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pacino, attica & dog day afternoon
one of the greatest scenes in movie history, 35 years later
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Sidney Lumet’s classic film, Dog Day Afternoon. In 1975, we were nearing the end of a renaissance unrivaled in American film. Hollywood studios – hopelessly out of touch with the American public throughout much of the 1960s – finally collapsed at the end of that decade. This opened the door for a young but talented band of directors, producers and actors to make iconoclastic movies that would change the landscape of cinema throughout the world.

I have written of my admiration for this film here before, but not of a scene that it contains which I consider to be among the best in movie history.

At this point in the story, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his dimwitted friend, Sal (the late, great John Cazale) have robbed a bank in Brooklyn. It was supposed to be a quick, simple job but has – through complications unbelievable if not based on a true story – become a long hostage negotiation and media circus. Sonny has been negotiating with Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) but is growing weary of the chasm between what he is being promised and what he sees whenever he looks out of the window.

Finally, Moretti implores Sonny to come outside and assess the odds against his escaping safely if he’s not willing to turn himself in. Several extensive pans (from Sonny's point of view) reveal snipers on the bank’s roof, on the roof across the street, cops and reporters several feet away from him, all pointing their weapon of choice. Sonny begins pacing.

Lumet wisely cuts between full body shots of Sonny in front of the bank (alone, aside for a single hostage) and Moretti shot from the knees up, surrounded by a sea of officers. The contrast serves a dual purpose: we see how isolated Sonny is and yet, somehow, visually this empowers him.

Moretti implores him to surrender, suggests that since no one has been hurt, his sentencing should be minimal.

Sonny continues to pace, nervously. Then suddenly, his energy transforms.

Sonny: You’re a city cop right? Robbing a bank’s a federal offense. They got me on kidnapping, armed robbery…. They’re gonna bury me, man. I don’t want to talk to somebody trying to con me. Get somebody in charge here.

Moretti: I am in charge!

Sonny: I don’t want to talk to some flunkie pig trying to con me.

Moretti: You don’t have to call me a pig.

Suddenly, a quick cut shows cops and reporters encroaching from Sonny’s left. Sonny leaps into action, shouting that Moretti needs to tell them to move back.

Moretti, a hothead at heart, unleashes a stream of profanities to get them to move back. The scene morphs quickly into chaos. Sonny, for the first time embracing the dozens of people who’ve assembled outside the bank, begins to scream “Attica!” in reference to the 1971 riots at Attica Correctional Facility, said to be in protest to racial and religious mistreatment.

The assembled throng burst into spontaneous applause. Now it’s Moretti’s turn to pace. The editing here is exquisite: Sonny yelling “Attica” at least a dozen more times; Moretti working double time to calm his easily rattled gunmen; more police fresh off the bus, sprinting into action; the exuberant crowd cheering and being pushed back by riot police. This moment reveals what we already know to be true, that Moretti is not in control, and Sonny, for all his flaws, is.

At this moment, if not before, we want Sonny to win. Never mind that he’s robbing a bank. Never mind that he ultimately proves to be a bisexual who robbed the bank to buy his lover a sex change operation. Never mind that his accomplice Sal is a sociopath. At that moment, we want Sonny to win. Sonny’s verbal assault on the cops and reporters (“He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it!”) mirrors all our frustrations with bullying authority figures, as well as the vulture-like media culture that has become commonplace today. The scene ends with a hand held helicopter shot of the bank, further showing the scope of this epic event.

Of course, movies that give the bad guy endearing qualities did not begin in the 1970s. The Warner Brothers gangster pics of the late 30s and 40s covered that. But the late 60s and 70s anti-heroes were different. For starters, Sonny (and Bonnie & Clyde) excluded, most of them weren’t criminals. Also, they were not conventionally handsome leading men like Errol Flynn. Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro looked like guys you hardly noticed in high school, yet, one after the other, produced electrifying screen performances that made them into superstars.

This film was the last historic performance for Pacino in the decade that he owned. His run from 1971-75 (The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather Parts 1 & 2, Scarecrow, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon) is among the most powerful of any actor in screen history. (Brando from 1951-55 still casts a pretty long shadow. The jump from On the Waterfront to Guys and Dolls pretty much kills any counterargument.) But it was a difficult shoot: Hoffman almost got the role after Pacino quit, early in production. Later, Pacino collapsed during filming. But Pacino left it all on the screen. Sonny is alternately confused, hostile, likable, funny, cutthroat and considerate. There were good performances after that, of course. (Even one more in the 70s, showing his underutilized comic gifts in the tragically slept on …And Justice for All.) But none, not even his bizarrely over the top, cult favorite performance in Scarface, match the manic energy of Dog Day Afternoon. Or this scene, which has become so much a part of our mythology that many are familiar with it even if they haven’t seen it. It has been parodied everywhere from Saturday Night Fever to Naked Gun 33 1/3 to “Family Guy.”

But the original still gives me goose bumps every time I watch it.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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margot lester
8.11.10 @ 8:18a

I loved this movie, too, and really appreciate your keen eye in breaking it down to this key encounter. I think I'll have to Netflix this and watch it again.

mike julianelle
8.11.10 @ 3:23p

Don't sleep on Donnie Brasco. The rare post-70s, non-shouty Pacino performance.

jason gilmore
8.11.10 @ 9:00p

Margot - great! I hoped people who'd already seen this movie would want to take another look at it after reading my piece. I can't say enough good things about this movie. Sidney Lumet leaves me speechless sometimes.

Mike - absolutely, he was great in Donnie Brasco. I think some of his 90s performances are fabulous too. He & Johnny Depp really should work together again.

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