I love the wonderful sense of New York in the 1970's that this film gives us. The characters, dialog, and shots on location in Brooklyn are all highly authentic. It's Al Pacino who really makes the film though, with a performance that is captivating and endearing. He's bumbling and ill-prepared as the leader of this bank heist, yet he's cagey and street-wise as a New York rat.
We first get a glimpse of how amateurish these criminals are when one of the three bails early on in the robbery, which is a comical moment. We also smile at Pacino's handling of the situation. He realizes the importance of the hostages he suddenly finds himself holding, but far from being heavy-handed, he tries to be decent with them. He whips the crowd up into an anti-establishment frenzy by shouting "Attica!", throwing wads of money into the air, and paying for pizza delivery. He gets into a shouting match with a police sergeant (Charles Durning). He talks to his wife, mother, and transgender lover (Chris Sarandon), and each conversation is touched with pathos, and fantastic. To his mother he says "I'm a fuck-up and I'm an outcast. If you get near me you're gonna get it. You're gonna get fucked over and fucked out." It's the outcast underdog that we find ourselves rooting for.
I love the simple acceptance of his sexuality, which is incidental and doesn't devolve into some type of stereotype - well ahead of its time. Director Sidney Lumet shows the seamy side of New York, but at the same time, its humanity. The characters are blunt, but understanding of one another when they simply say what they want. The relationships in this tense stand-off are fascinating.
I also liked how Lumet gets us into the story immediately. We learn the backstories and characters of the criminals, including Pacino's henchman (John Cazale) gradually, and in little moments, such as finding out he fears their escape plan because he's never been on an airplane before. The film works as both a hostage drama and as a character study. It may be a teeny bit too long at 125 minutes, but has held up well over the years, and is definitely worth watching.