Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore
What It’s About: Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) rob a bank at closing time only to discover there’s not much in the way of cash left to nab. Sonny’s an incompetent but not murderous criminal, while Sal’s more cold-blooded, and soon they’re in the possession of hostages and made instant celebrities thanks to the news cameras lined up across the street. It’s a tense film that, while hitting all the expected bank robbery buttons, never becomes trite — as Roger Ebert said in his review, “Lumet is exploring the clichés, not just using them.”
What You Should Know: Like many of the films that follow it in this list, Dog Day Afternoon was based on real events — and the inspiration for Pacino’s character, John Wojtowicz, had some complicated feelings about the movie.
The Impact: This isn’t a movie about gender identity, and that all by itself is remarkable. It’s revealed that Sonny’s motive for the robbery is to get enough money for his partner, who identifies as Leon (Chris Sarandon), can get a sex change operation. Sonny’s also married, and while the movie isn’t short on absurdist comedy, it’s not at the expense of Sonny’s sexuality, Leon’s identity, and their relationship. As the Advocate put it, “While that could have been played for humor in 1975, the love story is tragic and human.” It made a difference for the real-life “Leon,” too: Elizabeth Eden’s eventual transition was financed with Wojtowicz’s share in the film’s revenue.
Essential Scene: “Attica!”
Also See: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): while it’s unwise to take much about Rocky Horror too seriously — and, if you’re going to go there, it should be said that Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a sexually ambiguous alien and not a transgender human — its impact is undeniable. “Don’t dream it, be it” has been a siren song for misfit high school kids of every gender and sexual orientation for decades now; the film recently entered its 40th year of theatrical distribution, and a Laverne Cox-starring reimagined TV remake is headed for the small screen in fall 2016.