Dog Day Afternoon
The road from real life to film began with an article in Life magazine that was presented to producer Martin Bregman as a possible film project. On August 22, 1971, two gunmen had held seven employees of Chase Manhattan Bank hostage for 14 hours in Flatbush, New York. One of the robbers, John Wojtowicz, was a former bank teller who wanted money to pay for sexual reassignment surgery for his partner, Ernst Aron, who had attempted suicide over the couple's inability to afford the procedure. Unfortunately, Wojtowicz had based his spur-of-the-moment robbery plan less on his knowledge of banking practices and more on The Godfather, which he'd seen that morning. Bregman found the tale intriguing, particularly the writer's observation that Wojtowicz bore a striking resemblance to actor Al Pacino, for whom Bregman was seeking a property. With a screenplay by Frank Pierson (Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke), esteemed director Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico) was brought on board with Pacino, who initially turned down the role but instead delivered one of his finest performances. The movie received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), and Best Editing (Dede Allen), and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The back-cover description on Warner's two-disc "30th Anniversary" DVD release describes Dog Day Afternoon as a "boisterous comedy thriller," leading to the inevitable conclusion that whoever wrote that copy only saw the first half of the film. It's a classic Lumet production, with almost all of the action taking place in one location the bank and the street outside on one long, dull, hot summer day. There's no musical score (save an Elton John song that plays over the credits) with the film heavily dependent on its smart, tight script, the savvy performances by the actors, and Lumet's sure directorial hand. The Wojtowicz character, here renamed Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and two partners hit a Brooklyn bank at closing time. One gunman immediately loses his cool and takes off, leaving Sonny and Sal (John Cazale, best known as Fredo in The Godfather) to pull off the robbery without him. Soon the bank is surrounded by cops, with the head negotiator (Charles Durning) trying to get Sonny, Sal and the hostages out of the bank while the local news crews turn the entire event into a media carnival. But Sonny a high-strung Vietnam vet with a shrewish wife, a suicidal lover in need of a sex-change, and an overly possessive mother becomes a hero to the crowd watching the proceedings, throwing fistfuls of money and leading them in the famous chant "Attica! Attica!" until word gets out that his motivation is to help his gay lover, at which point public opinion turns against him. The genius of Pierson's script under Lumet's direction is that it takes this slender plot and turns it into a virtual snapshot of its time, touching on police brutality, economic hardship, Watergate-era public disillusionment, the lure of instant media celebrity, and the phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome, all during a blistering performance by Pacino as a crazed, increasingly desperate but likable man trying to salvage an impossible situation. Dog Day Afternoon is one the great R-rated movies of the 1970s, funny, tense and brutal, retaining the true story's not-at-all-happy ending and showcasing Pacino (who improvised several scenes) as an immense talent at the top of his game.
Warner's two-disc special edition DVD release offers a very good, very clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of this 30-year-old film, given that the source material was quite grainy. Colors have been boosted, sometimes to their detriment (skin tones sometimes look unnaturally rosy), but the contrast is fine and, overall, the presentation is as good as one could hope. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (in English or French with optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles) is fine, this being a dialogue-driven film with no music and little in the way of explosions or ambient sounds. Disc One offers the film and a detailed, affectionate commentary by Lumet, plus the theatrical trailer. Disc Two presents two featurettes "The Making of Dog Day Afternoon" (60 min.), a four-part documentary on the genesis of the film, casting and production that's extraordinarily informative and entertaining, and "Lumet: Film Maker" (10 min.), a behind-the-scenes promo made during the shooting of Dog Day that's more about the film than about the director. Keep-case.