You’re not supposed to identify with a bank robber. Even if he’s a struggling, doing-it-for-the-right-reasons, incompetent, piece of shit nice guy. He’s robbing a bank. He’s got hostages. But Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson need to create empathy for their lead, and they need to swim against the current that is heist movie tropes. In the ridiculous, moving, and wildly entertaining Dog Day Afternoon, they do just that.
Sonny (Pacino) isn’t the villain. He has the support of the crowd from almost his first appearance. Apart from making us, the audience, question whether maybe it’s alright to root for him, we’re also being shown an objective view of the sideshow we love to make of this kind of thing. Shame on us – you go, Sonny.
The urge for violence is resisted. Despite John Cazale’s brilliantly cold performance, Sal is simply a test for Sonny – will they kill anybody? As the film goes on and Sonny refuses to give in to Sal’s bloodthirsty desires, we start rooting for him even more.
And then there’s Stockholm Syndrome. These sassy female hostages aren’t going to take orders from no robbers – and they quickly assert themselves as not-to-be-fucked-with. And suddenly everybody in the bank is playing happy families – and everybody (audience included) feels safe.
I love good writing, and any script that can blend genres and engage me from only one key setting has done very well. Like Phonebooth, but smarter, like Heat, but realer, Dog Day Afternoon is an exceptionally different heist movie.