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Film / Dog Day Afternoon

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Sonny Wortzik

Dog Day Afternoon is a 1975 crime drama film directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Al Pacino, John Cazale, and Charles Durning. It's based on a Real Life incident from August 1972.

On the hottest day of the year, three men in Brooklyn decide to hold up a bank. The plan is simple: They're going to run in, steal the latest shipment of money, and leave. It'll be over quickly, and the robbers will go home with a big stash of money that mastermind Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) can use to help with his wife's medical bills.

Except, that's not what happens. Thanks to pure, bullheaded incompetence, the robbers quickly find themselves down to two men with barely any money to steal and a building full of hostages, with the police and the media converging outside. All this, and there's no air conditioning in the bank. As the hours pass, the robbery becomes a news sensation, the crowds of onlookers grow bigger and bigger, and the story gets crazier and crazier. It's no longer a question of whether Sonny and Sal Naturile (Cazale) will escape with the loot, but whether they'll escape at all. And that's only the beginning of their problems...

A classic of the New Hollywood era, Dog Day Afternoon covers a wide variety of themes, from ideas about gender and personality, to Stockholm and Lima syndromes, to the influence of the media on the events it covers. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (by Frank Pierson), and nominated for five others including Best Picture. Not to be confused with the 2011 Heroic Fantasy Anime called Dog Days. For a Race Lift remake starring Denzel Washington, see John Q.

Tropes associated:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Sonny is snappish, crude, and impatient, but the hostages and the viewer alike can't help warming to him. For one thing, he steadfastly refuses to go near the Villain Ball, refraining from any act of wanton cruelty toward the hostages even when anonymous callers urge him to take advantage of the situation — but even more so, he's just so urgently human that his affable side inevitably shows through. (We do hear stories from Leon portraying his past actions in a not-at-all affable light, but the reliability of that source is questionable.) Should be noted that at the beginning of the movie, he explicitly does not start the robbery until a woman with a baby has left the bank.
    • Sal as well, though to a much lesser extent since he's definitely pretty creepy even while relaxing with the hostages. That said, Maria gives him her rosary at the airport as a sincere present, so he must have made a relatively favorable impression as well.
  • Anti-Villain: Sonny Wortzik, who's committing the robbery to pay for his wife's sex reassignment surgery.
  • Artistic License: The real John Wojtowicz described the film as being a 30% accurate portrayal of the real event, in particular objecting to the portrayal of his wife as an overweight nag, and his father as refusing to speak to him. It also didn't help that after a screening of the film some of his fellow prisoners tried to kill him for betraying his partner, not realizing that part didn't actually happen. Though he had nothing but praise for Pacino and Sarandon's portrayals of himself and his lover.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: Subverted at the end of the film, when the FBI agent driving the vehicle asks Sal to point his gun in the air while he's driving so it won't cause an injury in case it goes off if they go over a bump. In actuality, he does it so he can have the advantage on Sal when he draws his own hidden gun and fatally shoots him.
  • Bank Robbery: Sonny and company try to pull off a quick one. It doesn't go well.
  • Based on a True Story: The film is based on a real life incident from August 1972.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The film happens during New York in The '70s and this trope is in plain sight from the opening montage and onwards.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: The LGBT slogan "Out of the closets and into the streets" is translated into Dutch as "Uit de toiletten, in het licht" (Out of the toilets, into the light).
  • Boom, Headshot!: this happens to Sal.
  • Briefcase Blaster: Sal smuggled the Smith and Wesson M76 into the bank inside a briefcase. Likewise, Sonny smuggled the M1 Carbine inside a birthday present. Stevie, however, simply hid the revolver in his pocket.
  • Benevolent Boss: Sonny is pretty decent to the men under him. He allows Stevie to bank out of the robbery and shows genuine concern for Sal throughout the movie.
  • Can Always Spot a Cop: At one point Sonny accurately realizes that a black man who is seemingly an Innocent Bystander who is "reluctantly" being roped into being a driver for him is a cop.
  • Catchphrase: "I'm dying here". Leon says that Sonny uses it "...every day of [his] goddamn life".
  • Character Tics: Mulvaney, the bank manager, habitually puts his hands in the pockets of his suit jacket throughout the film.
  • Chekhov's Gun: We catch a glimpse of law enforcers at the airport, and in the end, the robbers are detained there.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: One of the other cops asks Moretti why he didn't just let Sonny and Sal remain unaware of the police presence and catch them after they have left the bank. This would have avoided the hostage situation and police standoff completely. Moretti calls it an "error in judgement".
  • The Ditz: Sal, who when asked which country he'd like to go to, responds with "Wyoming."
  • Downer Ending: Bank robbers or not, the story ends tragically both in real life and fiction.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Sonny's ex-wife Angie and her kids are briefly seen during the opening montage.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The whole movie takes place over a single afternoon/evening. The first forty-five minutes or so occur nearly in Real Time.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Sonny goes through the FBI's limo, looking for concealed weapons. He misses an arm rest compartment with a gun in it.
  • FBI Agent: Agents Sheldon and Murphy.
  • Friendly Enemy: Despite still having weapons trained on them, the bank staff spend a lot of time in the film making casual conversation with their captors. At one point, Sonny even lets one teller handle his rifle. Likewise, despite Sonny distrusting Detective Moretti and Moretti wanting Sonny behind bars, the two are on mostly reasonable terms until an FBI agent is put in charge.
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: Sonny tries to keep the police from storming the bank by saying that he and his cohort were in the Army in Vietnam and have no problem getting violent with the hostages. While at the time it seems like a desperate bluff, later on, he is seen showing some of the hostages how he learned to march and handle a gun during training. His relationship with the hostages makes it pretty clear he doesn't intend to hurt them, however.
  • Funny Background Event: One of the hostages camps it up for the cameras during Sonny's interview.
  • Good Policing, Evil Policing: FBI evil, local cops good. Mind you, Sonny himself would call them all evil — he constantly accuses the local Detective Moretti of trying to con him — but it's never clear how much of this is just Sonny being paranoid, and Moretti gives the impression of trying to play the situation as honestly as possible. The same definitely can't be said for FBI agent Sheldon, who (though still acting on the side of justice) quite plainly deceives or attempts to deceive Sonny on several occasions... and it's he who introduces the notion to Sonny that the two bank robbers are not necessarily heading for the same fate.
  • Healthcare Motivation: Sonny is committing the robbery to pay for his wife's sex reassignment operation.
  • Heat Wave: When the robbery takes place. Problem was, shooting for the film was done in the fall, forcing the cast to suck on ice cubes and run about in summer clothes despite the chill weather.
  • Hero Antagonist: Detective Moretti, who tries to play nice with Sonny in stopping the bank robbery. Agent Sheldon counts too when he takes over, but he's far more ruthless.
  • Hope Spot: Near the end, for the protagonists. Then Sonny is arrested and Sal is killed.
  • I Have No Son!:
    Sonny: Where's Pop? He didn't come down here, did he?
    Sonny's Mother: No. Is he pissed off at you. He says he doesn't have a son. He says you're dead.
    Sonny: He's right.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Sal quietly chastises the head bank teller for smoking and even brings garbled Biblical scripture into it ("Your body is the temple of the Lord."). She's immediately dumbfounded and asks how he can lecture about Biblical sin while robbing a bank.
  • Improperly Paranoid: Sonny is correct that the cops want him arrested, but there is a certain kind of dramatic irony in that he's constantly expecting the absolute worst of (and thus is most confrontational with) Detective Moretti, who is the one authority figure who doesn't want him dead.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Leon. The minute Leon appears, things start to go wrong for Sonny, though it's not Leon's fault. First off, a lot of the crowd turns against Sonny when they learn he's bisexual (although a lot of the crowd — and most or all of the bank employees — take this news in stride after the surprise wears off). Second, when everyone learns why Sonny is robbing the bank, it becomes clear just how incredibly stupid his plan was; Leon directly calls him out on this later. Finally, it's about this point where the FBI takes over and starts playing psychological hardball with Sonny. Early on, when Sonny riles up the crowd, he starts shouting, "Attica! Attica!" going into a euphoria over how well he thinks he's handling things. Later on, when the gay protesters show up to support him, Sonny looks at them, turns his back, and goes into the bank. By now, he knows there is no way this is going to end well.
  • Large Ham: Sonny can drop into this when he's angry, especially during the famous "Attica!" scene.
  • Laughably Evil: Sonny at times.
  • Lima Syndrome: Sonny and Sal start to get friendly with the hostages over time. Sonny even lets one handle his rifle while teaching her to twirl it.
  • Lovable Rogue: Sonny. He robs a bank, but this is only to pay for his wife's sex reassignment surgery. Moreover, he does not intend to harm anyone.
  • Mama Bear: Head-teller Sylvia, AKA "The Mouth" is a minor example who does not harm or threaten to harm anyone for intimidating her co-workers, but initially scolds Sonny for using foul language, chastises the police for manhandling an asthmatic hostage, and later willingly remains a hostage so as to keep the other younger bank tellers calm.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Moretti asks Sonny to release one of the women hostages as a show of good faith. However, the first hostage to be released is a man, as he's having an asthma attack.
  • Mistaken for Gay: A newscaster says the crime is being perpetrated by two homosexuals. Sal is not pleased.
  • Perfect Health: Averted with Howard the security guard (asthmatic) and Mulvaney the bank manager (diabetic).
  • Plethora of Mistakes: From going in with no masks or gloves, to using their real names, to not even thinking of blacking out the cameras till they've been inside a while, Sonny and company bungle the robbery spectacularly.
  • Police Brutality: The huge number of police officers surrounding Sonny lets him invoke the excessive use of force by New York State Police during the 1971 Attica Prison riot, leading to the famous chant to get the crowd on his side.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • Mulvaney telling Sonny, "I wish the fuck you never came into this bank." He actually apologizes to the women afterwards for his language.
    • Sonny drops one of these during a live phone interview with a TV reporter, which leads to the station immediately cutting off the interview and throwing on a Looney Tunes cartoon instead.
  • The Quiet One: Sal has few lines compared to other characters. It makes him slightly more menacing than Sonny.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: No musical score beyond the opening sequence, which switches to a car radio by the end.
  • Real Life: The film is based on a real event and portrays its version realistically.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Detective Moretti, who attempts to reason with Sonny and stop the beat cops from turning the situation into another Attica.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Sonny is the red and Sal is the blue.
  • Remember the Alamo: "Attica!" and possibly also "Out of the closet and into the streets!"
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Stevie, who gets cold feet and runs out on Sonny and Sal just as the holdup is underway.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Among their other issues, Sonny and Sal apparently served in Vietnam. ("So killing don't mean nothing to us, understand?")
    • Probably a lie, at least in the case of Sal, who later mentions that he's never flown in an airplane before. Unless he went over by boat (or lied about never flying to gain sympathy.) Sonny is shown demonstrating drill techniques to a hostage (using his actual gun), so he is more likely to be telling the truth.
  • Shoot the Hostage Taker: Sonny's partner Sal gets shot this way at the end.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Not only do Sal and Sonny fail to escape with the loot or their demands met, but Sal gets killed and Sonny is arrested.
  • Shout-Out: At one point a frustrated Sonny picks up a ringing phone and sarcastically answers, "WNEW, plays all the hits." WNEW was a real-life NYC rock station of the era.
  • A Simple Plan: The robbery should have been quick and easy; just run in, stick 'em up, get the cash and run. Alas, the robbers' incompetence turns everything upside-down. Even the poster agrees:
    The robbery should have taken ten minutes. 4 hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live TV. 12 hours later, it was all history.
  • Source Music: Elton John's "Amoreena" plays non-diagetically over the opening scenes before turning into this, as it's revealed to be playing on Sonny's car radio. Later in the film the Faces' "Stay with Me" is briefly heard on a teller's transistor radio. These are the only pieces of music in the entire film.
  • Stupid Crooks: Though Sonny has his moments of craftiness, it's clear from the start he's in over his head. Even if the robbery had gone exactly as planned, Sonny and Co. surely would have been caught almost immediately: they don't wear gloves, don't wear masks, and call each other by their real names in front of the bank staff, all in full view of closed circuit cameras (which Sonny only paints over halfway through the robbery). Sonny even makes sure to let the tellers know that he's a Vietnam veteran and a former bank teller, just in case the police might want to check that angle out.
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: The bank's only security guard is an unarmed older man who has asthma.
  • Trans Tribulations: Sonny's wife, Leon. The whole purpose of the bank robbery is to pay for her sex-change operation.
  • The Vietnam Vet: Sonny and Sal served in Vietnam, or at least they pretend they did. Sonny is shown demonstrating drill techniques to a hostage, so appears to have at least gone through basic training (His real life counterpart, John Wojtowicz, did genuinely serve in Vietnam so it's likely true here as well).
  • Villain Protagonist: Sonny, attempted bank robber and the central character of the film.
  • Wham Shot: The police say they're bringing Sonny's wife in. They open the police car door... and Chris Sarandon is escorted out.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: The bank robbery was supposed to be easy...
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Stevie, the third bank robber who chickened out about 5 minutes into the robbery. Did he go home and start acting like nothing happened? Did Sonny rat on him? Was he the one who informed the cops in the first place?
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Leon gives Sonny a good one...
      Sonny: You said to me that you needed money, and I knew that you needed money! I saw you there lying in the hospital like that... and I said... shit, man, I got to get this guy some money.
      Leon: But I didn't ask you to go rob a bank!
    • Mulvaney gets Sonny with another good one a moment later. After he goes into insulin shock and has to be treated by a doctor, Mulvaney refuses to leave the tellers behind and reminds Sonny that Sonny isn't exactly the hero of this story...
      Mulvaney: I just needed the injection.... I wish the fuck you never came in my bank. Don't try to act like you're some angel of human kindness!
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The credits at the end say that Sonny was sentenced to 20 years in prison (though he was actually released just three years later after serving six years), that Angie (Sonny's first wife) and their children were living on Welfare, and Leon (Sonny's wife) had her sex-change surgery and was living as a woman in New York City (until she died of AIDS ten years later).
  • Word Salad Title: "Dog Day Afternoon" doesn't make sense unless you know that "dog days" refers to the hottest days of summer. The film takes place during a heat wave.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: After nearly being ambushed, Sonny decides to stop trusting the cop who was negotiating with him, thinking the higher-ups will be more likely to get him a deal and less likely to try and put him down. This is proven wrong on several levels.