Cynicism, Paranoia, & Nostalgia in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

In Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, the themes of hyper-paranoia and destructive cynicism very much come into play by way of the protagonist of the film. Sonny, portrayed by the brilliant Al Pacino, is an explosive, likely schizophrenic young man who robs a bank in Brooklyn. However, midway through the robbery, he realizes he does not really have a back-up plan…or a plan in general, for that matter. Relating to Biskind’s discussion of The Godfather (which Pacino also stars in) in his article Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, both Pacinopictures hit a cultural nerve and cause their audiences to feel like the American Dream has failed.

Based on a real-life event in 1972 in which two men attempted to rob the Chase Bank in Flatbush, Brooklyn and then held the employees hostage, the film depicts the struggle of a man who wants to get the funds for his “wife’s” operation. He is so off his rocker that he believes he can rob a bank without a glimmer of a back-up plan — and emerge successfully. He believes that because he worked in a bank, he can rob one. When he finds the bank vault empty, he becomes devoured by panic.

Dealing with the consequences of an empty vault, an asthmatic security guard, and a band of melodramatic female tellers, Sonny continues to reassure that “everything’s gonna be alright”. However, the viewer sees him become more and more paranoid of his own downfall — and rightly so. He vomits ideas of escape to his friend and ally, Sal, and to Sonny, every idea is a good one. However, his paranoia begins to escalate when he realizes that Detective Sergeant Moretti is watching him and knows what is going on. Almost immediately afterwards, about a hundred and fifty cops and probably double that amount of people surround the bank. Sonny attempts to elicit support from the crowd by yelling “Attica!” and throwing hundreds of five-dollar bills.

The theme of cynicism is reflected beautifully through his homosexual partner, Leon, whom — in a sense — was the entire reason for the robbery in the first place. A young man who feels he is “a woman trapped in a man’s body”, Leon wants to undergo a sex change operation but does not have the funds, so, naturally, Sonny decides the most logical thing to do is rob a bank. Leon is, in a way, defined by his cynicism: he complains everyday about his inability to get the operation, and does not think life is really worth living if he doesn’t, to the point that he attempted suicide. Though Sonny appears to be the classic Italian cynic, he is actually the cock-eyed optimist of the relationship: he continually thinks everything will work out. Even when he kicks a chair over in the bank, he goes back to pick it up.

Further, we see in Sonny’s conversations with his “real” wife, his partner, and his mother, that he is constantly striving to be a hero. To me, he yearns of the days of hope he experienced in his earlier days. For instance, the day he married his female wife, he dreamt of being the perfect husband and father. With his mother, he wishes he could have been the perfect son. And with Leon, he hopes to be the perfect partner, which is why he robs the bank. All of these dreams seem to have failed, which causes the themes of cynicism and nostalgia to pervade Lumet’s intense film

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