In my younger days, I was a theatre arts teacher for over 35 years. Every term, I would talk to my students about the many ways to act on stage or in film. They were always very curious about how to show the gamut of emotional expressions in front of an audience. One of the ways to do this was through “The Method.” Difficult for some because an actor must immerse themselves into the character they are portraying…physically and mentally. You must “be” the old man dying in the back alley, “be” the stone-cold killer, “be” the astronaut losing oxygen in space, or “be” the bank robber in Brooklyn, New York, desperate to live another day. What makes The Method harsh is that an actor can’t pop back and forth from their normal self to what they are portraying. If you are dying from cancer, you must continually give in and be in that state of mind. This is not easy for young actors with little life experience. My students would ask me to name some Hollywood method actors. One of the first ones I always offered was Al Pacino. I used to let them know that being a method actor took training and hard work. Al Pacino put the necessary time and energy into his craft. This is brilliantly seen and deeply felt in the film DOG DAY’S AFTERNOON. I used this example often throughout my teaching career. Pacino was simply magnificent.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON was a true story on August 22, 1972, in Brooklyn, New York. Two men held up a local bank at gunpoint. The movie recapping the incredulous event premiered in 1975. It was a huge phenomenon because of the many twists in the story that the public could not believe. It was nominated for six Oscars and brought home the golden statue for BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY to Frank Pierson (they were up against ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, which swept the gold that year). Frank wrote the script quickly after watching the ensemble improv and rehearse for three weeks. Sidney Lumet was the director. He created this film outside his comfort zone and used many improvisational scenes for the finished movie. He recognized that this was an actor’s film and was wise to let his cast do their thing as often as possible and for as long as it took.
Al Pacino portrays Sonny, a desperate man battened by his circumstances. He has two children and a wife who does not stop talking or listening to her husband. Sonny’s mom constantly complains while putting her son down for things he never accomplished. We learn halfway through the film that Sunny is gay and has a lover/wife. He is pulled apart from everyone who makes demands on him, and he is at his breaking point. He constantly says, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry,” to everyone around him. He also ensures his family is told, “I’m dying here.” This is the state of his mind. Pacino wanted to make sure playing this role was raw, authentic, and honest. He wore no make-up. He slept only a few hours each night. He barely ate. He wanted to look gaunt and harried. He succeeded.
The robbery was an event that went wrong from the first second. There wasn’t enough money in the vault. Sonny made a mistake with his timing. He had a partner named Sal, played by John Cazale. He was slow-witted and frightened. He was the one who held the shotgun. He said he would kill everyone if anything happened to Sunny. When Sunny asked him what country they should escape to, Sal replied, “Wyoming.” This was one of the many improved scenes edited into the film. Sad, humorous, and so in the moment.
There were seven tellers, a security guard, and the bank manager, who all became hostages. Carol Kane played one of them who suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Sunny became their “hero” as he released the two men suffering from extreme heat exhaustion, asthma, and diabetes during the 14-hour siege.
Charles Durning played Detective Moretti, who worked to give in to most of Donny’s demands. Many of their scenes together were ad-libbed, especially the “Attica” moment. Durning had no idea Pacino would get the crowds wound up with his rantings. You can almost see the expression of “What the hell…” on his face. Both actors recreate what real people would say and do. It blew me away how Sonny would walk back and forth in front of the bank, pausing and having heated conversations (an easy target for the many cops and snipers). In the movie, Sunny kept waving that white handkerchief as if it had the power to protect him. In real life, Sunny never waved a hankie. He said it would feel like surrendering.
One of my favorite dialogues was the phone call to Sunny’s wife/ lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon.) Incredible seconds of listening and reacting. It stopped me cold in my tracks with its originality. This was a stunning scene ahead of its time in the LBGQT world. It was filmed in only two takes. The entire conversation was improvised. When watching, my heart broke for both characters. There would be no “happily ever after.” And this moment changed the trajectory of the entire mob and police waiting outside. Sunny was still Sunny, but he wasn’t in the eyes of the world. Before, he was just a poor man… now he was a homosexual, poor man. The world of public opinion changed on its axis.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON gave audiences a compelling, electric performance from Pacino. It is a reminder of standout self-loathing and self-deprecating moments. Sunny’s devastating facial expression at the end is haunting. It always surprised me how “surprised” I was. It is, on one level, a sad film about love and the adage, “Crime does not pay.” It is pure Pacino. An actor of immense, extraordinary ability who takes viewers on this journey of genius filmmaking. DOG DAY’S AFTERNOON is a timeless classic of acting artistry. It is still a mesmerizing lesson on how to “BE” the consummate actor.
It is available to stream on HBO MAX.