Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?
Sonny: Sal, Wyoming's not a country.
I remember seeing Dog Day Afternoon in one of my first big pushes at the film canon. I think my plan was to watch the five nominees for Best Picture each year between 1970 and that present (2008, maybe). I did pretty good with that for a while, but I think after The Deer Hunter (Best Picture winner for 1978), I picked certain films out rather than drowning in some of the mediocrity that has been lauded in the past. Yet, out of that original binge, Dog Day Afternoon loomed quite large.
It took several viewings, several readings of articles about Sidney Lumet (director of two films on this short list!). It took realizing what work and depth went into the making of this film to get me to realize how special it is to me. The clumsy, improvised, chaotic beauty of it all.
Dog Day Afternoon is a giant wheel rolling down a steep hill, that suddenly hits a patch of oil and goes faster, then the hill goes steeper and it gets faster still picking up steam until it finally crashes into a wall. The film evolves like that it picks up ideas and social issues and never shies from them or takes too much. It never feels like too much because it builds itself over time and creates its mythology over time. We may be on that wheel going down the hill, but it's an absolute pleasure going along for this ride.
I pick up a thread on each viewing. It's the thread that catches my eye or keeps my focus. Last time it was the sensitivity with which the story of Sonny and Leon's relationship is told. This time it's the tragedy of Sal. Sal is quiet. He's thoughtful, if a little ignorant and he's so trusting. Throughout the movie he just doesn't want to be misrepresented. He doesn't want to be misinterpreted. He wants a better lot than he's been given. He sees the heist as a way out one way or the other. He sees things as concrete and despite his willingness to go along with Sonny, Sal is an innocent. It affected me this time and I cried unlike the many times before when Sal meets his end because I saw someone who just needs a little help, who needs someone to talk to.
I think that's where longing comes in to Dog Day Afternoon. As much as our bank robbers long for financial freedom, they're also longing for the freedom to actually explain to someone their difficulties. Sonny tries to do it with the newscaster, but he doesn't understand, people from a seat of privilege can rarely fathom the desperation it takes for someone to do something like this. Our guys long for an out, a way to explain who they are and how they're feeling to someone who will just listen. The two phone calls Sonny has with his wives are very telling of this. Sal's fears never being addressed are telling in this way too. They long to be listened to.