, too, though. 😮 I’ve been mulling doing Planet quite a bit lately, maybe I’ll bump that one up, how’s that 😀 There’s really no rhyme or reason for the choices, it’s just kind of a whim thing, so…

      Anyways, thanks again for the nice compliment, I’ll keep ’em coming!

      • You never disappoint Fogs! I had a feeling that those two flicks would be on the list already 😉
        I’m definitely in favour of pushing POTA up on the list!

  5. No question, its a ‘must see’ for anyone who considers them self a fan of the cinema, or jsut acting in general. Top notch film. Not one I feel the burning need to re-watch a bunch, I’ve probably seen it 3 or 4 times over the years, but one I’m absolutely glad to have seen.

    • I’ve rewatched it many times, I think it’s pretty rewatchable. I never get sick of Pacino as Sonny. He just… has a mental breakdown on screen, LOL. 😀

      It’s a must see though, no doubt about it.

  6. Tivo alert. For those who haven’t seen the film or want to see it again, it will be on Turner Classics on Tuesday May 14 at 12:30am. Great film. Deserved the 10 I gave it. I remeber hearing the F-bomb so many times I was no longer shocked but was laughing every time it was said.

    • LOL. There you have it folks, just a couple weeks left til you have no excuse for not having seen it! 😀

      I love the part where Sonny drops an F Bomb in his tv interview and they cut away to Looney Tunes 😀 LOL

  7. As always, solid stuff my man! Pacino was great in this movie and every scene with him where he tries to figure out a deal with the law, are brilliant. The scenes with him and his lover are even better, because they actually came around at a time where people still weren’t used to homosexual relationships, and this movie sort of humanized them in a way. Granted, he’s robbing a bank just so that his boy-toy will not be one anymore, but he does it all out of love and it’s pretty powerful once you get to thinking about it.

    • It is. Definitely. That phone call scene is heartbreaking. So is the part where he’s dictating his will. “Brilliant” is a great word for Pacino’s work here, he was completely off the charts!

      Thanks for the kind words, Dan. Glad to hear you’re a fan of this one, its an awesome movie! 😀

  8. One time when a tie for the Academy Award for acting could be justified. It is of course one of the five features Cazale was in, that were all nominated for best picture. In addition to Durning and Henricksen, the main FBI guy is Matthew Brodericks dad. Sarandon is almost unrecognizable in this role. A great picture, I’d love to know which bits of business came from the improv at rehearsal.

    • Huh, I never knew that that was Matthew Broderick’s dad. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the resemblance next time. 😀

      It IS a shame that only one Oscar could be given that year, that’s for sure. I’ve always known Nicholson beat Pacino, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I asked myself “Who beat Sarandon?” I looked it up and it was George Burns.

      Now, I like Burns. And I’ll admit Ive never seen “The Sunshine Boys”… but Im just not seeing it. 😦

  9. Good one, Fogs. I had no idea Pacino’s performance was ranked the 4th best of all time. That’s pretty impressive. Surprised to read that he almost turned down the part, too. Couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role.

    Hope this post inspires more people to check this out. One of Lumet’s finest.

    • I think it’s his best. Definitely my favorite film of his, not to say he doesn’t have other great ones.

      The 4th best thing is according to Premiere’s ranking only, so… you know, who’s to say. I like to credit AFI a lot in these things cause they’re pretty authoritative, but surprisingly, Dog Day didnt make their rankings 😯

      They courted with Hoffman while Pacino wavered. I think Hoffman might have had the look, and maybe he could have pulled it off, but I’m just imagining his mannerisms coming through and it bugs me. LOL Glad Pacino wised up!

  10. Hi, Fogs:

    The actual heist happened on my first day of basic training at Lackland AFB. So, I didn’t really catch up on things until Thanksgiving.

    One of Lumet’s and greatest. Superb on location work.With huge hints of Pacino’s and Cazale’s untapped potential.

    Excellent choice for an MTESS!

    • Thanks Jack. They knew you were gonna be preoccupied, so they figured that that was their chance to strike 😉

      I think it’s Lumet’s best. I know its debatable, but that’s where I land on it. I think its Pacino’s best performance, too, though not his best movie… if you follow me.

      Anyways, thank you again sir, your patronage is always appreciated! 😀

  11. I have to admit I haven’t heard of this Fogs, so thanks for bringing this to my attention. “Dog Day Afternoon” is a unique cross between a character study and a heist movie.” Nice, that pretty much sold me.

    • You should, it’s awesome. 😀 It’s always going to “hold up”, too, because it’s based on great acting and a great central character.

      I dont think a bank robbery standoff would go down like this today, but that’s a different story LOL 😀

  12. Excellent film, and I fully agree about it being an MTESS. Pacino is just incredible here. And have to give Cazale a lot of credit as well; it’s a more understated role, obviously, but done extremely well.

    Durning too. Great character actor, of course, but it’s nice to see what he could do with a major role in a film.

    • The scenes between Durning and Pacino are fantastic. The two of them are perfect for those two roles. Cazale is great, too. He really gets so much across, without having a lot of dialogue to work with.

      Glad you concur! 😀

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