Dog Day Afternoon, Movie Review Example

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Movie Review

Director Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, is essentially a cascade of erratic behaviors and failures in communication toppling over one another, until the movie’s conclusion.   This is obviously the intent of the screenwriter and the director, for the movie begins at breakneck speed, laying the highly charged foundation for everything that follows.

Essentially the story of a New York bank robbery gone wrong from the start, the behaviors of the characters throughout most of Dog Day Afternoon are reactive, and not entirely to the robbery itself.  For one thing, the oppressive heat of the summer in the city is something of a character, or at least a force, in the film; everybody is frustrated and irritable.   This is evidenced throughout by many non-verbal signs, as the heat generates in all the characters a frantic, restless, edgy quality.   This element also seems to play into the protagonist’s agenda, even as his “plan” collapses at its beginning; it is almost as though the miserable weather is prompting his action.   That action, of robbing the bank, is actually set in motion to solve this man’s problem.   His romantic partner is a man in need of sex realignment surgery, and Sonny, the protagonist, cannot afford it.   As Sonny’s plan to solve his problem involves armed robbery, it is inevitable that many others are drastically affected, from the bank’s employees to the city residents observing the scene, as well as the people of Sonny’s life.   The severity of the course Sonny takes renders his “problem-solving” a very serious business, and for everyone with whom he is in contact.

In regard to Sonny’s motivations, the story unfolds to reveal that a variety of failed communications, misunderstood or ignored, have actually led to this extreme measure.   For example, when the police learn the reason for Sonny’s actions and bring to the bank his transgender partner, Leon, that partner refuses to speak with him, and appears to be horrified by what Sonny is doing.   Sonny’s “act of love” is clearly not anything Leon had known of, or would support.  Leon is the core of the problem and the reason for the attempted solution, so this unwillingness to be a part of the scenario further collapses Sonny’s remaining strategy.   Then, and regarding another aspect of the communication issues, the police now view Sonny differently.   He had been given some estimation in the eyes of the law, as a dangerous criminal to be feared; when they learn of his lover, he is reduced in their eyes to a  “queer”, even as the revelation of Leon also greatly embarrasses Sonny’s partner, Sal.

The police attempt various solutions of their own, to end the action and save the bank employees inside.    At this point, no matter how ludicrous they view Sonny, lives are at stake, and they attempt several kinds of negotiations.   The implicit constraints for the police are those reflecting their dual agenda; they need to save the bank hostages, yet they are determined to capture Sonny as well, so the latter ambition is constrained by the greater urgency of the former.  They must, simply, deal with him.   As for Sonny’s further solutions, he is, like the police, adapting minute by minute.  As their main solution must free the hostages, Sonny’s devolves into saving himself from the police;  the money is no longer an attainable object.  For both parties, the consequences of their attempted solutions shift as various measures are tried, and fail.   For both parties also, the only remaining solution to be pursued is that which saves life.

As noted, throughout all the action, communication is blocked or not effective.   The police attempt to negotiate by means of reason, yet their criminal is resistant because he is seeing, and quickly, no advantageous ending to his plan.   His partner is equally frustrated, and neither man is actually violent, a fact the police do not comprehend.   Then, in a striking moment of classic misunderstanding, Sonny’s cries of, “Attica!”, to the bystanders bring on cheers; they see him, not as a dangerous criminal with hostages, but as a rebel defying police oppression.   In a sense, this single moment typifies all of Dog Day Afternoon, as it is story of behaviors both generated by and acting upon mistaken ideas, confusions, and shifting priorities.

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