In Dog Day Afternoon, the character of Sonny, played by Al Pacino, performs dangerous hyper-masculinity, as a hot tempered Vietnam veteran for the consumption and exploitation of the predatory media, police, and overzealous crowds. But the audience sees that there are significant ruptures between Sonny’s performed masculine persona and self. I will look at the scenes where he performs this persona on the “front stage” of the streets and reveals himself in the “back stage” of the bank. Juxtaposing these stages demonstrates the masculine and feminine dichotomies of Sonny’s characterization and situates the ruptures as a strategic performance on Sonny’s part. He willingly manipulates sensationalized media and cinematic constructions in order to craft an assertive persona to successfully enact his robbery.
Like a stage play, the majority of Dog Day Afternoon’s narrative takes place within one setting, the inside of the bank. The first moments within that setting establishes patterns for Sonny’s back stage characterization. Sonny is seen as a comically incompetent robber and not ideologically dangerous. He struggles to get his gun out of the flower box. He cannot control his accomplices, one of them leaves. Sonny attempts to block the bank’s cameras with a spray, but cannot reach because of his short height. In addition to these comic moments, Sonny characterization back stage exhibits vulnerability, sensitivity, pensiveness, passivity, and at times, boyish naiveté. Just as Sonny is about to lock the bank tellers within the vault, one of them asks if they can use the bathroom. This initiates a repeated pattern of Sonny frequently indulging his hostages with food, bathroom breaks, and general unrestricted movement and privileges.
Sonny’s comic incompetence and passivity is culminated in a key gesture. He receives a phone call from Detective Moretti, shown gazing from the store window directly across the street. Sonny quickly hangs up and slumps onto the ground, head in his hands, scrunching his face into a pout. This vulnerable gesture of putting his face in his hands to convey agony, exhaustion, and despair will be repeated frequently throughout the film. This passivity is juxtaposed when the phone rings again. Sonny picks up and immediately launches into an angry tirade, the first seed of his performed persona. “All right, bastards! You keep away from the bank or we start throwing bodies out the front door one at a time. You got that?” Sonny’s relinquished control of the bank is vocally reclaimed in performing as an angry, violent individual for (who he believes to be) the police.
During the actual phone call with Detective Moretti, Sonny boasts, “We’re Vietnam veterans so killing don’t mean anything to us.” Sonny understands the socio-political climate well enough to know that this statement will completely change the tenor of the confrontation. Pacino imbues the line with a blasé deadpan that reinforces the hot-tempered killer he’s performing to the cops while simultaneously cluing the audience in on the misdirection. Within this line, we see Sonny’s manipulation and performance in action. We know this statement is a performance when Sonny previously established his fear of sin and clear aversion to killing by telling the bank tellers, “I’m a Catholic and I don’t want to hurt anybody, understand?”
As the film continues, Sonny moves onto the front stage of the bank’s street. The scene of Sonny’s first performance begins as his body nervously oscillates between the bank’s doors and the sidewalk. When Moretti begins making false promises, Sonny moves outside to insult him, screaming and yelling at the police to back away and put their guns down. Sonny starts shouting “Attica!” over and over. Sonny had mentioned Attica to the bank teller inside, “They’ll shoot you; the fucking cops’ll shoot you… they don’t give a damn. In spite of that bank insurance. You see what they did in Attica. They shot everybody, the hostages, prisoners, cops, guards. Forty-two people they killed, the innocent with the guilty.” This meditated use of Attica demonstrates Sonny’s knowledge of society’s anti-establishment views, he uses the memory as a tool to galvanize the crowd, who cheers wildly in support. He feeds off the crowd’s raucous energy, transforming the twitchy, meek and fumbling Sonny into a commanding showman. His anxious wandering evolves into a preening strut. This confident swagger juxtaposes the panicky pacing we saw inside the bank. Sonny performs as a hot-tempered ticking time bomb who could go off at any moment. He is a Vietnam veteran who has been scorned by society, just as the prisoners of Attica were and the anti-establishment crowd see themselves as. He uses this imagery to his advantage, letting the police know that they should be wary of his power.
Preceding the third onstage moment, Sonny is angry and frightened upon discovering police trying to enter the back of the bank. His trust in Moretti is broken, so he stays within the bank doors, too shaken up to enact any sort of performance. Instead, Sonny meekly asks for pizza and aspirin. When Sonny next appears onstage, he has regained his cool confidence and control of the audience. He uses the bank’s money to pay for the pizza, a teasing gesture that asserts his dominance over institutional powers. He goads Moretti by asking him if he could use a five. The confident, assertive masculine hero is back. The crowd cheers wildly, prompting Sonny to throw money into the crowd. A shot lingers on Sonny numbly watching the crowd ravage each other for the thrown money as the media gleefully films them. It is a brief moment where Sonny drops his mask on stage, and another clue that Sonny is performing these actions in order to put on a show.
Sonny’s last on stage moment occurs when the FBI arrives with his getaway car. A man who is not chosen by the cops to be his driver to the airport, where Sonny and Sal will supposedly escape, delivers the car. Sonny wants him to drive them to the airport, repeatedly insisting that he’s running this show and gets to make the decisions. This performed line juxtaposes Sonny’s anxieties inside the bank, where he fretted, “You think it’s easy? You know I gotta keep them cooled out, I gotta keep all you people happy, I gotta have all the ideas and I gotta do it all alone” (Lumet 1975). Outside on his stage, Sonny demonstrates his assertive control and insists the show is always in his hands. Sonny will quickly drop this assertive mask once he enters the inside of the getaway car, another back stage where Sonny exhibits impassiveness. This time, Sonny’s naiveté and vulnerability will end up destroying and imprisoning him. Sonny childishly asks the FBI agent to honk the horn as they make their getaway.
He and Sal marvel over the getaway airplane, asking if there will be food on board, thoroughly believing that the authorities are going to let them leave unpunished. The situation quickly escalates as Sal is shot by the FBI agent and Sonny is arrested. In one of the final shots, Sonny is removed from the car and leans on the hood. He stares in disbelief at the chaos that he has created: a stretcher wheels the dead Sal into an ambulance, the bank tellers reunite with their families, the jet engine roars in harmony with the wail of the ambulance’s siren in an overwhelming cacophony. His masculine performance, in which he tried to exude confidence and get what he wanted from the police officers, was not able to get him far enough in the robbery. Sonny puts his head on the car door in a crying grimace, his repeated passive gesture. The key difference is that this gesture is no longer confined within the back stage of the bank, his naïve vulnerability is now exposed on the outside. Sonny’s private life has been thrust out into the public sphere and the media has constructed his image as they see fit. Sonny’s performance has ended.
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.