By the end of the 1960s, the luster of Hollywood was fading in America. Blockbusters such as Tora! Tora! Tora!, once thought to be appealing to the movie-going public by and large, were failing to hit their requisite dollar amounts at the box office. In the wake of cultural events such as the assassination of an American president, the Civil Rights Movement, and America’s military interventions in Vietnam, cinema that invoked ideas that were not immediate to the current American culture were no longer getting people to spend their money at the movies. The glitz and glamour was beginning to show signs of rusting.

The public was too occupied with watching the reality of race riots outside their doors and the current death tolls from across the sea on the nightly news to give much credence to grandiose epics focused on a former generation’s ideals. More and more, films depicting grim realities, like the charismatic anti-heroes of Bonnie and Clyde being gunned down in the street, or the rebels of Easy Rider similarly meeting their own demise, were holding sway.  People were being exposed to the horror of reality on a consistent basis and Hollywood became aware of the need to adapt for their audience. 

Luckily, there was a younger generation of filmmakers waiting in the wings to tap into this new vein—film school graduates more interested in European cinema than The Sound of Music—and Hollywood was more than willing to hand over its reins to those who could reach the new demographic and sell them theater tickets. This movement of young filmmakers known as “New Hollywood” was ready to be born.  

The New Hollywood narrative would be realistic and unflinching, and the New Hollywood hero would be young and disenchanted—they would reflect the new movement growing in America of a generation brought up to be anti-authoritarian, suspicious of everyone, and heavy on cynicism. The ideas of the counterculture were adapted into and firmly established into the ethics of New Hollywood: counterproductive narrative structure and innovative editing, discomforting realism, irresolution, and a paranoid momentum that usually crash landed into cynicism. In these traits, New Hollywood reflected New America.  

And in the wake of the countercultural movement that established itself on anti-establishment themes, Dog Day Afternoon was released, a film that its young director, Sydney Lumet, created to extol realism in cinema—there is no soundtrack, there is no artificial lighting, and the performances showcase the commonplace desperation of the common man. The story itself was based on real life events. And just as in life, there is no strong resolution to the conflicts presented. Its “hero” is a bank robber with a dangerously compulsive streak who impotently struggles to build meaningful connections with anyone in his life.

Sonny, as played by Al Pacino, is a man trying to survive in a world set out to oppress him—he is a Vietnam veteran, a lower-class citizen out of work, a criminal, a Catholic, and a homosexual. Every system that society is built upon—politics, economics, religion, family—has failed him.  He seems to be the symbolic representation of every citizen suffering from inequality and despondency in mid-seventies America.  

And Sonny, like all others feeling the brunt of inequality, is trying to survive in a world run by a majority that seems out to get him.  He is powerless in nearly every way—at home, at work, on the streets—which prompts him  to force his own way toward leveling the playing field.  

Sonny’s reference to himself and his partner, Sal, as dogs early on [“I bark, and you see that man over there?—he bites”] is fairly accurate. Sonny has been systematically beaten down just trying to get a scrap of food for himself, and if every dog has its day, he hopes to get his as he robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. Sonny seems to have been a former employee of one such bank before, suggesting that he knows the system well because he was once part of the system. Now, society has left him as an outcast. Survival, in any way he sees fit, is his only remaining option.

Sonny’s survival is set against a "dog day afternoon," a hot summer’s day where everybody is just trying to beat the heat and survive however they can—an issue every American seemed able to relate to. Sonny’s frequently fatalistic comment on the events happening around him is “I’m dyin’ here,”—a feeling most of America’s underprivileged could relate to when faced with a system stacked against them. Sonny is dying, at least symbolically; when one man is pitted against the rest of society, the outcome does not seem to lean toward survival, after all.     

Lumet’s New Hollywood direction presents Sonny’s conflict against society as stark reality: he wanted to portray the events like newsreel footage, the same type that was dominating the television sets of everyday Americans, in order to eliminate any sense of fantasy that could permeate the story. The editing even seems to reflect the bursts of paranoia and alternating world-weariness of American struggle: long shots quickly become bursts of jump-cuts when Sonny shoots through a window, creating chaos both within and outside of the bank: a woman faints, Sal freaks, the cops jump around, the crowd watches with worried glee, and Sonny runs through the bank with paranoid fervor. There is a sense of the unsettled in every frame of the movie, and the momentum ebbs and flows to create a disorientating whole.  

In fact, the New York City of Dog Day Afternoon is itself disorienting and chaotic. The robbery that begins the film seems impulsive [Sonny fumbles with the rifle as he begins the hold up, one of the robbers abandons the plan right as it begins, and the combination of a small fire and bathroom breaks for the tellers leads to a hostage situation when the police show up outside] and everything seems just outside of anyone’s ability to control.  

The police can’t seem to handle the news crews that show up or the crowds that begin to side with Sonny’s dejected anti-authority figure, and Sonny can only do what he can to handle the issues with maintaining care for the needs of his hostages, his dim-witted [and somewhat menacing] partner Sal, the police and FBI that seem to be closing in on him at all times, and eventually his mother and two wives who can neither understand or connect with his motivations. His only hope rests in getting through this nightmare of an afternoon and hopping on a jet to get out of a country where nothing makes sense to him anymore.  

Before he can catch that plane toward escape, the system wins. Sonny, an anti-authoritarian figure who screams “Attica!” at police and wins the favor of everyday Americans who show up at the scene to cheer him on, ends up trusting the shadowy figures that promise him salvation—FBI agents who want to take out the dog with bite [Sal], and appease the one who barks loud enough to rile up the other dogs. When Sonny is finally arrested, the resolution is incomplete and unclear. We learn he is serving twenty years in prison, that his wife and children are on welfare, and that his other wife got the operation Sonny had originally planned the robbery to provide. But what sort of resolution is that?

Perhaps the most telling thing in the last few frames of the movie is the way Pacino watches the hostages reconcile after the situation is over. They are hugging each other, happy in the knowledge that they are not only safe, but that they have survived a situation which will forever define them and give them meaning: they were hostages, they were on the news, and they survived the afternoon. In a way, Sonny looks relieved—his dog day afternoon is over and he can finally stop struggling and get some rest. The cycle is complete and the hero has rejoined the world he went up against. 

Lumet showcases an irresolution that does not result in the end of the conflict for the protagonist, but rather leads to his peaceful indoctrination into the same oppressive system he went up against. It seems to suggest that once it becomes clear that the system is rigged, the dog may attempt to bite the hand that feeds it, but it may only be a matter of time before the master has it trained to take the food peacefully once again, through whatever means necessary.

Eventually, New Hollywood too would join the system it had gone up against. The blockbusters they rallied against would become the norm again as the members of their ranks produced hits such as Jaws and the Star Wars franchise. The reign of Hollywood independence would sputter out as soon as it began, but at least they had their day for some time—their counterculture became the majority culture, and if oppression seems the norm, at least there is some hope that a cycle will always exist that challenges that oppression, if only over the course of one very hot and discomforting summer afternoon...