Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik, desperate Army veteran-turned-bank robber
Brooklyn, Summer 1972
Film: Dog Day Afternoon
Release Date: September 21, 1975
Director: Sidney Lumet
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
51 years ago yesterday on August 22, 1972, Brooklyn was abuzz with activity as John “Sonny” Wojtowicz and Salvatore “Sal” Naturile attempted to rob a Gravesend branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Having expected up to $200,000 to be delivered that morning, the two hapless heisters had their information wrong—the money had actually been removed from the branch that morning.
After their accomplice Robert “Bobby” Westenberg successfully got away, Sonny and Sal remained inside the bank with a fraction of the money they expected to steal and a handful of bank employees that they took hostage once they learned that the police had surrounded the bank… and what started as a dog day afternoon descended into 14 hours of chaos.
Exactly one month later, Life magazine published P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore’s feature story “The Boys in the Bank” that detailed the incident. The story was then adapted by screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet into Dog Day Afternoon, one of the best movies of the ’70s—if not of all time. Echoing Kluge and Moore comparing Wojtowicz’s “broken-faced good looks” to Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, Pacino was reunited with The Godfather cast-mate John Cazale to play Sonny and Sal, respectively. (Interestingly, Vibeke Venema reported for BBC News that the robbers had actually watched The Godfather for inspiration earlier that day, passing a note to the cashier that read “This is an offer you can’t refuse.” This wasn’t the only Mafia connection to the robbery, as columnist Arthur Bell claimed in The Village Voice that the robbery was actually masterminded by the Gambino crime family.)
After Dog Day Afternoon was released in 1975, the real Sonny—then in the midst of serving five years of his 20-year sentence at USP Lewisberg—wrote a letter to the New York Times, clarifying that the story as presented on screen was only about 30% accurate (“a good comedy, but I did not think it was funny because it was about me and my loved ones”), though he had nothing but praise for the performances of Al Pacino as his fictionalized counterpart and Chris Sarandon as Leon. Leon was based on Elizabeth Eden, Wojtowicz’s romantic partner whose sex-reassignment operation he hoped to fund with his share of the proceeds.
Following a series of vignettes establishing a late summer day in New York set to Elton John’s roots rock track “Amoreena”, Dog Day Afternoon presents Sonny’s plan going awry almost immediately, as their young accomplice Stevie (Gary Springer) senses “really bad vibes” and ditches the job. Once the two remaining robbers actually make their way into the vault, there’s only $1,100 to steal as, as in real life, the expected fortune had already been picked up by armored truck. To make up for this, Sonny settles for stealing travelers’ checks and burns the bank register to disguise the source… but the subsequent smoke only serves to signal those outside the bank that something is wrong inside.
“Who do you think you’re dealin’ with, a fuckin’ idiot here?” Sonny repeatedly asks during his phone negotiations with cops like NYPD Detective-Sergeant Eugene Moretti (a terrific Charles Durning), but, uh, he doesn’t really give a convincing case otherwise. Still, the former bank employee Sonny knows just enough to be sure of himself, recognizing the bankers’ sly attempts to foil the robbery, like recognizing the “spark key” to open the vault, marked decoy money, and the alarms triggered at each till. One wonders if he may have found more success if he had selected partners on the same level, unlike Stevie who abandons the job immediately or the dangerously skittish Sal, whose sense of geography is even worse than his nerves.
Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?
Sonny: No, Wyoming is not a country.
What’d He Wear?
Dog Day Afternoon was a professional reunion for Anna Hill Johnstone, who had previously dressed Al Pacino and John Cazale in The Godfather and had collaborated with Pacino and director Sidney Lumet on Serpico. The previous year, she had also designed costumes for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, also about a widely publicized (though fictional) hostage situation in contemporary New York City.
As the primary robbers in the bank, Sonny and Sal wear suits and ties—a uniform of sorts, perhaps a callback to the “golden age” of bank robbery (if there ever was one) during the early 1930s when outlaws like John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd were considered by some to be Depression-era folk heroes while they held up banks across the midwest in suits and straw hats. (Their presumed lookout Stevie is dressed much less formally in a ribbed-knit T-shirt and sage-green Levi’s corduroys.)
In a fit that suggests something purchased off-the-rack, Sonny’s suit presents an overall brown appearance, woven in a brown-and-black herringbone separated by tonal stripes created by a russet-colored horseshoe-shaped repeating motif.
The characteristics of Sonny’s suit are consistent with 1970s trends, including the jacket’s long double vents and wide notch lapels, finished with sporty swelled edges. The two-button jacket otherwise follows the traditional single-breasted jacket pattern, with a welted breast pocket and straight flapped hip pockets—the rectangular flaps also finished with swelled edges.
The suit’s matching trousers have an appropriately long rise to Pacino’s natural waist, where they’re held up by a wide black leather belt that closes through a curved gold-toned single-prong buckle. They also have a zip-fly, slanted front pockets, and jetted back pockets with a button to close through the left. The then-fashionably flared bottoms are plain-hemmed.
Sonny’s ecru poplin shirt coordinates with the warm, brown tones of his suit. Possibly made from either 100% cotton or a cotton/polyester blend (as was increasingly popular for off-the-rack shirts of this era), the shirt follows 1970s trends with its long point collar as well as a front placket, breast pocket, and single-button cuffs that Sonny keeps unbuttoned to effectively show Moretti that he’s literally “got nothin’ up my sleeves” as they negotiate.
Sonny’s red tie is “downhill”-striped in woven ochre and white stripes that alternate between a broken stripe consisting of small boxes and a much wider stripe consisting of medallion-woven squares.
As he desperately attempts to control the situation, Sonny slides across the bank floor in his black leather square-toed boots. These mid-calf boots have zippers along the inside and hard rubber outsoles with slightly raised heels.
A continuity error shows Pacino’s stunt double wearing black leather lace-up low shoes and black socks instead during the brief scene when Maria’s boyfriend tackles Sonny outside the bank. Though lace-up shoes are more conventional with suits and ties, boots like Sonny wears became increasingly popular through the late 1960s and ’70s as an edgier alternative.
Sonny wears a pair of rings and a watch. The rounded yellow-gold ring on his left ring finger appears to be a traditional wedding band, likely symbolizing his first wedding to Angie (Susan Peretz). On his right index finger—perhaps significantly, his trigger finger—he wears a silver ring with squared edges, perhaps representing his marriage with Leon, and thus his motive for the robbery.
Secured by a smooth black leather strap to his left wrist, Sonny wears a simple stainless steel dress watch, similar to many produced at the time by watchmakers of all price points from Timex to Omega. The round silver dial has non-numeric hour indices comprised of one or two straight lines (depending on the hour) and no date window.
After the bank’s air conditioning is shut off, Sonny spends much of the final act with his shirt untucked and unbuttoned, showing the white cotton V-neck short-sleeved undershirt that resembles what John Wojtowicz was photographed wearing during the real-life incident, albeit without a shirt over it.
I’m a Catholic, and I don’t wanna hurt anybody, you understand?
Sonny may not want to hurt anybody, but a bank robber is a bank robber, and firearms have been an expected tool of their trade since Jesse James’ gang stormed the Clay County Savings Association in 1866. As he did in real life, Sonny enters the bank with a long gift box… which he clumsily breaks away with dramatic speed to reveal an M1 Carbine.
The gas-operated, semi-automatic M1 Carbine was designed in response to the U.S. Army Ordinance Department’s request for a lighter-weight alternative to the M1 Garand that could be fielded by support troops. Though the weapon had been in development for several years before the United States entered World War II, it wasn’t until July 1942 that the first M1 Carbines were completed and delivered, thanks to the combined efforts of a team of Winchester engineers that included Edwin Puglsey, William C. Roemer, Cliff Warner, and David Marshall Williams—the latter a colorful ex-moonshiner and convicted murderer whose participation in the weapon’s design was included in the 1952 biopic Carbine Williams starring James Stewart.
The Complete World Encyclopedia of Guns quotes a veteran who described the M1 Carbine as “one of the most appealing of weapons, light, handy, easy to shoot, and totally useless over 200 yards since it fired a pistol bullet.”
Winchester introduced the proprietary .30 Carbine cartridge in tandem with the M1 Carbine, essentially a rimless redesign of the aging .32 Winchester Self-Loading cartridge that had been used in a series of turn-of-the-century rifles. Winchester took advantage in the mechanical advances in the decades since the .32 WSL was introduced, transforming the .30 Carbine into a much faster and more powerful round—though still only about one-third as powerful as the .30-06 Springfield ammunition in the contemporary M1 Garand battle rifle it was supplementing.
More than six million M1 Carbines were built during the war by a bevy of military contractors, including Winchester, IBM, the Underwood Typewriter Company, and the Inland Division of General Motors, which manufactured nearly three million. All followed the same specifications, with a walnut stock and a total length of 35.6 inches, including a barrel just under 18 inches long. The carbines fed from either 15-round box magazines or the curved “banana clip” 30-round magazines that entered service in October 1944 for the select-fire M2 Carbine variant. These extended 30-round magazines soon became standard for both M1 and M2 Carbines, as seen in use by some NYPD officers surrounding the bank in Dog Day Afternoon, though Sonny uses the straight 15-round magazine.
As a Vietnam War veteran, Sonny’s M1 Carbine may have been a relic from his Army service, though these had been generally phased out by the M16 by the time most American troops were sent to Vietnam. He only uses it to fire one shot throughout the movie, otherwise handing it off to Sal or even showing spunky teller Miriam (Marcia Jean Kurtz) how to drill with it.
When “really bad vibes” scare Stevie away from participating, he hands Sonny the keys to their ’69 Dodge sedan as well as the Colt Official Police revolver he’d been tasked to point at the guard. At the time, the Official Police and the Smith & Wesson Model 10 were the venerable .38 Special service revolvers authorized for NYPD officers, as depicted by the many of both seen in Dog Day Afternoon.
Colt introduced the carbon steel-framed Official Police in 1927 as an improvement upon their earlier Colt Army Special, rebranded to appeal to the law enforcement market. With its traditional double-action operation, barrel lengths of 4, 5, and 6 inches, and six-round cylinder loaded with .38 Special ammunition, it and the Smith & Wesson Model 10 were the reigning police revolvers across the United States for most of the 20th century until many law enforcement departments adopted higher-capacity semi-automatic pistols instead of revolvers.
I’ve read that Dog Day Afternoon was halfway accurate with depicting the bandits’ weaponry, as the trio of weapons—all purchased by John Wojtowicz—included a .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver, a .303 British sporterized Lee-Enfield rifle, and a 12-gauge Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun.
How to Get the Look
In his trendy suit and tie, Sonny dresses for business for his trip to the bank, though he’s eventually down to just an unbuttoned, untucked shirt with his undershirt and trousers as the figurative and literal heat turns up through the day. (Al Pacino would wear another brown patterned suit when he gets revenge 20 years later by turning up the heat against another set of bank robbers.)
- Brown-and-black herringbone (with russet horseshoe-woven stripes) suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Flat-front trousers with belt loops, zip-fly, slanted front pockets, jetted back pockets (with button-through left), and flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Ecru poplin shirt with long point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and single-button cuffs
- Red tie with ochre-and-white woven medallion box stripes
- Black wide leather belt with gold-toned curved single-prong buckle
- Black leather mid-calf boots with inside zips
- Silver squared-edge index-finger ring
- Yellow-gold wedding band
- Stainless steel dress watch with silver dial (with non-numeric hour indices) on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.