Dog Day Afternoon: About the Oscar-winning Al Pacino movie, and the bizarre real story that inspired it

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Dog Day Afternoon - classic movie with Al Pacino (1975)

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“Dog Day Afternoon” is considered one of the greatest movies of the 1970s, and features a stellar lead performance by Al Pacino.

One thing that made its success especially remarkable is that, as fictional as the premise sounded, it was based on a real story (which you can find out more about at the end of this page).

The 1975 movie follows Sonny Wortzik — the character based on the real John Wojtowicz — a seemingly regular guy who one day decides to rob a bank for a very unusual reason, and has to deal with the aftermath.

“Dog Day Afternoon” was nominated for six Academy Awards and seven Golden Globe Awards, and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — all of which helped cement the story as a permanent part of New York City lore.

Solid acting makes ‘Dog Day’ a must for local moviegoers

The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado) February 27, 1976

There are a number of good reasons for seeing “Dog Day Afternoon.” The tale itself, based on an actual occurrence [see the details below the movie review], is a fascinating “cops and robbers” story with a twist.

On a typical, everyday summer’s afternoon in New York City, a typical, everyday bank robbery suddenly becomes a comedy of errors and a media “happening.”

Two thieves badly botch their not-so-well-laid plans, and end up trapped in the bank, with about 10 hostages offering their only hope for escape.

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (2)

The presence of hundreds of policemen, meanwhile, transforms the holdup into a circus, attracting swarms of newsmen and a cheering crowd.

The film’s recreation of the unusual robbery yields both humor and drama. The direction of Sidney Lumet perfectly captures some of the tensions and styles that mark life in the Big Apple.

And along the way, insight is provided into the capability of modern news-gathering techniques to influence as well as report an incident.

ALSO SEE: Real kidnap-hostage guidelines for banks & beyond from the 1970s

Vintage Dog Day Afternoon movie poster - Al Pacino (1975)

But first and foremost, it is the performance of Al Pacino that makes “Dog Day Afternoon” a movie that is not to be missed.

It’s no surprise his performance has earned him an Academy Award nomination, for it’s rare an actor so dominates the screen as Pacino does in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

He is the centerpiece around which the rest of the movie takes its shape.

The richness and fullness of his acting is similar to that achieved by George C. Scott in “Patton,” and Marion Brando in “The Godfather.”

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (8)

It was in the latter film, of course, that Pacino reached stardom. But his solid job in that movie seems merely a warmup for the depth and electricity he supplies in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Pacino’s feat is all the more impressive because his character is not one with which the audience can immediately sympathize, empathize or appreciate.


As the inept “mastermind” of the bank robbery, Pacino plays a lower middle class ethnic who is not only frustrated by being a “have-not” in a society where money is God, but also is burdened by an over-possessive mother, an obese and nagging wife, and a tumultuous homosexual love affair.

Such a brief description makes the character sound like a complete weirdo. That’s not the way he is portrayed by Pacino.

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (4)

Piece by piece, Pacino creates an understanding of the character and his problems, and we must deal with him as a complex, albeit weak, human being rather than writing him off as a nut.

Most actors would probably concentrate on the character’s rage, both toward society at large — and the persons close to him.

Pacino gives ample view of the robber’s furor, but essentially emphasizes his vulnerability. It’s this approach that makes his performance so intelligent and compassionate.

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (6)

The most intense moment in the film comes when police, in an attempt to get Pacino out of the bank, connect him by phone with his male lover.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a propensity in Grand Junction movie audiences to snicker at the slightest suggestion of homosexuality. No such laughter greeted this scene in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Pacino and actor Chris Sarandon rake each other over emotional coals during the phone conversation, and the result is a sad, moving, and ultimately wrenching experience.

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (1)

Fittingly, Sarandon’s performance in this crucial scene has won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, but he is just one of a number of superlative supporting cast members in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Particularly worthy of note are Charles Darning, as a New York cop who tries his best but can’t get an upper hand on Pacino, and John Cazale, as the other bank robber.

Dog Day Afternoon - vintage movie lobby card 1975 (7)

Cazale should be familiar to moviegoers as Alfredo, the weak older, brother in the two “Godfather” movies.

In “Dog Day Afternoon,” he again plays an easily led and easily cowed character, but he adds a hint of melancholy that provides a spooky quality to his performance.

Even the minor characters, from the hostages being held by the robbers to the preening members of the crowd watching the events unfold, chime in with nice bits of acting.

With Pacino around to provide the inspiration, it’s easy to see why.

ALSO SEE: The Godfather: The gangster movie moves uptown (1972)


Dog Day Afternoon: See the original movie trailer


True crime: The bizarre real story of the bank robbery behind “Dog Day Afternoon”

Modern-day editor’s note: This vintage newspaper article, as it was originally written back in 1972, includes words and phrasing that would be considered offensive or inappropriate today.

 

Dog Day Afternoon bank robbery - 1972

 

FBI kills suspect in bank robbery: Another captured, hostages freed in plot to get jet at at N.Y. airport

From the Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) August 23, 1972

NEW YORK — FBI agents shot and killed one alleged bank robber and captured his accomplice today at Kennedy airport as the pair prepared to board a private jet for a flight out of the country. Seven hostages they had held for more than 14 hours were unharmed.

The gunmen, one a self-admitted homosexual demanding the release of his male “wife” from a mental ward, had robbed a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan bank of $29,000 Tuesday afternoon and then seized the employees hostage when they were surprised by police before escaping.

The dead man was tentatively identified as Salvatore Naturelle, police said.

ALSO SEE: The real Bonnie & Clyde: Texas officers trap and kill notorious duo in shootout (1934)

The bizarre real story of the bank robbery behind Dog Day Afternoon - Quad City Times - AUg 23 1972

BIZARRE DRAMA

In a bizarre drama that stretched through the night, the gunmen negotiated with FBI agents and police on their demands for the plane and a car to take them to the airport. A two-engine Hansa jet was brought to the airport about 2:30 a.m.

At 3:40 a.m. a limousine pulled up in front of the one-story bank and the homosexual, John Wojtowicz, came out of the building with a rifle slung over his shoulder to search the car.

Wojtowicz, who had earlier demanded the release of his male ‘wife’ from a hospital psychiatric ward, then surveyed the street, apparently looking for the hidden police sharp shooter.

Satisfied, he got into the car with his accomplice, the hostages and an FBI agent for the driver. With one car in the lead and 10 following, they drove off for the airport, ar- riving there at 4:45 a.m.

The bizarre real story of the bank robbery behind Dog Day Afternoon - Ithaca Journal - Aug 23 1972

TALKS TO MEN

John F. Malone, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York office, told a news conference that his assistant, Richard Baker, walked up to the limousine as it reached the plane and talked to the men inside.

While he was talking, the agent-driver, who was not identified, pulled his gun and fired one shot, fatally wounding one man in the chest. The shooting took place at a remote runway near Jamaica Bay at the southern end of the huge jetport.

Malone said the agents recovered from the limousine the $29,000 taken from the bank and three guns, a .38-caliber snub-nosed pistol, a shotgun and a 30-06 rifle.

The gunmen originally seized nine hostages but released the bank guard, Calvin Jones, three hours after the holdup, and left one woman hostage when they drove off with six other women and the bank manager.


BROUGHT TO SCENE

Wojtowicz had asked that his homosexual “wife,” Ernest Aaron, 26, accompany them. Aaron was brought to the scene and talked to Wojtowicz, but told police he was afraid of him and would not go.

“He doesn’t love me anymore,” he said.

The 13-hour drama at the bank was punctuated by several bizarre incidents. Homosexual friends of Wojtowicz came to visit him at the bank, and kissed him as he stood in the doorway while a crowd of hundreds of onlookers cheered.

About 11 pm, the gunmen got hungry, and asked FBI agents to go for pizzas and soda. When they returned, the agents sampled the food before leaving it in the doorway, apparently at the gunmen’s directions.

Wojtowicz walked in and out of the bank several times during the drama to confer with police and FBI agents. At one point, he sat on the fender of a parked convertible while carrying on negotiations for the car to the airport.

John Wojtowicz mugshot - 1972

NO DEATH PENALTY

Newsmen were in contact with the hostages and with Wojtowicz on the bank telephone during the early hours of the drama. “I expect to get out of here,” he told a radio newsman.

“I know they’re going to get me sooner or later, but they’ve got to play it cool.” He warned repeatedly that he would shoot the hostages if police stormed the bank.

“The Supreme Court will let me get away with this. There’s no death penalty. It’s ridiculous. I can shoot everyone here, then throw my gun down and walk out, and they can’t put me in the electric chair. You have to have a death penalty. Otherwise this can happen every day,” he said.

Wojtowicz’ mother came to the scene and talked to her son briefly in the doorway. He “doesn’t know what he’s doing,” she said. “He’s very harmless, not a mean kid.”

Wojtowicz told a reporter he was a Vietnam veteran and was separated from his wife and two children. He said he had been married to Aaron in an “informal ceremony” last December.

The two gunmen entered the hank about 10 minutes before closing time, taking the small staff by surprise. But an official in the bank’s lower Manhattan headquarters happened to call the manager moments later and sensed something was wrong. ​He called police, and the bank was surrounded within minutes.

Wojtowicz said in one interview that the whole plan would have succeeded “if that stupid police car hadn’t pulled up when it did.”

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