The film was inspired by P. F. Kluge's LIFE article "The Boys in the Bank", which tells a story of a similar robbery of a Brooklyn bank by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale on August 22, 1972.
The film received critical acclaim upon its September 1975 release by Warner Bros., some of which referred to its anti-establishment tone. Dog Day Afternoon was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globe awards, and won one Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In 2009, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
On August 22, 1972, first-time crook Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), his friend Salvatore "Sal" Naturale (John Cazale), and Stevie (Gary Springer) attempt to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. The plan immediately goes awry when Stevie loses his nerve shortly after Sal pulls out his gun, and Sonny is forced to let him flee the scene. In the vault, Sonny discovers that he and Sal have arrived after the daily cash pickup, and only $1,100 in cash remains in the bank.
To compensate, Sonny takes a number of traveler's cheques. He attempts to prevent the cheques from being traced by burning the bank's register in a trash can, but this causes smoke to billow out the side of the building, alerting the business across the street to suspicious activities. Within minutes, the building is surrounded by the police. Unsure of what to do, the two robbers camp out in the bank, holding all the workers hostage.
Police Detective Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) calls the bank to tell Sonny the police have arrived. Sonny warns that he and Sal have hostages and will kill them if anyone tries coming into the bank. Sal tells Sonny that he is ready to kill the hostages if necessary. Detective Moretti acts as hostage negotiator, while FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) monitors his actions.
Howard Calvin (John Marriott), the security guard, has an asthma attack, so Sonny releases him when Moretti asks for a hostage as a sign of good faith. Moretti convinces Sonny to step outside the bank to see how aggressive the police forces are. Using head teller Sylvia "The Mouth" (Penelope Allen) as a shield, Sonny exits the bank and begins a dialogue with Moretti that culminates in his shouting "Attica! Attica!" (invoking the recent Attica Prison riot), and the civilian crowd starts cheering for Sonny.
After realizing they cannot make a simple getaway, Sonny demands that a helicopter be landed on the roof to fly him and Sal out of the country. When they are informed that the asphalt roof of the bank will not support a helicopter, Sonny demands that a vehicle drive him and Sal to an airport so that they can board a jet. He also demands pizzas (which are delivered to the scene) for the hostages and that his wife be brought to the bank. When Sonny's wife, Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), a pre-operative transgender woman, arrives, she reveals to the crowd and officials one of Sonny's reasons for robbing the bank is to pay for Leon's sex reassignment surgery, and that Sonny also has an estranged divorced wife, Angie (Susan Peretz), and children.
As night sets in, the lights in the bank all shut off. Sonny goes outside again and discovers that Agent Sheldon has taken command of the scene. He refuses to give Sonny any more favors, but when the bank manager, Mulvaney (Sully Boyar), goes into a diabetic shock, Agent Sheldon lets a doctor (Philip Charles MacKenzie) through. While the doctor is inside the bank, Sheldon convinces Leon to talk to Sonny on the phone.
The two have a lengthy conversation that reveals Leon had attempted suicide to "get away from" Sonny. He had been hospitalized at the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital until the police brought him to the scene. Leon turns down Sonny's offer to join him and Sal wherever they take the plane. Sonny tells police listening to the phone call that Leon had nothing to do with the robbery attempt.
After the phone call, the doctor asks Sonny to let Mulvaney leave, and Sonny agrees. However, Mulvaney refuses to leave, insisting upon remaining with his employees.
The FBI calls Sonny out of the bank again. They have brought his mother to the scene. She unsuccessfully tries persuading him to give himself up, and Agent Sheldon signals that a limousine will arrive in 10 minutes to take them to a waiting jet. Once back inside the bank, Sonny writes out his will, leaving money from his life insurance to Leon for her sex change and to Angie.
When the limousine arrives, Sonny checks it for any hidden weapons or booby traps. When he decides the car is satisfactory, he settles on Agent Murphy (Lance Henriksen) to drive Sonny, Sal, and the remaining hostages to Kennedy Airport. Per Sonny's earlier agreement, an additional hostage, Edna (Estelle Omens) is released, and the remaining hostages get into the limousine with Sonny and Sal. Sonny sits in the front next to Murphy while Sal sits behind them. Murphy repeatedly asks Sal to point his gun at the roof so Sal won't accidentally shoot him.
As they wait on the airport tarmac for the plane to taxi into position, Maria is released and gives Sal her rosary beads to help him through his first plane journey. Murphy again reminds Sal to aim his gun up so he does not fire by accident. Sal does so, and Agent Sheldon forces Sonny's weapon onto the dashboard, creating a distraction which allows Murphy to pull a revolver hidden in his armrest and shoot Sal in the head. Sonny is immediately arrested, and the hostages are all escorted to the terminal. The film ends with Sonny watching Sal's body being taken from the car on a stretcher. Subtitles reveal that Sonny was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Angie and her children subsisted on welfare, and Leon had her sex reassignment surgery.
The LIFE article described Wojtowicz as "a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman". Hoffman would later be offered the role when Pacino briefly quit the production. An 18-year-old actor was originally to be cast in the role of Sal to match the age of the actual Salvatore. The table below summarizes the main cast of Dog Day Afternoon.
The film is based on the story of John Wojtowicz and adheres to the basic facts of what happened, according to the LIFE article "The Boys in the Bank". Wojtowicz, along with Sal Naturale, held up a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn, on August 22, 1972.
After being apprehended, Wojtowicz was convicted in court and sentenced to 20 years in prison, of which he served six.
Wojtowicz wrote a letter to The New York Times in 1975 out of concern that people would believe the version of the events portrayed in the film, which he said was "only 30% true". Some of Wojtowicz's objections included the portrayal of his wife Carmen Bifulco, the conversation with his mother that Wojtowicz claimed never happened, and the refusal of police to let him speak to his wife Carmen (unlike what was portrayed in the film). He did, however, praise Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon's portrayals of him and his wife Elizabeth Eden as accurate. Also, although Sal was 18 years old, he is portrayed in the film by then 39-year-old John Cazale.
The film shows Sonny making out a will to give Leon his life insurance so that if Sonny should be killed, Leon might still be able to pay for the operation. The real-life Wojtowicz was paid $7,500 ($36,400 today), plus 1% of the film's net profits, for the rights to his story, from which he gave to Eden enough to pay for her sexual reassignment surgery. Aron became Elizabeth Debbie Eden. She died of complications from AIDS in Genesee Hospital, in Rochester, New York, in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer in January 2006.
The robbery took place at the Chase Manhattan Bank branch at 450 Avenue P in Brooklyn, on the cross street of East 3rd Street, in Gravesend.
The original inspiration for the film was an article written by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore for LIFE in September 1972. The article included many of the details later used in the film and noted the relationship which Wojtowicz and Naturale developed with hostages and the police. Bank manager Robert Barrett said, "I'm supposed to hate you guys [Wojtowicz/Naturale], but I've had more laughs tonight than I've had in weeks. We had a kind of camaraderie." Teller Shirley Bell said, "[I]f they had been my houseguests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious." The novelization of the film was penned by organized crime writer Leslie Waller.
The film has no musical score other than three songs, which are diegetic—"Amoreena" by Elton John (which first appeared on his 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection), which Sonny, Sal, and Stevie are listening to in their car in the opening credits—, the Faces song "Stay with Me", and "Easy Livin" by Uriah Heep, which both briefly play on the radio during scenes inside the bank. Although many scenes within the bank establish the temperature was quite hot during the robbery, some outdoor sequences were shot in weather cool enough that actors had to put ice in their mouths to stop their breath from showing on camera. Exterior shots were filmed on location on Prospect Park West between 17th and 18th Street in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. The interior shots of the bank were filmed in a set created in a warehouse.
Though the actors kept to the basic text of the script as written by Frank Pierson, director Lumet encouraged them to improvise and workshop scenes to create more natural dialogue. Changes made through this process included Cazale's memorable reply when asked what country he'd like to go to ("Wyoming"), and Durning and Pacino's aggressive dialogue after shots are fired within the bank.
Although Dog Day Afternoon was released nationally in 1975, it is based on events that took place in Brooklyn three years earlier, in 1972. During this era of thick and extremely heavy opposition to the Vietnam war, "anti-establishment" Sonny repeats the counter-cultural war cry, "Attica!", in reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots.
Upon its release, Dog Day Afternoon received largely positive reviews. The film holds a 95% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Vincent Canby called it "Sidney Lumet's most accurate, most flamboyant New York movie" and praised the "brilliant characterizations" by the entire cast. Roger Ebert called Sonny "one of the most interesting modern movie characters" and gave the movie three-and-a-half stars out of four.
As time has passed, the film has continued to generate a positive critical reception. For example, Christopher Null wrote in 2006 that the film "captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom and John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with".
P.F. Kluge, coauthor of the article that inspired the film, believed the filmmakers "stayed with the surface of a lively journalistic story" and that the film had a "strong, fast-paced story" without "reflection" or "a contemplative view of life".
Dog Day Afternoon ranks 443rd on Empire's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Vrij Nederland named the bank robbery scene the third best bank robbery in film history, behind bank robbery scenes from Raising Arizona (1987) and Heat (1995).
Dog Day Afternoon won the Academy Award for Writing – Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson) and was nominated for five other Oscars:Best Picture (Martin Bregman and Martin Elfand)
Best Director (Sidney Lumet)
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Al Pacino)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Chris Sarandon)
Best Film Editing (Dede Allen)
The film was also nominated for the following seven Golden Globes, winning none:Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Director – Motion Picture (Sidney Lumet)
Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama (Al Pacino)
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture (Frank Pierson)
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture (Charles Durning)
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture (John Cazale)
Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Male (Chris Sarandon)
The film won other awards, including an NBR Award for Best Supporting Actor (Charles Durning) and a Writers Guild Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen (Frank Pierson) as well as the British Academy Award for Best Actor (Al Pacino). The film is also #70 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. Also Al Pacino's quote, "Attica! Attica!" placed at #86 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes. It was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies in 1998 and 2007. In 2006, Premiere magazine issued its "100 Greatest Performances of All Time", citing Pacino's performance as Sonny as the 4th greatest ever. In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild listed the film as the 20th best edited film of all time based on a survey of its membership.