Dog Day Afternoon poster

See how the Oscar®-winning Dog Day Afternoon hits Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats!

Written by: Frank Pierson (Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay, 1976)

Based on: The Life Magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Genre: Institutionalized (a group or organization that is unique, the ongoing conflict between the arbiters of that institution and the Hero fighting against it, and a sacrifice made: join the group, burn it down, or commit “suicide”)

Movie Trivia: Al Pacino backed out of the role of Sonny Wortzik three times before committing to the film. Producer Martin Bregman attributed this to Pacino’s practice of method acting, saying that perhaps it was a world Pacino did not want to explore, as “no major star had ever played a gay.”

Pacino himself cited stress and alcoholism as the cause for his reluctance, but went on to create one of the most iconic characters of modern film as well as a remarkably progressive and humanizing portrayal of the LGBT community just a few short years after the abolishment of the Hays “morality” Code.

Opening Image: Real footage of 1970s daily life in New York City and surrounding boroughs, Elton John’s “Amoreena” playing in the background. As we focus in on three men in a car outside the First Brooklyn Savings Bank, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) turns off the radio and the music disappears for the rest of the movie; there is no soundtrack or incidental music, except for a few diegetic moments from onscreen radios or television.

This was Sidney Lumet’s choice in an effort to plunge his audience right into the action as if they were on the street themselves watching the drama unfold. Spoiler: it worked.

Set-Up: The trio from the car, Sonny, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) enter the bank separately and after anxiously waiting for a woman with a toddler to exit, Sonny wildly fumbles an M1 Carbine out of a florist’s box and the thesis world becomes clear—this is an armed robbery, perpetrated by three men who are clearly amateurs.

Sony with a machine gun and Stevie in the bank lobby
Sonny and Stevie, setting up

There are so many things that need fixing: Sonny is a nervous wreck, jumping around and shouting that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone since he’s a Catholic (the first of many Save the Cat! moments for this character); Stevie immediately bails on the job and he and Sonny have an argument over if Stevie should leave by subway or take their getaway car; and once they get into the vault, it’s revealed that there’s only $1,100 in the safe because Sonny got a bum tip about the money pick-up time.

Theme Stated: Sonny catches the bank manager, Mulvaney (Sully Boyar), trying to use a spot key to open the vault, which would set off an alarm. When Mulvaney mumbles that he must have been out of his mind, Sonny says, “Yeah? Well, get your mind right!” Sonny’s particular version of justice and fair play will run this entire operation, and we’ll find ourselves agreeing more with his vision than that of the so-called upstanding citizens who try to thwart him.

Catalyst: After Sonny tries to destroy the bank register by lighting it on fire, Sam, a.k.a., “the insurance guy from across the street” (Jay Gerber), notices smoke wafting out of the bank and gets suspicious.

Sonny and Sal talk in the bank office
Sonny and Sal, debating

Debate: Sonny and Sal had been on the verge of accepting their lot and leaving with their miserable haul, but now they run into a myriad of delays: Mulvaney has to deal with Sam at the front door, the security guy starts having an asthma attack, the women tellers have to go to the bathroom before being locked into the vault… it’s a mess, made worse by Sonny’s indecisiveness and innate decency.

Break into Two: Mulvaney tells Sonny there’s a telephone call—for him. It’s NYPD Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), informing Sonny that they’ve got him by the balls.

Fun and Games: All hell breaks loose as dozens of police cars scream into the area and hundreds of onlookers and oglers dash onto the scene. Sonny and Sal respond to this upside-down antithesis world by sinking to the floor in disbelief. Sonny says he needs a minute to think, but between the growing crowds, continual phone calls, and getting scolded by one of his hostages for not having a decent robbery plan, all he can come up with is “What a fucking comedy.” Truer (movie) words were never spoken.

It’s not long before there are camera crews rushing in, helicopters flying overhead, and the appearance of the FBI. Moretti persuades Sonny to come outside the bank to talk, which turns out to be a bit of a miscalculation on his part as the crowd becomes enamored of Sonny’s over-the-top personality and mistrust of authority; once they’re echoing Sonny’s chants of “Attica! Attica!”, it’s clear who’s winning in the court of public opinion.

Sonny shouting on the sidewalk outside the bank
Sonny, riding high

Sonny is riding high on his popularity (even his hostages are finding him rather appealing) and orders Moretti to obtain a jet to take him and his bank gang to another country. Sal, who’s not the brightest crayon in the box, is hoping for the distant country of Wyoming.

B Story: Although Sonny’s wife doesn’t show up until after the Midpoint, she drives much of the action of the film. Except we’re not talking about Sonny’s estranged legal wife, Angela, but his lover Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), whom he married in a clandestine ceremony and whose sex-reassignment surgery Sonny was hoping to pay for with his stolen cash. It’s this relationship that gives the outlandish storyline its heart and soul and most underscores the film’s “Institutionalized” genre.

Midpoint: After Sonny’s enjoyment of his new fan base, it’s a painful reversal when he realizes that the police are trying to break in through the back door. Sonny shoots at them through the glass pane at the top, everything descends into chaos, and we suddenly remember that our (anti-)hero is armed and dangerous.

A group of cops and hostage negotiators on the street huddling behind a car
Moretti, negotiating

Bad Guys Close In: After the gunfire, communication starts to break down across the board. Moretti no longer talks to Sonny face to face, but through a bullhorn, and FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) takes over the negotiations, telling Sonny the FBI will “handle” Sal, which sounds so ominous that Sonny lies to Sal about it.

Chris Sarandon on the phone
Leon, wanting out

Then Sonny endures three brutal conversations in a row: the first with Leon, who says he’s been trying to escape Sonny for months; the second with Angela, who is so wrapped up in her own drama over Sonny’s betrayal, she can’t even hear him; and the third, with his mother, Vi (Judith Malina)…

All Is Lost: … whose hysteria and micromanaging is more than Sonny can bear and puts the nail in his proverbial coffin. “Run,” Vi says. “Run!” Sonny, overwhelmed, asks “Where?” Where can he run to if he’s an outcast and self-proclaimed fuck-up?

Dark Night of the Soul: Sonny’s mind is no longer right. In a whiff of death, he dictates his last will and testament, saying goodbye to his wife Leon, his wife Angela, his children, and his mother. He asks Vi’s forgiveness for being “different”—his lifelong, inescapable shard of glass.

Break into Three: As the getaway car pulls up in front of the bank, Sonny signs the will, sealing his expected fate.

Finale: Sonny may not be able to escape himself, but there’s still an exodus to Algeria (or Wyoming) on the table, still a way to storm the castle. He gathers the team of Sal and the hostages and executes the plan: first, to check out the limo for weapons and the salty limo driver (Dick Anthony Williams) for tricks, then to get all the hostages out of the bank and into their ride to the airport.

The bank manager sits in the front seat nest to Sonny, who's holding his rifle
The bank manager, Sonny, Sal, and the hostages, โ€œgatheringโ€

Sonny is amazed and even gloats a bit when it appears his plan has worked and he’s finally done something right, but in a heartbreaking high tower surprise, the FBI shoots and kills Sal just as their supposed getaway jet appears on the runway.

Sonny digs down deep and… gives up. There is no new plan to execute, other than beg the men with the guns to spare his life.

Final Image: Sonny weeps as Sal’s body is taken away and he is left alone, truly alone. Although he’s surrounded by people, they are the members of “the institution,” a mythical place where Sonny will never belong. He tried to join it, then burn it down, but in the end, the institution forces his “suicide” and Sonny’s mind will never be right again.