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13 Fascinating Facts About Dog Day Afternoon

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In 1972, a Brooklyn bank robbery intended to fund a sex-change operation turned into a day-long standoff. Three years later, Sidney Lumet turned that strange story into Dog Day Afternoon, a lively, intense, and surprisingly funny crime film featuring one of Al Pacino’s best performances. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts to help you appreciate this felonious masterpiece next time you barricade yourself inside a bank to watch it.

1. ITS ORIGINAL TITLE WAS THE BOYS IN THE BANK.

That was the name of P.F. Kluge’s Life magazine article about the real robbery. Somewhere along the way, director Sidney Lumet expressed dislike for the title as it applied to his movie, and came up with one that suggested a hot, stuffy day near the end of the summer.

2. THE REAL BANK ROBBER LOOKED A LOT LIKE AL PACINO.

Fluge’s magazine article described John Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman,” so naturally the screenplay found its way into both actors’ hands. (Pacino was Lumet’s first choice, but Hoffman was reportedly approached when Pacino, seeking to take a brief break from movies, initially turned it down.) We see a bit more De Niro in Wojtowicz than Pacino or Hoffman, but Pacino was a good fit, too.

3. SAL WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A BEAUTIFUL 18-YEAR-OLD, NOT, UH, JOHN CAZALE.

The real bank robber’s accomplice was Salvatore Naturale, an 18-year-old delinquent who’d been in trouble with the law for most of his life. Screenwriter Frank Pierson envisioned the Sal character as a handsome kid that Sonny had picked up in Greenwich Village, and described him in the script as “medium height, also good-looking in an intense boyish way.” So Sidney Lumet was skeptical when Al Pacino recommended his good friend John Cazale for the role.

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Cazale, who’d been in The Godfather films with Pacino, was 39 years old, and not what you’d call beautiful. But Lumet said that when Cazale came in to read for the part, he was sold on him in a matter of minutes.

4. IT HAS NO MUSICAL SCORE.

Lumet was all about authenticity. Except for the Elton John song that plays over the opening credits (which turns out to be coming from Sonny’s car radio) and a couple of snippets heard elsewhere on radios, there’s no music in the movie. “I could not reconcile trying to convince an audience that this really happened—which I felt was the first obligation of the movie—with putting a music score in," Lumet said. "How would it have felt if suddenly in the midst of [a dramatic] sequence you’d have heard an orchestra?”

5. SIDNEY LUMET WAS ADAMANT ABOUT NOT SHOOTING THE FILM ON STUDIO SETS.

Most of the movie takes place in three locations: inside the bank, on the street outside the bank, and in the barbershop across from the bank. Standard procedure would be to shoot the street scenes on location, and then film the bank and barbershop interiors on sets constructed at a studio (where it’s much easier to control lighting, sound, etc.). But Lumet wanted realistic continuity. He wanted us to see, for example, that when a character enters the bank from the street, he’s really doing that—not walking through a door and emerging on a fake set miles away. Lumet got his wish and found a block of a Brooklyn street that suited his purposes, including a vacant warehouse that could be turned into a bank

6. IT WAS FILMED DURING A COLD AUTUMN.

The movie takes place in late August, and the makeup department did fine work making everyone look appropriately sweaty. But it was actually shot in the fall, and a particularly chilly one at that. When they were filming outdoors, you could see the actors’s breath, which obviously wouldn’t do. The highly scientific workaround: ice chips in the mouth to cool the breath before it hit the air.

7. THE EXTRAS HIRED FOR THE CROWD SCENES WERE OUTNUMBERED BY ACTUAL BYSTANDERS.

Lumet’s team hired about 300 extras to play the crowd that gathers outside the bank during the standoff. But when you film a hostage crisis on a real, functioning city street, people notice. Lumet said the crowd would swell every day they filmed, especially in the late afternoons, and that the professional extras did a great job of getting the civilians to act appropriately for the scene. It was like a big improv exercise. People who lived on the block were offered hotel rooms if they wanted to get away from the commotion, but most chose to stay. They were invited to look out their windows and gawk, just like real neighbors would do

8. IT WAS SHOT IN SEQUENCE ... SORT OF.

You probably know that most movies are not filmed chronologically. First you shoot all the scenes that use location A; then you move to location B and film whatever scenes take place there, and so on. But with Dog Day Afternoon being set in one spot, it was almost feasible to start on page one of the script and just shoot the whole thing in order (which is easier on the actors for obvious reasons). Lumet did the next best thing: He shot all of the street scenes first, in order, then moved inside the bank and filmed all of those scenes in order.

9. THEY LOST A DAY’S WORK BECAUSE OF PACINO’S MUSTACHE.

One of the things the actor did as a means of getting into character was grow a mustache—not because the real robber had one, but because the character was gay, and in the mid-’70s, many gay men had mustaches. In Lumet’s words, however, Pacino’s mustache “looked terrible.” And after the first day of filming, Pacino agreed. Watching the footage, Pacino told Lumet, “The mustache has got to go,” and asked if he could shave it and redo that day’s work. Lumet agreed, and the mustache was gone—as was a day's worth of footage.

10. IT’S THE ONLY TIME LUMET EVER INCORPORATED IMPROVISATION INTO ONE OF HIS MOVIES.

Sidney Lumet’s first film was 1957’s 12 Angry Men. He made 20 more between that and Dog Day Afternoon (and 22 more afterward), and by his own account, he never used improv. “I don’t like actors to improvise, to use their own language,” he said in the Dog Day Afternoon DVD commentary. “They are not going to come up with something ... better than a really talented writer who has done months of work on something.”

But as Lumet and the cast rehearsed Dog Day Afternoon—especially the parts where the robbers and bank employees are just sitting around killing time—someone asked about the possibility of improv, and Lumet realized it could be useful for helping the actors bond, as well as making the characters’s interactions feel more natural. With screenwriter Frank Pierson present, Lumet let the actors improvise in rehearsal; recorded it; and ended up adding some of their conversations to the script (which won the film’s only Oscar, by the way).

11. THE ACTORS DIDN’T JUST IMPROVISE IN REHEARSAL, BUT WHILE THE CAMERAS WERE ROLLING.

It’s one thing to incorporate dialogue into a film that the cast came up with during rehearsal. It’s quite another thing for the actors to improvise on the spot, while the cameras are rolling. But it happened at least twice here, once because Lumet asked for it, and once totally out of the blue.

Right after Sal fires his gun because they think the cops are sneaking in through the back of the bank, Sonny comes outside and gets yelled at by the cop played by Charles Durning. For this scene, Lumet told Durning to improvise, and to immediately get Sonny on the defensive. He had three cameras rolling to capture whatever happened; watching the scene, you can feel the spontaneous energy and confusion from both actors. It was an effective use of improvisation (though Lumet said he never tried it again).

The other instance was minor but memorable: When Sonny asks Sal if there’s any particular country he wants to go to, the script had Sal giving no reply. But on the day, when Pacino asked the question, Cazale responded, “Wyoming.” Pacino stayed in character while Lumet stifled a laugh so he wouldn’t ruin the take.

12. ONE ASPECT OF THE TRUE STORY WAS SO BIZARRE LUMET DIDN’T WANT TO USE IT.

During the real standoff, TV news showed home movie footage of the bank robber’s marriage to the man (played by Chris Sarandon in the movie) whose sex-change operation the robbery was intended to fund. But in the movie, TV news shows nothing more than a still photo of the “bride” in a white dress. That’s because the wedding footage showed what was evidently a raucous, colorful event, with much cross-dressing and general revelry. Lumet feared it was so visually bizarre, and such a shift in tone, that the audience wouldn’t come back to the tense reality of the hostage situation after seeing it.

13. PACINO’S BACK-TO-BACK PHONE CALLS WERE FILMED ALL IN ONE TAKE, TO CAPTURE SONNY’S EXHAUSTION.

Near the end of the film, after being stuck in the bank for many hours, Sonny makes two emotionally draining phone calls. This scene was filmed was near the end of the shoot (see previous item), so Pacino really had been cooped up in that building for a long, long time and, like his character, wanted to get out.

To take full advantage of the actor’s weariness, Lumet filmed the phone calls together, with no cut in between, so that Pacino would be worn out from the first call when he made the second one. The whole sequence lasts about 16 minutes. When it was over, Lumet told Pacino to do another take—that is, both calls again—immediately, without pausing to rest first. It’s the second take that appears in the movie, so if Pacino seems especially drained, that’s why.

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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
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For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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