Inevitable Remakes: “Dog Day Afternoon”
Sidney Lumet’s 1975 semi-comedic heist film Dog Day Afternoon has come to hover somewhat shy of renowned classic but safely in the realm of beloved seventies cinema. Starring Al Pacino at his sweatiest, John Cazale at his shiftiest, Charles Durning at his shortest-of-breath yet commanding, and a host of character actors rounding out the cast, the film holds surprise after surprise in its 125 minute runtime and ages well. It follows the mostly-true story of Sonny Wortzick, played with Academy-Award-nominated intensity by Mr. Pacino, as he and some associates hold up the First Brooklyn Savings bank on the hottest day of the summer. As his team disappoints him, his hostages disobey him, the authorities bully him, and the media exploits him, Sonny gets caught in a whirlwind of unintended consequences. Lumet, one of America’s greatest and most prolific directors, fills the film with sympathy and pathos as well as nail-biting suspense and witty humor; Pacino gives perhaps his most dynamic performance as a sometimes-aggressive, sometimes-pathetic, always-earnest would-be bank robber. Cazale proves he’s more than meddlesome Fredo Corleone-material as Sonny’s anxious and tight-lipped fellow robber. This is all to say, Dog Day Afternoon would be hard to remake without these three talents — not to mention the rest of the assembled cast and crew, from Chris Sarandon to cinematographer Victor J. Kemper — but let’s take a look at how, if a remake were to happen, it could work in today’s cinema landscape.
Could It Be Made?
Putting aside for a moment the cultural and social relevance of Dog Day Afternoon in the 1970s and today, box office stats and critical reception reveal it to have been a profitable and successful flick. It made $50 million against a budget of $1.8 million, earned six Oscar nominations (winning Best Original Screenplay) and currently sits at #161 on the global Flickchart. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2009, and regularly ranks highly among heist films and classic performances.
Now, would anyone care about this story today? Here are a few reasons why they might.
Firstly, the robbery genre. Dog Day Afternoon is one of the finest ever entries in the genre, and its realistic, no-frills, cleverly anticlimactic take on the heist scenes have influenced many recent filmmakers from the Coens to Tarantino to Ben Wheatley. These directors have been given extensive opportunities in recent years, so it is not impossible for something like a Dog Day Afternoon remake to be given the green light for the enduring popularity of its genre.
Secondly, the ’70s New York setting that shine so brightly. Writing for The New York Times upon its release, Vincent Canby called Dog Day Afternoon “Lumet’s most accurate, most flamboyant New York movie,” and said that “Mr. Lumet’s New York movies are as much aspects of the city’s life as they are stories of the city’s life,” endorsing this film as a bonafide slice of time and place. It could be intriguing to see whether studios would prefer to keep the seventies setting and retell the story of John Wojtowicz, or reimagine the events as a modern-day bank robbery, evoking a Hell or High Water-esque plot of the little guy(s) getting back at the big banks by any means necessary. The original film’s plot and 1972 setting are specifically reminiscent of Vietnam-era anti-establishment politics, yet these emotions could be effectively transposed to the divisive political atmosphere today.
Additionally, the film features a sharp examination of the presence and role of the news media, a topic of clear contemporary relevance. Lumet, surely practicing for 1976’s Network, depicts a media that uses crime and real-life showdowns as popcorn attractions. A remake could effectively update the media’s intrusiveness and exploitation to reflect today’s 120-second attention span and Snapchat-primed atmosphere. “Sonny’s Bank Robbery” would probably get its own geotag in minutes.
A final thought on the film’s modern relevance (minor spoiler warning) stems from the reveal of Sonny’s ultimate goal — money for gender reassignment surgery for his lover Leon, a preoperative transgender woman. Lumet handles this material with a degree of taste and respect that seems ahead of its time, and in many ways ahead of ours. This could be a difficult aspect to advertise, as it is presented in the film as something of a twist, but studios could certainly seize an opportunity to respectfully depict trans characters and those who love them.
A remake could go south easily if any of these elements were mishandled, just as it could come out splendidly if they were handled well. Which brings us to the question of who would be handling them.
The Hands on the Wheel
Many a daring film has lived and died by the talent assembled, especially behind the camera. Would 21 Jump Street have been a flaming wreck without Phil Lord and Chris Miller? Probably. Or Godzilla without Gareth Edwards? We see studios giving projects of questionable necessity, such as Blade Runner 2049 and Thor 3, to clearly capable and visionary risk-taking talents like Denis Villeneuve and Taika Waititi. A Dog Day Afternoon remake’s chances of success could be elevated by the right director.
Two or three names come to mind with this material, and they all present varying but attractive paths for the picture. I prefer to trust newer, less established filmmakers with risky studio-funded material — Gareth Edwards or Rick Famuyiwa over Sam Mendes or Ridley Scott — so my first thought was Jeremy Saulnier. If you’re asking “Who?”, please watch Blue Ruin and Green Room immediately. With these two breakout films Saulnier crafted an approach to gritty crime and atypical protagonists that sucks the viewer in from start but does not compromise an inch on aesthetics, mise-en-scène, character work, or storyline. Green Room especially shows his competence with the ethos and mechanics of Dog Day Afternoon. That film features a crime gone wrong, a claustrophobic setting, a gang of panicked and unprepared protagonists, evocative landscapes, and a clever mix of genuinely funny wit and genuinely terrifying altercations. He would most likely have to pull back on the grittiness of his tone, but as anyone who has seen Dog Day Afternoon in full will tell you, the film is not a particularly cheery one come the closing curtain. Saulnier would lend the project some indie clout and attract daring actors (Patrick Stewart gives a bracingly against-type performance as a neo-Nazi in Green Room). Saulnier’s next film, Hold the Dark, featuring Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, and Jeffrey Wright, suggests he is moving in an even darker direction, but adding Dog Day Afternoon to his to-do list could reignite the sardonicism in his work.
This is something of an aside, but given Saulnier’s airtight yet grim style, one might be tempted to look towards Saulnier’s go-to character actor and recent breakout talent Macon Blair, whose directorial debut I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is an impressive mix of social iconoclasm and quirky humor, not to mention bloody, realistic violence and consequences that echo Lumet’s approach even more directly. I’d be all-in if Blair were selected for director, but given that he has just a one-film resume, it’s less likely.
Another option could take the Dog Day Afternoon story in a totally different direction. What if it were a spiritual retelling, akin to Star Trek or Flatliners, that takes the name and tone but tells a new story? One of the freshest names in feature filmmaking is Mr. Jordan Peele. While Peele’s smash hit Get Out is commendable as an effectively creepy horror, it wears its heart on its sleeve as it singles out hypocrisies and inequalities left and right regardless of genre. Dog Day Afternoon similarly stands firmly planted in the heist genre, but features cutting criticism of the media, various forms of discrimination, general human apathy, and the attraction of heroes, underdogs, and order. When it comes to upsetting the establishment with grace and talent, Mr. Peele could be riotously effective.
Of course, numerous established directors could create something brilliant out of a Dog Day Afternoon remake, but to evoke Lumet’s fiery and free-spirited candor and heart of gold, a younger, fresher face would be truly exciting. That being said, someone with the wit and cinematic know-how of Shane Black — currently busy on another ‘spiritial remake’/sequel, The Predator — could make a quality film here, though there’s a risk his humorous sensibilities could prove a little too light. Yet he was able to pull out one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances in The Nice Guys, and turning an actor known for his clean-cut sheen into a sweaty unprepared clown fits the bill for Sonny.
Which brings us to casting this thing.
They say Casablanca will never be remade because there will never be another Humphrey Bogart. It is tempting to say the same about Dog Day Afternoon and Al Pacino, but updating the actors and performances is central to any remake, so let’s see how this could shake out best.
Again, there are excellent and established actors that could make fine work of playing Sonny Wortzick. There are dynamos like Sam Rockwell, and handsome faces who could sweat it up and try playing the loser like Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, or Jake Gyllenhaal. These would be solid choices for Sonny, “one of the most interesting modern movie characters,” according to Roger Ebert, but the most exciting options lie in the known-but-not-so-well-known sphere of recent breakouts.
In the ‘spiritual remake’ category would come Steven Yeun, Riz Ahmed, or even Moonlight standout Trevante Rhodes as reincarnations of the desperate, impulsive, and somewhat delusional Sonny Wortzick. Mr. Yeun proved he could handle weighty topics with a smile in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja this year, and isn’t it high time a studio film featured an Asian-American lead actor? Similarly, Mr. Ahmed brought sweatiness and unease to Nightcrawler, and unsteady leadership with pitch-perfect timing to Four Lions, one of the most underrated comedies of the 21st century. Mr. Rhodes would be a leap of faith, but given the buzz around his name and the demonstrable talent behind those eyes, it would score a studio some serious respect to elevate him to the starring role (we will have to wait and see how he fares with action in Black’s The Predator).
In terms of supporting cast, there are intriguing and enviable roles for many talented actors. The roster of bank tellers in the original film gave a number of women, including Carol Kane, prominent roles in the action, though the film is still heavily male-centric. Recasting Charles Durning’s negotiator character Moretti, and/or James Broderick’s FBI Agent Sheldon, as female could balance out the cast more suitably. That being said, for Moretti specifically, Jon Bernthal leaps to mind as a versatile actor who could make fine work out of this meaty supporting role.
For the role of Sal Naturale, originally played with equal parts smarm and sympathy by John Cazale, an interesting opportunity opens up. There are parts here and there that seem tailor-made for traditionally comedic actors to branch out into more dramatic material. Whereas Sonny Wortzick offers an opportunity for a serious actor to lose their marbles for once, Sal is an opportunity for a funny face to deliver some serious lines. In years past Robin Williams played these kinds of parts regularly; Jim Carrey has tried his hand at them from time to time. As studios seem ever more addicted to casting TV talents in tentpole pictures, it would seem logical to turn to TV comedy for this part. Thomas Middleditch could do a very good job; Tony Hale could turn in a dynamic performance; maybe Veep punching bag Timothy Simons could bring some of his Jonah Ryan fury and timing. Kumail Nanjiani would knock it out of the park, no doubt — and though the comparison is a stretch, one could say he’s already handled Lumet material with charm in his role in “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer.”
The part of Leon, Sonny’s transgender lover, offers a chance for a trans actress to be cast in an important role, but it remains to be seen whether studios will actually do it. With an actress like Lizzy Caplan or Zoe Kravitz playing flustered as Sonny’s estranged wife Angie, and a commanding presence among the authorities from Naomie Harris or Diane Kruger, the remake’s cast could be one of the best of its year.
Would It Be Any Good?
Tricky to say. A successful remake would require a lot from its tone, its performances, and its discussions of modern themes of powerlessness, media exploitation, and ‘going viral’ as a cult hero, as the original Sonny does in 1970s terms. No one could directly replace Lumet or Pacino, or even Cazale or Durning, but the energy of the first film could be honored effectively with the right team. The options considered in this article are personal preferences; there are infinite combinations of talents and tones that could make this project shine if it had to happen, as long as they don’t dampen the story’s rebellious and righteous spirit.