In 1972, a Brooklyn bank robbery intended to fund a sex-change operation turned into a day-long standoff. Three years later, Sidney Lumet turned that strange story into Dog Day Afternoon, a lively, intense, and surprisingly funny crime film featuring one of Al Pacino’s best performances. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts to help you appreciate this felonious masterpiece next time you barricade yourself inside a bank to watch it.
1. ITS ORIGINAL TITLE WAS THE BOYS IN THE BANK.
That was the name of P.F. Kluge’s Life magazine article about the real robbery. Somewhere along the way, director Sidney Lumet expressed dislike for the title as it applied to his movie, and came up with one that suggested a hot, stuffy day near the end of the summer.
2. THE REAL BANK ROBBER LOOKED A LOT LIKE AL PACINO.
Fluge’s magazine article described John Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman,” so naturally the screenplay found its way into both actors’ hands. (Pacino was Lumet’s first choice, but Hoffman was reportedly approached when Pacino, seeking to take a brief break from movies, initially turned it down.) We see a bit more De Niro in Wojtowicz than Pacino or Hoffman, but Pacino was a good fit, too.
3. SAL WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A BEAUTIFUL 18-YEAR-OLD, NOT, UH, JOHN CAZALE.
The real bank robber’s accomplice was Salvatore Naturale, an 18-year-old delinquent who’d been in trouble with the law for most of his life. Screenwriter Frank Pierson envisioned the Sal character as a handsome kid that Sonny had picked up in Greenwich Village, and described him in the script as “medium height, also good-looking in an intense boyish way.” So Sidney Lumet was skeptical when Al Pacino recommended his good friend John Cazale for the role.
Cazale, who’d been in The Godfather films with Pacino, was 39 years old, and not what you’d call beautiful. But Lumet said that when Cazale came in to read for the part, he was sold on him in a matter of minutes.
4. IT HAS NO MUSICAL SCORE.
Lumet was all about authenticity. Except for the Elton John song that plays over the opening credits (which turns out to be coming from Sonny’s car radio) and a couple of snippets heard elsewhere on radios, there’s no music in the movie. “I could not reconcile trying to convince an audience that this really happened—which I felt was the first obligation of the movie—with putting a music score in," Lumet said. "How would it have felt if suddenly in the midst of [a dramatic] sequence you’d have heard an orchestra?”
5. SIDNEY LUMET WAS ADAMANT ABOUT NOT SHOOTING THE FILM ON STUDIO SETS.
Most of the movie takes place in three locations: inside the bank, on the street outside the bank, and in the barbershop across from the bank. Standard procedure would be to shoot the street scenes on location, and then film the bank and barbershop interiors on sets constructed at a studio (where it’s much easier to control lighting, sound, etc.). But Lumet wanted realistic continuity. He wanted us to see, for example, that when a character enters the bank from the street, he’s really doing that—not walking through a door and emerging on a fake set miles away. Lumet got his wish and found a block of a Brooklyn street that suited his purposes, including a vacant warehouse that could be turned into a bank
6. IT WAS FILMED DURING A COLD AUTUMN.
The movie takes place in late August, and the makeup department did fine work making everyone look appropriately sweaty. But it was actually shot in the fall, and a particularly chilly one at that. When they were filming outdoors, you could see the actors’s breath, which obviously wouldn’t do. The highly scientific workaround: ice chips in the mouth to cool the breath before it hit the air.
7. THE EXTRAS HIRED FOR THE CROWD SCENES WERE OUTNUMBERED BY ACTUAL BYSTANDERS.
Lumet’s team hired about 300 extras to play the crowd that gathers outside the bank during the standoff. But when you film a hostage crisis on a real, functioning city street, people notice. Lumet said the crowd would swell every day they filmed, especially in the late afternoons, and that the professional extras did a great job of getting the civilians to act appropriately for the scene. It was like a big improv exercise. People who lived on the block were offered hotel rooms if they wanted to get away from the commotion, but most chose to stay. They were invited to look out their windows and gawk, just like real neighbors would do
8. IT WAS SHOT IN SEQUENCE ... SORT OF.
You probably know that most movies are not filmed chronologically. First you shoot all the scenes that use location A; then you move to location B and film whatever scenes take place there, and so on. But with Dog Day Afternoon being set in one spot, it was almost feasible to start on page one of the script and just shoot the whole thing in order (which is easier on the actors for obvious reasons). Lumet did the next best thing: He shot all of the street scenes first, in order, then moved inside the bank and filmed all of those scenes in order.
9. THEY LOST A DAY’S WORK BECAUSE OF PACINO’S MUSTACHE.
One of the things the actor did as a means of getting into character was grow a mustache—not because the real robber had one, but because the character was gay, and in the mid-’70s, many gay men had mustaches. In Lumet’s words, however, Pacino’s mustache “looked terrible.” And after the first day of filming, Pacino agreed. Watching the footage, Pacino told Lumet, “The mustache has got to go,” and asked if he could shave it and redo that day’s work. Lumet agreed, and the mustache was gone—as was a day's worth of footage.
10. IT’S THE ONLY TIME LUMET EVER INCORPORATED IMPROVISATION INTO ONE OF HIS MOVIES.
Sidney Lumet’s first film was 1957’s 12 Angry Men. He made 20 more between that and Dog Day Afternoon (and 22 more afterward), and by his own account, he never used improv. “I don’t like actors to improvise, to use their own language,” he said in the Dog Day Afternoon DVD commentary. “They are not going to come up with something ... better than a really talented writer who has done months of work on something.”
But as Lumet and the cast rehearsed Dog Day Afternoon—especially the parts where the robbers and bank employees are just sitting around killing time—someone asked about the possibility of improv, and Lumet realized it could be useful for helping the actors bond, as well as making the characters’s interactions feel more natural. With screenwriter Frank Pierson present, Lumet let the actors improvise in rehearsal; recorded it; and ended up adding some of their conversations to the script (which won the film’s only Oscar, by the way).
11. THE ACTORS DIDN’T JUST IMPROVISE IN REHEARSAL, BUT WHILE THE CAMERAS WERE ROLLING.
It’s one thing to incorporate dialogue into a film that the cast came up with during rehearsal. It’s quite another thing for the actors to improvise on the spot, while the cameras are rolling. But it happened at least twice here, once because Lumet asked for it, and once totally out of the blue.
Right after Sal fires his gun because they think the cops are sneaking in through the back of the bank, Sonny comes outside and gets yelled at by the cop played by Charles Durning. For this scene, Lumet told Durning to improvise, and to immediately get Sonny on the defensive. He had three cameras rolling to capture whatever happened; watching the scene, you can feel the spontaneous energy and confusion from both actors. It was an effective use of improvisation (though Lumet said he never tried it again).
The other instance was minor but memorable: When Sonny asks Sal if there’s any particular country he wants to go to, the script had Sal giving no reply. But on the day, when Pacino asked the question, Cazale responded, “Wyoming.” Pacino stayed in character while Lumet stifled a laugh so he wouldn’t ruin the take.
12. ONE ASPECT OF THE TRUE STORY WAS SO BIZARRE LUMET DIDN’T WANT TO USE IT.
During the real standoff, TV news showed home movie footage of the bank robber’s marriage to the man (played by Chris Sarandon in the movie) whose sex-change operation the robbery was intended to fund. But in the movie, TV news shows nothing more than a still photo of the “bride” in a white dress. That’s because the wedding footage showed what was evidently a raucous, colorful event, with much cross-dressing and general revelry. Lumet feared it was so visually bizarre, and such a shift in tone, that the audience wouldn’t come back to the tense reality of the hostage situation after seeing it.
13. PACINO’S BACK-TO-BACK PHONE CALLS WERE FILMED ALL IN ONE TAKE, TO CAPTURE SONNY’S EXHAUSTION.
Near the end of the film, after being stuck in the bank for many hours, Sonny makes two emotionally draining phone calls. This scene was filmed was near the end of the shoot (see previous item), so Pacino really had been cooped up in that building for a long, long time and, like his character, wanted to get out.
To take full advantage of the actor’s weariness, Lumet filmed the phone calls together, with no cut in between, so that Pacino would be worn out from the first call when he made the second one. The whole sequence lasts about 16 minutes. When it was over, Lumet told Pacino to do another take—that is, both calls again—immediately, without pausing to rest first. It’s the second take that appears in the movie, so if Pacino seems especially drained, that’s why.