'Attica! Attica!' Pacino's 'Dog Day Afternoon' Line, Explained
Even if you haven’t watched Dog Day Afternoon, one of the most intense and tragicomic films of the 1970s, you’ve heard the phrase “Attica! Attica!” Al Pacino, playing a bank robber, shouts this mysterious word again and again during a standoff with the NYPD, and it riles up the crowd. Attica is a town in western New York state, far away from Brooklyn, where Dog Day Afternoon is set. According to the people involved with the film, things were free flowing on set which allowed for all kinds of improvisations and discoveries, leading a to film that was like no other in 1975, and a scene that will outlast the film from which it was born.
"Attica" wasn't in the script, and neither Pacino nor director Sidney Lumet came up with it. So why is it there in the moviee, and what does it mean?
‘Dog Day Afternoon’ is about a bank robbery gone wrong
Directed by Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon is based on The Boys in the Bank by P.F. Kluge, a Life Magazine article from 1972 that detailed a bank robbery carried out by John Wojtowicz. In 1971, Wojtowicz and his two accomplices attempted to rob a branch of Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn. They hoped pay for gender reassignment surgery for Wojtowicz’s partner, Elizabeth Eden.
The film follows the same basic plot, with Pacino playing “Sonny Wortzik,” a man trying to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank to pay for his partner’s gender reassignment surgery. The plan goes upside down immediately when Pacino’s character discovers that the cash pick up has already occurred and his accomplice, Stevie, runs away.
Once Pacino is barricaded in the bank he has to negotiate with the police, and on his first trip outside he gets into a heated exchange with an officer that culminates in Pacino shouting, “Attica! Attica!”
Pacino is referencing the Attica prison riot
The line, “Attica! Attica!” isn’t just referencing the prison in western New York, but a specific riot that occurred in 1971. The Attica prison uprising occurred in response to the horrific living conditions that prisoners were forced into and the murder of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison two weeks earlier.
From September 9 - 13, the Attica inmates took control of the prison and held 42 officers and civilians hostage before producing a list of demands for the state before they would agree to return the prison over to the warden. The Attica prison riot is so well remembered because one of its leaders was Elliott James "L.D." Barkley, an articulate and charming inmate who was able to explain the inmate’s grievances to the public and the state. He was murdered by guards once the prison was reclaimed. He was only a few days away from being released.
In 1975, a charming bank robber who was shouting “Attica!” after taking hostages at a bank would likely inspire onlookers to cheer. It wasn’t just a way to make some noise, it was a way to get the public on the Pacino’s side.
In the scene, Pacino finds out that he’s cornered by police
Pacino doesn’t just run outside and shout, “Attica.” This scene occurs fairly early in the film, when he finally agrees to go outside and speak with the police. Pacino brings a bank teller along with him and a lead detective points out that Pacino is surrounded. There’s this huge pan that shows cops and snipers at every angle, it’s actually a very funny visual when you realize that all of these cops showed up to take on one guy.
Pacino and Sergeant Eugene Moretti (played by Charles Durning) go back and forth about Pacino’s hostages and Pacino explains that he knows the police are going to kill him no matter whether or not he’s done anything wrong. The only thing in Pacino’s hand is a white flag, and as police surge towards him with guns in hand he shouts “Attica! Attica!” Before yelling at the police to “put your f**king guns down.” The scene is just as powerful today, if not more, than it was in 1975.
Pacino improvised the line
As we tend to learn when it comes to some of the most famous lines in film history, it wasn’t scripted. According to Pacino, before filming the scene an assistant director on the shoot suggested that he shout “Attica.” Pacino explained:
He says, ‘Say “Attica.” ’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. "Attica.” Go ahead.’ So I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. This is on-camera now. Cameras are rolling, and I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’ … And we start improvising, and you get that whole Attica scene, because an AD whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are.
‘Dog Day Afternoon’ is more than a single line
Even though "Attica! Attica!" Made it to number at #86 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes it’s worth watching Dog Day Afternoon in its entirety and not just in the context of one line. Aside from being superbly filmed and acted, it’s heartbreaking take on how far someone will go for love and the way that authorities are quick to demonize someone and jump to violence. On top of that, it’s one of Pacino’s best roles. He stalks the film with a palpable nervous energy, you feel like you’re in the middle of an actual bank robbery. Or as Pacino put in 2018, during a retrospective on his work, “See it on the big 35-millimeter screen. You’re, like, in the middle of it. It’s like 3-D.”
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