Daily Film Thoughts (5/18/17): ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and the Anti-Establishment ideals of 70’s Hollywood

A new daily unfiltered and unedited journal of random film thoughts going through my head. No proofreading or serious analysis allowed.

5/18/17

I wasn’t alive during the 70’s. If you need someone who was to function as a primary source, I highly recommend following my friend Shane on twitter (@Shane1Alexander). But based on what I’ve read and seen, there seemed to be a great deal of social confusion amongst Americans. After the war in Vietnam and the counterculture movement that accompanied it domestically, but before the rise of home computers and the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan and Robert Mundell; it was a decade in American history where folks on both ends of the spectrum didn’t know what or who to believe. When certain events happened (like Watergate, for instance), people knew they were angry, but not entirely sure where that anger should be directed beyond the obvious figureheads. People were searching for leaders at all levels of society.

I think. At least that’s what I’ve seen in movies.

Many films from the New Hollywood movement in the 70’s explored this confusion. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider were the unofficial start of the movement in the late 60’s, but it wasn’t until a new generation of directors rose that studios began to show faith in auteurism. This creative freedom granted to filmmakers who came of age during controversial wars and periods of social change in America (rather than rah-rah WWII types) brought about not only technical innovation but also a willingness to explore existentialism and anti-establishment thought through everyman characters pushed to dark psychological extremes. Some films were meant to disturb. Some were meant to satirize. Some were meant educate. Think of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men.

I recently watched Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterwork Dog Day Afternoon again, and spent most of the film trying to put myself into the mind of a twenty-something seeing it in a theater on its original release, and how recreated the aforementioned zeitgeist. The film, based on true events that happened in Brooklyn three years prior, tells the story of a bank robbery and hostage situation perpetrated by Sonny (Al Pacino) and Salvatore (John Cazale). Beyond working as a perfectly acted, sharply edited, pulse-pounding thriller; Dog Day Afternoon is very much about the sensationalism of the crime, seen from the perspective of the robbers and their hostages.

The film opens with the robbery, no preamble. It’s clear from the jump that Sonny and Sal are out of their element, despite Sonny having worked in a bank before and Sal having been hardened by prison sodomy. These aren’t your typical masked gunman. Once the police quickly get word of what’s going down and the robbery develops into a hostage situation, unorthodox relationships develop between the hostages and the robbers, specifically Sonny. To put it simply, he seems like a nice guy who doesn’t want to hurt anybody. The film humanizes him but refuses to paint him as some sort of hero. He’s kind to the hostages, constantly reassuring them that everything is going to be okay. The bank’s security guard suffers from asthma, so Sonny lets him go. After a few hours, he even orders pizza for everyone. In one of the film’s stranger moments, Sonny, a veteran, teaches on of the tellers how to properly flip a rifle, even letting her hold the loaded weapon as he laughs. Again, Sonny isn’t your typical bank robber.

As the police surround the bank to an excessive extent, chaos arises. The media floods in, as do crowds of pedestrians who begin to root for Sonny as they learn more. In perhaps the film’s most heavily-quoted moment, Sonny, stepping outside the bank to survey the situation, gets upset with the number of seemingly trigger-happy police locked on him. He repeatedly screams “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the infamous prison riot that occurred four years earlier and resulted in 43 deaths. The crowd goes wild for Sonny. Lumet deploys a great many extras and wisely chooses angles to shoot them from, showing their restlessness. At another point in the film, Sonny comes outside and throws some of the cash he was stealing into the air. As it blows all over the place, the crowd busts down police barriers in effort to grab some. They’re like ducks rushing to bread tossed in a lake. Sonny gets great joy from this.

Sonny’s motivations for the robbery are revealed about halfway through the film. Sonny’s spouse Leon is a pre-operative transgender woman, and the money from the robbery is meant for sexual reassignment surgery. This is, obviously, a very progressive detail given the period. We learn from a newscast in the film that Sonny is immediately praised by some of the gay community, even called a hero. And it’s not just that Brooklyn subculture that lionizes or roots for Sonny. The hostages express genuine concern for what Sonny is going to do. The crowd chants his name. For a few hours, Sonny becomes a quasi-celebrity, a tragic hero who problematically comes to represent all marginalized people. I use the word “problematic” because, well, he’s a bank robber holding innocent people hostage at gunpoint.

There are strong emotional moments throughout the film thanks to the work of Pacino, Cazale, and Chris Sarandon as Leon. This is perhaps Pacino’s strongest performance. He livens up Sonny as intelligent but cynical, paranoid but strangely amused by what’s happening. For brief moments, shown subtly through Pacino smirks and energetic body quirks, Sonny seems to actually enjoy his hopeless moment of fame. Cazale says so much despite minimal dialogue, perfectly communicating Sal’s disconnection from all basic emotions.

Despite these strong character moments, Dog Day Afternoon hits its highs when it shows how nameless masses react to the events; reporters, onlookers, unfortunate policemen who happened to be on duty at the time. In a larger historical context, the robbery means nothing. Sal is killed, Sonny is is arrested, and all the hostages make it home safely. No legislation or even mild social protest comes as a result. But the film set entirely in one location, taking place over just fourteen hours, manages to make this ultimately insignificant event seem like a microcosm of an entire decade. It’s a gem, one of the strongest American films of the 70’s and essential viewing for anyone hoping to understand Hollywood’s evolution from a by-the-textbook entertainment industry to a factory of intelligent and often progressive art.

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