There are movies you watch and movies that happen to you. Dog Day Afternoon first happened to me late one night in junior high as I was flipping channels during Saturday Night Live. I watched the entire movie perched on the end of the bed, about two feet from the screen. It never occurred to me to settle in or get comfortable, because for two hours, I was there in the bank with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages. I think my mouth was hanging open most of the time. Thirteen years later, Dog Day Afternoon still makes my mouth hang open. That’s why I have to watch the best movies in the dark.
On a stiflingly hot New York afternoon, Sonny (Al Pacino), Sal (John Cazale), and their accomplice descend upon a bank to commit a robbery that should only take a few minutes. Their plan goes so far awry that it would be laughable if the building weren’t completely surrounded by police and media. Sonny must then try to make it out without winding up dead or in prison, and you can’t help feeling for the guy, because really, he’s not so bad. He’s a little desperate and confused, but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He has to support his parents, his wife and two kids, and his other wife Leon (played by a young, surprisingly emotive Chris Sarandon). Leon is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body, and Sonny just wants to come up with enough money to pay for his sex change operation.
Al Pacino’s performance is so compelling that it defies words. In fact, “Pacino” should be added to the dictionary so we’d have something to describe his particular brand of acting. His emotions are so raw that he seems to take up an enormous amount of space, but if you think about it, he’s a fairly quiet, self-contained guy. There’s never a big crying scene with a lot of tears and hoo-hoo-hooing, but the look in his eyes says as much. His rousing speeches to the crowd outside are another story. You’ve got the famous “Attica! Attica!” scene, but even better is my new favorite movie line. While negotiating with the police, Sonny softly says, “Kiss me.” What? “Kiss me.” he says again, “I like to get kissed a lot when I’m being f*ed.” That makes it official—I love this movie so much I want to rub it on my face like a kitten!
Jon Cazale is also perfect in the role of Sal. He’s a bit of a wild card, and though he doesn’t say much, he’s definitely the dangerous one. Does everyone know what happened to him? He was in a string of whizbang movies, including The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, he got engaged to Meryl Streep, then promptly died of bone cancer. If that’s not one of the top sad stories you’ve ever heard, there’s actually a scene in Dog Day Afternoon where he explains that he never smokes because, “I don’t want the cancer.” Oh man.
Glimpses of the workaday world outside add to the sense of confinement within the bank, and you begin to feel just as hot, sweaty, and stuck as the characters in the movie. How can we ever cross that police line and reenter the world of the living? Sonny has a plan, but it’s not very promising. He’s demanded a jet to fly them to Algeria. Why Algeria? Because it’s sunny, has a Howard Johnson’s, and beats Sal’s idea of fleeing to exotic Wyoming. The police make it look like they’re coming through, but you can bet they’ve got something else up their sleeves.
It’s hard to explain why this movie works so well, but I think it’s because it doesn’t have the sleek, calculated feel of most movies. As you watch it, it seems absolutely real. Even in the realm of perfection Dog Day Afternoon seems exceptional. It deserves three thumbs up, five out of four stars, and nine out of eight slices of Moviepie. Rent it, borrow it from the library, buy it and sleep with the DVD tucked under your arm at night, but by all means watch this movie. And if you ever get the impression that someone is screwing you over, just say, “Kiss me.”