On August 22nd , 1972, three armed men held the employees of the Chase Manhattan Bank at 450 Avenue P in Brooklyn hostage for 14 hours. The first of the men fled early on at the sight of a police car outside. What happened to the second and third should be familiar to you, if you’ve seen Dog Day Afternoon. If you haven’t, you’re missing out on one of the most suspenseful, truthful, brilliantly written and directed pieces of film ever shot.
Based on a Life magazine article by P. F. Kluge, screenwriter Frank Pierson’s work on Dog Day Afternoon is most lauded for its incredible pace. The true events behind the film may make for excellent human drama and extraordinary stakes, but Kluge’s writing takes what was likely the longest day of every participant in this story’s life and transforms it into a breathless rollercoaster ride. Cinematyler runs through some of the screenwriting techniques employed by Kluge to keep his audience on their toes.
Dog Day Afternoon picks up just as the robbery is underway, without any exposition as to who any of the characters are, what they are like or why they are doing this. Starting with the action like this is bold, but Kluge is able to do so with the knowledge that all backstory will be revealed through the ongoing negotiations to come. Leaving these key pieces of information as revelations rather than homework, makes the opening of the film more exciting, and leaves the audience feeling as though they are experiencing the flow of information together with the hostages and watching public.
A little later on, Cinematyler digs into a more active way the audience is kept engaged; by avoiding settling into the motions of the story through subversion. The screenplay is constantly introducing fairly straightforward developments or goals and complicating them thoroughly. Take an example; Kluge builds an expectation by having bank robber Sonny force the bank’s manager to answer whenever a call is made to his desk, acting as if all is well to mask the ongoing robbery.
This is repeated, and we recognize it as a tool to heighten the tension in the room, until eventually a call comes… and it’s for Sonny. This moment is only as effective as it is, because Kluge has trained our expectations, and subverted them in time to stop us from getting too relaxed. This is the sort of development that you can insert into a film without betraying the true story you’re adapting for the sake of an acceptable dramatic structure.
Techniques like these, and others as explored by Cinematyler in one of his many insightful videos, drive momentum and make Dog Day Afternoon gripping from start to finish. It’s a film that shines on every level, with amazing performances from Al Pacino and John Cazale, vividly involving direction by Sidney Lumet, cut by one of the few recognised auteur editors in Dede Allen, and on and on. At the core of it all, what makes Dog Day Afternoon stand out today among its contemporary crime dramas, is that it has lost none of its distinctive power. Conventions are conventions for a reason, but the subversive turns and inspired character drama of Kluge’s script and Lumet’s film crackle as if made yesterday. If only.