The Innocence Within a Criminal Act: “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

Written by: Jenna Moloney

On September 9, 1971, the inmates of Attica prison, New York, were fed up. They were not receiving political rights, decent living conditions, or religious freedom, and they decided to do something about it. Prisoners took control over the guards and eventually the whole prison, not backing down until they gained what they were demanding. Although some demands were met, others were not. Police used guns and tear gas to kill approximately thirty three inmates to get the uproar under control. This remains the bloodiest prison riot in U. S. history, and lays the basis for Dog Day Afternoon.

Dog Day Afternoon is a movie about a man whose actions do not reflect his character. Sonny (Al Pacino) attempts to rob a bank to obtain the money for his lover’s (Leon’s) sex-change operation. His accomplice, Sal, threatens to shoot the employees of the bank if anyone tries to mess up their plan. The plan to obtain the money quickly and vanish is proved futile when police surround the area. Following close behind them, a crowd of people forms and surprisingly cheer for Sonny. The employees in the bank are now hostages and Sonny becomes a short-lived celebrity as the robbery soon becomes the most popular event covered on every media source. Throughout the movie, Sonny shows authority and hostility toward the policemen, while simultaneously showing kindness toward his lover and the employees of the bank. Sidney Lumet uses lighting and sound effects to link the retro setting to the theme of the morality of a troubled man.

Most close up shots of Sonny display hard lighting. These shots show the wrinkles on his face as well as the bags under his eyes. The audience gets a sense of how tired and stressed he is, and can conclude he is struggling internally. His internal conflict between his love for Leon and what is morally right is constantly playing a key role in the way Sonny acts. His love drives him to rob the bank and keep the hostages in the bank, while his conscience leads him to treat the bank employees kindly and negotiate with the police. In the debatably most famous shot of the movie, Sonny is looking just above the camera. He has a frustrated expression on his face, a cigarette in his mouth, sweat covering his cheeks, and hair sticking to his forehead. There is a light shining directly on his face, but it is only as bright as the rest of the room is. The walls behind him are blurred. This picture is a good representation of the whole movie because of the hard lighting used to show the details on his face. The bags under his eyes are prominent, the lines around his nose and mouth are apparent, and there seems to be a mark on the cheek closest to the camera. This image sums up his overall internal and external struggles in one picture.

Another shot where lighting plays a major role in the mood of a scene is at the conclusion of the film. Sal has just been shot, and a gun is being held to Sonny’s head; he is about to be arrested. The paranoia is written all over his face, from his eye looking at a downward angle to the sweat covering him. The shot is backlit in blurred red and blue circle lights, symbolizing a police car’s lights. The key light is shining on the right side of his face, making his facial expression apparent but leaving the hand holding the gun submerged in almost complete darkness. This side lighting casts the shadow of his nose onto the left side of his face, suggesting yet again the two sides of this character. Although he only wanted the best for the man he loved, he caused chaos and committed crimes he must pay for.

“The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.” -Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sound effects play a key role in understanding the atmosphere of different places. For example, the beginning of the film shows an airport, which is also where the final scene takes place. The beginning scene takes place during the day, and the sound of planes and lights of police cars lets the audience know that the place is busy. The end scene takes place at night, but is similar to the first in that there are an abundance of police car lights surrounding the area. The beginning scene foreshadows the conclusion of the movie. Another example of the importance of sound effects lies in the first scene where Sonny is shown. The bank is filled with the noises of copiers, printers, and typewriters, suggesting how busy it is that day. This contrasts with the silence found in the following scenes when Sonny is threatening the employees with a gun. Going from a noise-filled atmosphere to silence allows the audience to feel the fear that the employees are experiencing in that moment.

The overall style of this movie is very retro. Filmed forty years ago, this must have been the contemporary style at the time. According to the movie, there is trash all over the streets of New York, the most popular car is a 1975 Buick Riviera, every girl has big, full hair, and the only telephone option there is is one with a coiled wire attached to it. Even the opening credits and title are revealed in a basic white, bold design. Not only does this movie communicate what New York was like in 1975, but it also references the tragic events of Attica prison that occurred four years earlier. The reminder of the uncontrolled slaughter of prisoners at that jail allowed Sonny to get the crowd on his side while it also defended him against the cops’ guns. Dog Day Afternoon portrays the foolishness of human nature by showing how the crowd cheers on the criminal just because they can. To them, Sonny just seems like a normal man who made a bad decision, and perhaps he is. The troubled man ultimately fails at his attempt to commit a crime because he could not find a balance between what he wanted and what his conscience was telling him to do.

2 Responses

  1. Ingeborg at |

    Wow! I was doing research for a project and came across this, it’s fantastic! your notes and observations are articulated so well! great job on this fantastic post

  2. toby at |

    indeed pacinos best performance, not even the godfather part 2 or scarface come close to the highly intense emotional states that are acted out in a way seldom seen to this day. i can think of many great films, but the script acting and editing are so good for 46 years ago. a simply mut see for film critics and fans alike, the story is as fluid as a river with so many twists and turns.


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