Hangdog: I watch “Dog Day Afternoon”

Some notes on a powerful movie which uses its desultory pacing for impact. Lots of meandering punctuated by intensity.

# Hey this takes place on my birthday! Or, you know, six years exactly before my birthday.

# I love the side characters, especially the women. The men are just kind of there but the women are great, especially Penelope Allen as the head teller who emerges as the leader of the hostages.

# “I’m a Catholic, I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Oh my gosh, why are Catholics such nonsense people? Genuinely think Sonny, our bank robber/bad lover/dog trying to finally have his day, is one of the great Catholic characters on film. I’d watch a pretty savage comedy about the doomed Catholic transgender wedding with the soon-to-be defrocked priest, something with the tone of Withnail & I. There’s a helplessness to that kind of Catholicism; it’s a deep identity you can’t wrench out of your bones, it’s like the ‘Salem’s Lot description of what it’s like to live in a small town.

# They tell you on the DVD sleeve that Sonny is robbing this bank to get money for his lover’s sex-change operation. So it isn’t a twist for contemporary audiences. No idea how it played at the time. But for me what stood out about this whole element of the movie is Al Pacino’s terrific weary resignation. As soon as all the gay marchers start arriving, people start wolf whistling when he pats down the FBI guys, his partner in crime starts yowling about how it isn’t two homosexuals! just one homosexual–that guy!… as soon as all that starts up, and whenever it happens, Sonny just looks so sick and tired of it all. The same reaction whether people are mocking him or going all Gay Is Good. It’s not unexpected for him, he’s not angry about it the way he’s angry about lots of things, it’s just really wearying. That’s such an honest & empathetic choice, for Sidney Lumet or Pacino or whoever.

ETA: Apparently the guy whose real heist attempt inspired the movie said that the depiction of his relationship with his lover was basically accurate, but the depictions of his wife and his mother were not. And in fact the Leon/Sonny relationship feels raw, weird and real, whereas the mom and wife both feel like fairly misogynist cliches.

# Everyone’s constantly trying to get on Sonny’s side, for their own reasons, and although he can be briefly buoyed up by popular support (“Attica! Attica!”) he quickly subsides into anxious isolation. Full of entirely justified mistrust. I like this, all the reaching hands and how he constantly dodges them, and you can imagine that that’s how this guy ended up in a bank with a gun.

# Speaking of, the atmosphere of total swirling mistrust feels much more earned here than in some ’70s films. (Blue Collar is another one which does this well.)

# Al Pacino is 5’7″??? Is that short? I just looked up Robert Downey, Jr and he’s listed as 5′ 8 1/2″ (which is how a toddler counts birthdays, my friends…) so I guess that is short. I guess I am conditioned by figure skating: Paul Wylie is 5’3 1/2″, and very very tall Christopher Bowman, speaking of Catholics, was 5’10”. Anyway I am grateful for Pacino’s diminutive stature, which this movie exploits perfectly.

# In a couple different places, including the final “where are they now” titles, the movie says Sonny has children “on welfare.” I really wonder how that played at the time: “on welfare” instead of any other phrase denoting poverty or need. Did it come across as a sign of his failure as a provider? Did it provoke audience sympathy, another reason he feels so kicked-around? This collection of black children’s rhymes and tales from the late ’60s and ’70s suggests that welfare was already sometimes a synecdoche for the shamefulness of poverty, because in anti-Christian modernity need will always be shameful, but more often just a sign of bad luck. So I don’t know whether “and his children are on welfare” would have sounded as harsh to this movie’s intended audience as it does to me.

# I have no comment on the whole “this is a true story” shtik except that that strikes me as a weird and probably unkind thing to do.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!