Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
November is fast approaching. Election season is in full swing. I don’t know about you, but my social media accounts are blowing up with this stuff. Hopefully, a month from now these political posts, memes, and harangues will drop back down to a dull roar. Not wanting to contribute to the deluge too much, I thought this month I’d look at the different ways media gets represented in political films. Up first is the 1975 drama Dog Day Afternoon.
Directed by the incredibly talented Sidney Lumet (I discussed his first film here), Dog Day Afternoon is based on the true story of a bank robbery gone wrong. The original robbery took place in Brooklyn in 1972 and was the subject of a Life magazine feature that same year. What made it a headline grabber was the fact that the robbers gradually gained the sympathies of the bank employees and the attentive crowd outside. It was the 1972 equivalent of OJ’s Bronco ride.
Re-teaming with Lumet after 1973’s Serpico, Al Pacino is in fine form. He had just released The Godfather: Part II and was a hugely bankable star. He tackled this as a fringe project. Pacino plays the head robber, Sonny Wortzik, who needs to steal enough money for his lover’s sex-change operation. If you think this was a rare topic in 1975, you’re right. Whereas Pacino’s 1980 film, Cruising, which dealt with a police officer looking for a killer in gay nightclubs, has been maligned by the LGBTQ community as homophobic, Dog Day Afternoon handles the subject well: Sonny is an incredible, three-dimensional character. His lover, Leon/Elizabeth (Chris Sarandon in an almost unrecognizable role), while a little more stereotypical, is still convincing. And in one scene a group of LGBTQ activists brings their protest signs up to the police barriers and chant, “Out of the closets! Into the streets!” The use of strictly male pronouns for Leon/Elizabeth dates the film, but Dog Day Afternoon still plays an important historical role in de-marginalizing a minority group via the big screen. Chris Sarandon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1976 Oscars.
Other mentions for standout acting go to Charles Durning as the police negotiator and John Cazale as one of Sonny’s hold-up guys. In the majority of his roles, Durning brings a unique look and world-weariness to his characters, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, this is one of only five John Cazale’s movie roles: he died of cancer in 1978. All of his films (the Godfather trilogy, Deer Hunter, and The Conversation) are definitely worth seeing.
At one point, as Sonny is being antagonized by the police, he realizes that the media has shown up. To buy himself some breathing room, he riles up the crowd by chanting, “Attica, Attica!” This alludes to the famous 1971 inmates’ riot at Attica State Prison. Their protests for better conditions and prisoner rights ended with the deaths of 10 correctional officers and 33 inmates. With the chant of “Attica, Attica,” Sonny reminds the crowd that the police are fallible and reminds the police that they should think twice before using force. Lumet heightens the intensity of this moment (and others) and holds the audience at bay by just barely pulling the focus back on to the people in the shot.
Lumet also intentionally limits the soundtrack to real sounds: there is no score or soundtrack to speak of other than a song covering the opening credits. And even that song turns out to be the one that Sonny and the other robbers listen to in their car before the holdup. Lumet’s restraint increases the film’s tension since we don’t have musical cues in the background to relieve us or let us know where the film is going.
1975 was a great year for New Hollywood. It showed at the Oscars the following spring, with Dog Day Afternoon nominated for six awards. Unfortunately, it only won Best Original Screenplay, but it had stiff competition in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, Nashville, and Amarcord, all of which should be required viewing.
Dog Day Afternoon takes its name from the dog days of summer, and you can feel the sticky heat coming off of the screen. I rank it up there with Do the Right Thing as one of the great hot New York films. The sweat permeates every frame: even when the bank’s power gets turned off, and the screen lighting gets darker you can feel the characters’ discomfort.
All in all, Dog Day Afternoon deserves more kudos and discussion than it’s gotten. It’s a brilliantly acted and directed film that both focuses on and transcends a specific moment in history. Go out and watch it now. Attica! Attica!
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.