Monday, August 18, 2014
August 18, 2014: Films for the Dog Days: Dog Day Afternoon
[Nothing beats the summer heat better than watching characters sweat it out from the coolness of a movie theater. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy five hot and heavy dog days films. Add your responses and summertime movies for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’ll sweat it out!]
On the gritty crime drama that’s sneakily subversive.
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which was based on a Life magazine story about an actual August 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery, is first and foremost a gritty, realistic story of that crime and its messy aftermath. The opening montage of sweaty summertime New York sets that scene pitch-perfectly, and the rest of the film, despite starring Hollywood heavyweight Al Pacino at the height of his Godfather-driven fame, follows suit. Much of what drives the film’s plot, for example, are small realistic details that produce big problems and changes—a young criminal’s second thoughts, a security guard’s asthma attack, the bank manager’s collapse in diabetic shock. And virtually all of the film’s scenes take place in and around the bank’s cramped, tense, sweaty confines, greatly amplifying that sense of intimate scope and scale.
Yet despite that tight focus, Dog Day Afternoon works in a couple of complex and interestingly subversive social themes and commentaries. For one thing, there’s the scene where Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik briefly exits the bank to talk with Charles Durning’s police detective; the conversation escalates, and Sonny concludes by shouting “Attica! Attica!” while the gathered crowd cheers him on. The moment is an allusion to the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, a five-day standoff between inmates who took over the jail and federal troops that ended in a bloodbath, with thirty-three inmates and ten hostages (all corrections officers) dead. While the rebellion might seem an isolated incident, and one specific to the prison world in which it occurred, the film’s evocation of it reflects a different reality: that in this post-1960s era of cynicism and distrust, the period that produced Kent State and Watergate, many Americans saw the rebelling prisoners as potential counter-culture heroes. Sonny isn’t much of a hero, but in this moment, he certainly gives voice to such a perspective as well.
Sonny also connects to the film’s other and even more subversive element, through the character of his second wife Leon Shermer, a pre-operative transsexual played brilliantly by Chris Sarandon. Leon’s gender identity is in fact one of the film’s driving elements, as we learn that it is to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgey that Sonny tried to rob the bank (his first such crime). When I call Leon’s character subversive, I don’t just mean the presence of a transsexual character in a mainstream 1970s Hollywood film, striking as that presence is—I also and especially mean the way in which the other major characters, from Pacino to Durning’s police officer, engage with Leon as a person and an equal, not as an “other” or a freak or any of the other demeaning possibilities we might expect. Sarandon’s wonderful performance certainly contributes to that humanizing, leading to a character whose identity is radical and revolutionary without feeling the slightest bit overt about those effects. Definitely makes for a film worth checking out on a dog day afternoon (or any other time).
Next dog days film tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?