When the strange and sweaty little bank robber Sonny cries “Attica! Attica!” both to troll the police and to rally a Brooklyn crowd around him, it reverses the polarity of Dog Day Afternoon. Suddenly it’s the police who are on defense. The boys in blue seem surrounded and trapped, in their case by public opinion. Now the hostage-taking jerk they’re dealing with is a folk hero. Sonny is also claiming his share of one of Hollywood’s richest old seams: the Warner Bros. crime picture.
Dog Day Afternoon is possibly the most perfect entry among the dozens of great gritty Seventies movies that provided me with a durable memory library of cinematic brilliance. (It’s streaming on the TCM app through May 10.) Al Pacino’s Sonny is the scion of a long line of antiheroes reaching back to Paul Muni’s James Allen, who explains, heartbreakingly, “I steal” at the end of 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a film that showed us why he stole, with great tender sympathy for the plight of criminals. Sonny has a touch of Warren Beatty’s cute confusion —“Hey!” is his last word, one shirttail hanging out, one lens missing from his sunglasses — before Clyde Barrow gets gunned down without a word of warning by a hidden squad of cowardly riflemen at the end of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Too, Sonny exhibits some of the shamelessness and peacockery of ultra-criminal Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971), whose felonious acts are an assertion of human free will. All of these are Warner Bros. productions, the crime movies that plumbed the humanity of malefactors.
Sonny was also one of the lone, usually doomed truthtellers who fight the system — director Sidney Lumet’s great subject, from Twelve Angry Men (1957) to Serpico (1973), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), and The Verdict (1982). That’s how Lumet guides the audience to consider the situation, anyway: His and Pacino’s Sonny (who in real life was named John Wojtowicz) is an adorable, sensitive soul who obviously means no harm. Who among us has not fretted over how to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation and been forced to rob a bank as the only available means of funding? Sonny gets harangued by his shrewish wife, pleads for calm from his histrionic boyfriend, and sadly informs his moronic junior partner that “Wyoming” is not a country. These scenes go beyond humanizing Sonny. We actually love the poor guy and want him to survive his nutty ordeal. Don’t cops do a lot of awful things too, by the way? Attica! How exhilarating to side with the rebels.
Decades later, though, it became obvious that Warner Bros. was one of the culture’s leading retailers of an idea that was simply wrong: that criminals, being victims of circumstance, should enjoy wide latitude, even indulgence. The New York City of 1972, when the film takes place, was coming to the end of the first decade of a three-decade experiment with lawlessness as its ruling ethos. Lumet enacted an amused, sporting attitude toward crime and criminals at the cost of ordinary citizens. The bank tellers Sonny and Sal terrorized for 14 hours did absolutely nothing wrong, unless you consider working for Chase Manhattan to be an act of oppression, and a proportion of the film’s 1975 audience probably did. What kind of lasting psychic damage was done to these hostages? John Wojtowicz served a mere five years in federal prison for his crime, and when he got out, he committed more crimes. He wasn’t a lovable scamp, just another dirtbag who made life miserable for ordinary working New Yorkers and deserved to be behind bars. Having a soft spot for criminals institutionally proved nearly to be the ruination of America’s greatest city until the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani seized on the counterrevolutionary idea of disrupting and punishing crime instead of shrugging at it.
The future of Dog Day Afternoon, though, may lie in a third reading: that the 1972 bank robbery was a kind of LGBTQ Battle of Bunker Hill. Warner Bros. has shown a lot of interest in adapting its film library to the stage, and for years there have been plans to bring Dog Day Afternoon to Broadway, which is perhaps the most gay- and transgender-friendly major institution in our culture. The talk so far has been to do it as a play, but the story is so outré it might work well as a musical — a bleak and desperate one. Lumet treated the gay and transsexual themes with a sort of amused condescension — a comedy sideshow at the circus — but a Broadway director might find the story to be a tale of a heroic gay man, just three years after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village (the Lexington and Concord of the gay revolution), literally taking up arms against the cis-normative community represented by butch cops, housewifey bank tellers, and the Mafia, which used Sonny and Sal as their pawns. If the story Wojtowicz told a friend who wrote for the Village Voice is true, the robbery had its roots in an act of anti-capitalist resistance from within the machine: a gay Chase Manhattan executive set up the robbery by giving Wojtowicz a tip at a gay bar. What did the gay banker know about the practices of the Chase Manhattan bank? A morally alert filmmaker might be interested in speculating. Maybe he or she will go poking around and declare that Chase was guilty of nefarious anti-gay deeds and it served them right to get robbed.
Truly great films rarely get remade, but it’s easy to picture a gay-friendly Warner Bros. executive greenlighting a remake someday on the reasoning that Lumet was either mildly homophobic or missed the real story. A detail that was apparently too crazy for Lumet to include in the movie is that Wojtowicz kissed his other male lover (not the transsexual one) smack on the mouth in the doorway of the bank during the heist, and the crowd loved it. Maybe Attica wasn’t the most galvanizing piece of recent history informing the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Maybe it was Stonewall.