What I Learned From Watching: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

What can we learn about filmmaking from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon? How do you create a compelling character? How can you get your dialogue to sound natural? All these questions and more are answered in Episode #5 of What I Learned From Watching. 

Hi everybody, Tyler here. On episode 5 of What I Learned From Watching, I want to talk about Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon. “The robbery should have taken 10 minutes, 4 hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live T.V. 12 hours later, it was all history. And it’s all true.” There is so much to say about this movie, so let’s get started. Let’s get started.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on an article in Life magazine titled “The Boys in the Bank” about the true events of the attempted robbery of the Chase Manhattan Bank on August 22nd 1972 and the eventual hostage stand off with the police. The perpetrators, John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale were played in the film by Al Pacino and John Cazale respectively. John Wojtowicz’s name was changed Sonny Wortzik in the film as he felt that he wasn’t paid enough money for the movie rights—he was paid $7500 and 1% of the film’s net profits. Wojtowicz was married to his same-sex partner Elizabeth Debbie Eden (formerly Ernest Aron) in a public ceremony in 1971 and the motive behind the bank robbery was so that he could pay for Eden’s gender reassignment surgery. Though he felt he wasn’t paid enough, the money he earned from the movie rights was enough for him to pay for Eden’s surgery.

The film opens with shots that depict a regular hot summer day in Brooklyn, New York. None of these shots were staged and Lumet just went around Brooklyn in a station wagon getting the shots. He wanted to make it so that when we end up on Sonny’s car, we don’t realize that the movie has started because it just seems like more b-roll.

It should be noted that these opening shots feature Elton John’s song Amoreena, which happens to be the only song in the film. The song even appears in the script. Elton John first revealed his sexual attraction to men in a 1976 Rolling Stone interview—one year after Dog Day Afternoon’s release, which is interesting considering the subject matter of the film deals with homosexuality. Even more interesting is that the song’s lyrics are about a man missing a woman he loves, which seems to mirror not only Sonny’s false relationship with his wife, but his longing for the man he loves, who describes themself as a woman trapped in a man’s body.

Sidney Lumet: “The picture was edited by the magnificent Dede Allen, one of the great editors that we’ve had in movies and she just, in order to bridge this footage for us, which was silent, of course, when I shot it. Dede put the Elton John record in just to give us a sound for it, so of course, when we took the music out, we had become so used to it then from hearing it in the cutting room that I missed it. So we put it back in and decided to motivate it by simply making it part of what was coming through on the radio of our leading characters (whom we are about to meet) seated in front of the bank and it was Elton John on their car radio that motivated the music for this.”

Al Pacino, fresh off his lead role in The Godfather Part II, had become a big star by this time. He had worked with Lumet a few years earlier in Serpico, but Pacino initially passed on the role of Sonny even though he was somewhat interested because Lumet was known for working his actors really hard and Pacino wanted to rest after The Godfather Part II and perhaps do some theater. However, he was asked to read the script one more time.

Pacino: “So I read it and it became so clear to me, I thought, especially having been reading scripts. You keep getting scripts all the time and they’re never up to that kind of quality, that intensity, that writing and characters—all of these characters in this piece. And I just put the script down and I said, ‘Marty, I’ll do it.’”

At this time, it was very rare for such a star actor to play a character who was homosexual.

Lumet: “And no major star that I know of had ever played a gay man. He kept looking for disguises, so he grew a mustache and it looked terrible. We shot the first day and Al is one of the few actors I know who is wonderful at rushes. He can look at himself without any self consciousness with a genuinely objective point of view and he leaned over to me and he said, ‘the mustache has got to go. Can we redo the first day of shooting.’ And we did.”

The cast was mostly made up of actors that Pacino had worked with on the stage including his close friend John Cazale. Pacino asked Lumet to let John Cazale read for the part of Sal. In the script Sal was described as being “medium height, also good looking in an intense boyish way.”

Frank Pierson: “And I described him in the script as 15 year old Botticelli angel. And when I look at Cazale, he is the furthest from that picture.”

Lumet thought that Pacino was crazy for suggesting someone who was clearly not right for the part. But he let Cazale read.

Sidney Lumet: “John came in and when John came in I was so discouraged, I can’t tell you. ‘Al’s out of his mind.’ This guy looks 30, 32. It’s the last thing I want for this part. And I hadn’t seen him in Godfather 1. I hadn’t seen the picture at that time and then he read and my heart broke.”

Sidney Lumet: “Since the relationship between these two characters was so critical, I wanted Al to be there while I was casting for that part and John was physically totally wrong for it. He wasn’t at all what the real guy looked like— much older, very different looking and I read, oh, I don’t know how many people and Al said, ‘you gotta read John Cazale, he’s a magnificent actor’ and finally, reluctantly I said, ‘okay.’ And he came in and he read for the part. I think he read two sentences and I stopped him and said, ‘it’s yours.’ And as you’ll subsequently see the connection emotionally between these two guys was phenomenal and very touching.”

Sal: “No! You made me a promise. Didn’t you.”

So what can we learn?

1. Rehearse

For Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet held rehearsals for 3 weeks instead of his usual 2 because the film required too many people (the robbers, hostages, and police) to be on screen for such a long time.

Lumet was very meticulous in his rehearsals—he would actually map out his shots during the rehearsal process.

Lance Henriksen: “We did something that I learned from Sidney, which was he marked out every location on a ballroom floor and no matter how small the role was, we all came there and sat through the whole movie to know right where we’re going to be at. And it was like giving you not only respect but a gift of, ‘you’re part of this, man, there is no small part. It’s collective.’”

So everyone, no matter the size of the role, was there and by the end of rehearsals, they would know exactly what their blocking was and what they were going to do. This way, everyone would be on the same page during production and they could shoot quickly and efficiently. Production is extremely expensive, so why not work out as many problems as you can in pre-production when it is only costing you the price of renting a rec center and some refreshments?

The extensive planning also helped with logistics of the shoot itself. They had an almost week long night shoot on a fairly residential street.

Sidney Lumet: “We were there for a long time, we had seven nights of night-shooting during which you are disturbing people enormously. You’ve got lights on their fire escapes and on their roofs and you’re making noise all night. And they were marvelous and we didn’t suddenly arrive and wake somebody up at 4’oclock in the morning and say, ‘can we put a lamp out here?’ Everything had been worked out in advance, so we could tell people precisely when we would be there, how much we would disturb them and so on. It couldn’t have gone more smoothly.”

Everything was fully mapped out so that Lumet could concentrate more on the performances rather than spending a bunch of time testing out camera and lighting setups.

With such a thorough plan, much less could go wrong and there is more time to fix what does. Lumet was notorious for his efficiency. The whole film was shot in only 32 days.

Bob Rogow (Sound Man): “Really working on his pictures are a pleasure except for one thing—that you really can’t rest with him. Ah, next set up-“

Sidney Lumet: “Fellas! Now fellas, you’ve gotta pay attention, I said, ‘guns down!’ The guns have already gone down. That’s for everybody. Guns are down! I told everybody! We go again!

Sidney Lumet: “I’m afraid short shooting schedules are part of my work. I just—my motor gets going and we’re just getting a lot of footage every day.”

Sidney Lumet: “Guns are down people, pay attention!”

Carmine Foresta (actor): “He’s real fast on the draw. There’s no two ways about it. He’s right there: one, two, three. He sets up the scene for you. It’s a real pleasure to be with a guy that knows his stuff.”

And because of this efficiency, they used almost everything they shot.

Lumet said that the great thing about rehearsal is that it breaks down the favoritism, ego, and isolation of the cast. It allows the cast to feel more comfortable with each other and allows them to explore and develop their characters before shooting begins, which brings me to number two…

2. Keep it Natural

Of course, this depends on the movie you’re making, but…

Nearly all of the actors had a background in theater, and in fact, for several of the actors, this was their first film.

One of the main objectives of the rehearsal was because Sonny and Sal had to connect with the hostages over the course of the film. So, a relationship had to be built between Pacino, Cazale, and the actors playing the hostages.

Almost all of the actors already knew Pacino, but for one hostage in particular, this was even easier. Penny Allen who played the chief bank teller, had taken Pacino in when he left home at a young age to become an actor. Pacino lived with Penny and her husband until he was well into his early twenties.

Dede Allen (editor): “It was an interesting film because it was a group of actors who’d all worked together in a theater or something, but they all seemed to have a rapport and Sidney rehearses a lot and so the bank building became their home for a long period of time and they were just a group that worked so well together.”

Pacino was already familiar with many of the actors from working together in theater productions, but perhaps none more so than John Cazale. Pacino and Cazale had also recently worked together in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather & The Godfather Part II.

Al Pacino: “But really, what gave us the juice, so to speak was that we thought of these two people as not knowing each other, having spent so little time together, and then being thrown into a situation so intense. So that they were finding out about each other under this kind of pressure and that was a key for us and it’s just great working with John because he has a way of getting involved in the whole thing and the characters and he asks so many questions and he was just brilliant.”

This gave their relationship a very natural feel. It was the main objective of Lumet to tell this story as realistically as possible. Lumet wanted the hostages to come across as real people so that the audience could better identify with them. So the tenet used in casting these smaller parts was to cast the actors as people rather than ‘actors.’

Sidney Lumet: “The interesting thing when you’ve got a group like that the most important thing is that you do not cast them colorful because then you’ll have a bunch of disjointed vignettes going on having nothing to do with the movie. That was the last thing I wanted, so I’d have them read anything, didn’t matter. I only wanted to see how close they were to themselves. How they used themselves. I didn’t want ‘characters.’ I said to the cast, ‘I’m not interested in the real bank teller who did this or the real manager who did that—I don’t know them.’ I said, ‘I do know all of you and even though you’ve got other names, it’s you. You won’t have any costumes. I want you to wear your own clothes. You get two dollars a day more for using your own clothes. No accents other than whatever speech you normally have.’ That it was a way of making sure that the sensationalism of the subject matter didn’t become an obstacle to an audience’s connection with the movie.”

This is a good principle to have when casting smaller parts. The actors in the smaller roles should have to ‘act’ as little as possible. The people playing these parts are themselves multi-dimensional characters and by adding themselves to the role, they add new dimensions to their character.

It’s interesting to think about how much a character changes based on the actor playing them. For example, Lumet originally wanted Charles Durning to play the role of the Bank Manager, which likely would have been a substantial change to how the character came across. Similarly, Lance Henriksen originally auditioned to play the part of Leon, Sonny’s lover.

And a fun fact: The other FBI agent was played by Matthew Broderick’s father.

But the naturalism didn’t stop with casting,

Sidney Lumet: “One of the most interesting things, about the third day of rehearsal, one of the actors, I forgot who, said, ‘well, Sidney, you know you said—you talk so much about using ourselves in these parts-‘ They said, ‘well, what about words? Can we use our own words?’ And I said, ‘let’s take it further. For these next few days let’s improvise everything. Let’s not use the script at all.’ Now I’ve never done this in my life. I’m not a great believer in improvisation. What happened was, the results were so rich right away that I brought my soundman in and we had a boom as the actors were moving and we recorded the improvisations. And Frank and I and Bregman, we would sit and we’d compose the script out of the improvisations. So that by the time we began shooting we had a fairly new script of the dialogue.”

There were also several lines that were improvised during the shoot itself. Including the Algeria line:

Leon: “You know, they walk around, they’ve got masks on, those things on their heads. They’re a bunch of crazy people there.”

When Sal says:

Sonny: “Is there any special country you want to go to?”

Sal: “Wyoming.”

Sidney Lumet: “I had to go like so I didn’t ruin the take because it was so funny and yet, so heartbreaking and that came from Cazale.”

And also the famous Attica line

Al Pacino: “Well the genesis of it is simply that Burt Harris just whispered in my ear that I should call out Attica and I picked up what he said and I thought, ‘that’s interesting’ and I just tried it out and the next thing you know they responded and it was all happening.”

Sonny: “He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it! Attica! Attica! Attica! Attica! Attica!”

In the scene where Sonny talks to his mother, Pacino is improvising all of his lines while the actress playing the mother was told by Lumet to stick to the script no matter what—even if it didn’t make sense. What results is a perfect depiction of their relationship. Two people talking about different things and not listening to one another.

For the scene directly after Sonny shoots out the back window, Lumet chose to have the confrontation between Sonny and Sergeant Moretti to be “improvised on the spot.”

Sidney Lumet: “I thought it would be very important to ‘throw’ Al to make him lose his bearings at this point because by now, he had become so sure of himself, become so sure of his control of the crowd. And so, when he comes out to this next scene I told Charlie Durning, ‘the minute he comes out think of something. I don’t care what it is. Blast him. Put him on the defensive.” And I had three cameras going: one on Charlie, one on Al, and one on the two of them just to see what would happen. And, of course, it threw Al and the results are just a magnificent scene between the two of them.”

Moretti: “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

Sonny: “What?”

Moretti: “What are you firing that shot in there for?

Sonny: “What were they doing back there!?”

Moretti: “We’ve got 250 cops here for Christ’s sake!”

Sonny: “Fuck you! What were they doing beck there!?”

Lumet left imperfections in the film, but only when they were appropriate for the character. For example, the first take they did of Sonny pulling his gun out of the flower box, part of the gun got caught on the box’s string and Pacino had to yank the gun to try and get the string detached. This not only adds a lot of realism to the scene, but it is perfect for the amateur nature of Sonny as a bank robber and it is in keeping with all of the problems they will face during the robbery.

In the same vein, Lumet often included Charles Durning’s dialogue mistakes as part of the scenes.

Moretti: “You tell my that you have nothing but women and you throw out a girl—a guy, now what the fuck’s going on in there!?”

Sonny: “You wanted a hostage. I brought one out for you.”

Moretti: “A tactical force! They like to shoot, they like to jump on ropes, they like they climbing through windows!”

Sonny: “Without your orders, right? Without your orders.”

Moretti: “No! Yes! Without my orders, yes!”

Much of this was due to the improvisations, but it really adds a lot to the believability of the performance and Moretti’s temperament.

3. Developing a Multi-dimensional Character

As much as Dog Day Afternoon is a story about a bank robbery, it is perhaps even more so a story about Sonny as a person. Over the course of the film we learn a lot about Sonny—his backstory, what kind of person he is, his motivations, and as the film progresses, the story becomes less about the situation and more about how the character deals with the situation.

When the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, was writing the screenplay, the actual bank robber, John Wojtowicz refused to talk to him while he was in prison because, as was stated earlier, he felt he wasn’t paid enough. So, when Pierson was trying to crack the character of Sonny, he talked to several people who knew Wojtowicz to try and get a sense of his core. He got a lot of contradictory accounts except one common thread:

Frank Pierson: “Well basically he would be looking at you and he would say, ‘I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy.’ And then he’s gonna fail and that’s the story of the bank. Now I knew how I could write it. Because I knew what a character like that would be. All the elements now were cooking. We went to Sidney’s apartment and I handed him the screenplay and he said, ‘what’s it about?’ and I said, ‘it’s about a guy who imagines he’s a magician who can make everybody happy and whole and thereby gain their love and support and so on, but when he fails as he inevitably does he gets instead anger, rage, and rejection.’ He said, ‘oh, that sounds interesting. I guess I’d better read it.’”

We can see this drive the film—he is trying to help Leon get the gender reassignment surgery, he’s trying to make sure he and Sal get away, he’s trying to protect himself and Sal with the hostages, but he is also trying to keep the hostages safe. The drama of the situation comes in the threats to these things—they are surrounded by police, Sal could potentially hurt a hostage, Leon may be used to manipulate him, and so on.

But how do you make someone who is not an abnormal person relatable?

Sidney Lumet: “So we’re talking about somebody who’s basically a nut. A real wild nutcase. And yet, how totally understandable and clear and motivated Al makes him seem. Everybody responds to him just the way we do in the audience. The people in the bank get to care for him. All of this was part of Al’s magnificence as an actor.”

I think the key lies in that very idea. It relies on the empathy of the audience. Sonny’s relatability is substantially heightened as he connects to the hostages.

Sidney Lumet: “As the day went on he kept being more and more successful. And, in a funny way, they were starting to like him. As part of the dramatization of that, I put in during the rehearsal that scene where Marsha Jean Kurtz, one of the tellers, has his rifle now and he’s showing her how you present arms in the army. That’s how unmenacing he had become. But, in becoming unmenacing, he could therefore manipulate them further.”

It is the hostages that we, the audience, can most easily identify with because they are presented as real people reacting to a real situation. So initially, we identify with Sonny through the situation—putting ourselves in his shoes more or less, but as the story advances in acts two and three, more of Sonny’s personality and backstory come out and our mindset shifts to partially trying to figure out the situation and partially gawking at an interesting character and how his distinct personality deals with the situation in an entertaining way. The hostages become analogous for how the audience feels about Sonny and Sal. Our growing care for Sonny and Sal is facilitated by the hostages who’s growing care we see and experience ourselves. It really is a clever device.

Sidney Lumet: “With a character like this, I just loved him, but it was Al who made me do that. Everything in the performance—the vulnerability, the strength of the man, the weakness, the humor. God, how funny he was. Never deliberately. Never play jokes, but just out of the natural situation.”

The crowd, on the other hand, is almost a critique of a potential audience—the wrong one. They get on board with the thrill of a bank robbery and ogle at the spectacle while ignoring the humanity behind it. The crowd even turns on Sonny when they find out that he is a homosexual, which displays the main fear that Lumet, Pierson, and Pacino had when presenting this story.

Chris Sarandon, who plays Leon, was also a theater actor and this was his first movie. This character had to be handled very carefully. They wanted Leon to be a person and not a homosexual caricature. Keep in mind that this was 1975 and, though some progress was being made, there was still the very real danger that audience members would hoot and holler and look upon Sonny and Leon in an insensitive way.

Chris Sarandon: “After the audition was done, Sidney came to me and he said, ‘we want you to come back, but the next time, a little less Blanche Duboise a little more Queens housewife and that was the sort of key that unlocked the character for me.”

Sidney Lumet: “I think it was the first discussion in a movie, not just of homosexuality, but transexuality. I was very concerned that people react so defensively around sexual subjects. They get nervous, they laugh in the wrong places.”

Chris Sarandon: “During the time that I was sort of coming up with the sort of physicality of the character I, during the day, would just sort of pat around the house in a pair of clogs, which sort of gave me the feeling of being a little kinda elevated and on heels and I let my fingernails grow and I thought, ‘okay, you’re gonna do it, you gotta go all the way.’ So, I plucked my eyebrows and I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do, I’ll go into Manhattan and I’ll go with my plucked eyebrows and I’ll tease my hair and I’ll put on a little eye makeup and just kinda absorb the stares of people in the street. And I come into Manhattan—I’m in my getup and I start walking down the street and I literally go into newsstands and vegetable markets—not a sidelong glance. New York is the city that absorbs everything. Nothing fazes New Yorkers.”

However, Pacino’s celebrity status most likely helped the story and subject matter get taken seriously.

One of the advantages to casting a star actor is that he or she is already familiar to the audience and it makes it much easier and quicker to get an audience to identify with them.

Of course, this would still all fall flat without a brilliant acting performance from Pacino. In my opinion, this is Pacino’s absolute best performance and it is clear that he threw everything he had into the role.

One of the best examples of this was the scene where Sonny writes his will. This was the scene that made Lumet decide to take on the film.

Sidney Lumet: “Almost no work went into this at all. He was on it from the very beginning and, as I said before, there are times when the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. I knew he would be hot as a pistol because he’d been building toward it. By now I could almost sense what would happen the next day in shooting and all I did was put one camera on him wide and one camera in close-up and let it roll and again, I think this may have been the first the second take.”

What makes this scene even more interesting is that this was the actual will John Wojtowicz wrote during the standoff. And with the perception of homosexuality at the time, the line that took the most care:

Sonny: “…whom I love more than any man has loved another man in all eternity”

…comes across as honest and heartbreaking.

Sidney Lumet: “The picture was long and we knew it was and the last thing you do you usually, in the editing room, you tighten. You trim out any unnecessary moment. And we had do the final tightening and Dede felt very good about it and Marty felt good and Dede said, ‘Sidney, you look unhappy.’ I said, ‘Something’s bothering me.’ And then I knew what it was. In accelerating the tempo of the entire picture, comparatively, the ‘reading of the will’ seemed longer, slower. And that’s why I wasn’t that moved as I had been previously and I said, ‘I want to go back in and put back about six or seven minutes to slow the picture down and therefore the ‘reading of the will’ will seem at a better tempo than it does now.’”

Lumet wanted to get at as much realism as possible, but with that said, he did not watch any of the news reports before filming because he didn’t want the image of the real person while directing the movie. Instead he wanted to focus on Pacino and the character they had created.

And even though the production hinged on manufacturing realism, so to speak, there seems to be a strong theater influence on the performances, which seems to work in favor of the realism. The cast was mainly made up of theater actors, the story revolves around a single location, there is a precise emphasis on blocking, you get a sense that the actors spent a great deal of time in character, and there is even a symbolic nod toward the theater as the bulk of the film is Pacino almost appearing to be on a stage in front of a large audience.

Al Pacino: “And Sidney has a way of directing you where he literally moves you around and by doing so, you’re in the situation and you’re in the event and it’s taking place. He just staged it, now all you had to do was follow his direction and you felt the bank robbery’s taking place. That’s how thought out he did it.”

The most emotional scene in the film has to be the phone conversation between Sonny and Leon. Lumet had Pacino do the conversation with Leon and the conversation with Sonny’s female wife back to back without a break for the sake of the performance. Lumet walled off the camera with black velvet so that Pacino wouldn’t be distracted. The problem was that the scene was 14 minutes long and one reel only holds 10 minutes worth of film. So, they set up two cameras and when the first camera was nearing the end of its reel, they switched on the second camera filming at a slightly different angle.

Sidney Lumet: “So, what’s interesting in terms of Al, was that the first take was extraordinary and I thought, ‘well, we’ve got nothing to lose. He’s got a magnificent take in the can.’ And for some reason—sheer instinct we finished and by the time the second camera had photographed the second half of the phone conversation, the first camera had reloaded. That’s why I put up the black velvet, so that Al’s concentration wouldn’t be disturbed by the guys working on putting the film into the first camera again and I stood up over the velvet and I said, ‘Al, we’re going ahead. We’re going to go again.’ And you’ll see the look that he gives me it was extraordinary. He looked like I had shot him because he was exhausted and I said, ‘Don’t think about it. Roll film. Action!’ and we did the whole thing again. Now what was fascinating, he just responded automatically and it’s the second take that we used because the only thing that was missing in the brilliance of the performance was the exhaustion of having been there since two thirty in that afternoon and we were now maybe ten o’clock at night and the exhaustion of doing it a second time shows in his face and that was the reason for going again. And again, it’s one of the best pieces of film acting that I’ve ever seen.”

And in case you’re wondering what Pacino’s reaction was when Lumet told him that they were going again, here it is:

Just look at Pacino in this scene. You can really feel the exhaustion. Fun fact: Lumet actually applied the sweat makeup himself from a special concoction

Sidney Lumet: “One of the great pleasures of my life is doing the sweat myself. I never leave it to the makeup people to do it because they always do it either too much or too little or too fake and from 12 Angry Men I learned how to do the sweat myself. It’s a combination of glycerin and water, so that it lasts a long time and you don’t have to keep doing it ever shot, looks real, doesn’t run the way some of them do when they just put water on. Also, I can keep the continuity correct.”

There was also no music after the opening credits of the film. Some movies feel the need to use music to explain the emotion of a scene. Lumet didn’t want to destroy the realism by embellishing the emotion and, with such great performances, he obviously didn’t need to.


This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.