Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dog Day Afternoon

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This film and the movie it lost the Oscar to for the best movie of 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, present a sympathetic view of the misfits of society, and a critical depiction of the mainstream institutions that ruin them.

Director Sidney Lumet added power to this motion picture’s theme by choosing a story based on a true incident, and by giving it a gritty, almost documentary feel, especially in the street scenes. This realistic approach heightens the contrast with the almost surreal, circus-like events that transpire. The film opens with a collage of the diversity of, and the disparity between, the many segments of the New York City population. There are poor people living among trash heaps in the streets, construction and toll booth workers, businessmen in suits, children swimming in a pool and older people at the beach (letting us know it is summer), and the dead resting in their eternal residences in a cemetery. We even have a quick shot of a woman and her children, who turn out to be the wife and kids of Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino). From the general, we move to the specific, which, in turn, comments on the world at large.

Three men are about to rob a bank in Brooklyn. The fact that Sonny and his military veteran pal, Sal (John Cazale) are wearing suits implies a comment that the people who do the robbing are not just the stereotypical seedy types; businessmen may be stealing our money, we just don’t suspect them because they appear respectable. And, these fellows, along with their partner, Stevie (Gary Springer), are not what you would expect thieves to be since they are more like the Marx Brothers than criminal sociopaths. Sonny looks almost as frightened by the prospect of the heist as do the bank workers. He rapidly, and clumsily, pulls out his rifle from the flower box (an ironic, benevolent container for a deadly device) he uses to disguise it. (This appears to be a comical version of a scene in another Pacino film, The Godfather, where Clemenza also carries a rifle in a flower box). Stevie panics and leaves because he can’t go through with the robbery. There is very little cash in the vault because Sonny’s source mixed up the money delivery and pick-up times. Sal is not a mental giant, thinking that Wyoming is a country. Even though Sonny worked in a bank and knows about how employees trip alarms and keep marked bills in their registers, he still blunders by drawing suspicion when smoke drifts from the bank after he burns a register for travelers checks. They seem surprised when an employee tells them they can’t herd the workers in an airtight vault. They become flustered when the female clerks have to go to the bathroom and the guard gets an asthma attack.
 The phone rings and Detective Moretti (Charles Durning) informs Sonny that the bank is surrounded by over 200 cops. This exaggerated response of force, along with the comical aspects of the would-be crooks, help sway the audience to the side of the robbers (alternate title- “Underdog Day Afternoon?”), who just wanted to score some cash and leave quickly without hurting anyone. We begin to see how these men have become marginalized, and, in the case of Sal, how his situation could push him towards dangerous action. After Sonny hatches an escape plan using the employees as hostage leverage, Sal’s isolation is emphasized when he says he has no one in his life to tell that he is leaving the country. Both he and Sonny have been in prison before, and Sal says he can’t go back to a life behind bars. He reminds Sonny that they had a suicide pact if the bank job wasn’t successful. Maybe it is because their already desperate situation has now been amplified by the many police guns trained on them that Sal is ready to turn Sonny’s bluff about killing hostages into a reality.
There are some interesting ironic disparities as to what is considered objectionable to the characters, given the circumstances. There is a heated situation going on, where there are numerous men with loaded guns which can result in the deaths of many persons. But, when Sonny uses profanity in front of the female tellers, the supervisor chastises him for his language. Sonny is also cut off by a reporter for his four-letter-word choice. When talking to Moretti, Sonny, trying to get the multitude of cops to lower their weapons pointed at him, refers to the detective as a “pig,” which offends Moretti. Sal objects to the chief teller, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), who is understandably stressed out, smoking, because of the threat of cancer (ironic for Cazale, who died at a young age of the disease), saying that “the body is the temple of the Lord.” Yet, he is ready to start throwing bodies out of the door if they can’t escape. The movie seems to be implying that people may not be able to properly identify their priorities under certain conditions.

The film appears to be prescient about the importance of fame to the American public, especially as to the role of the media in this infatuation. The three-ring-circus effect of the press and crowds of people in the streets near the bank present an opportunity for some to be in the spotlight, garnering them the attention they have never experienced. The guy delivering pizza to the robbers and hostages raises his hands into the air like a prize-fighter champion, declaring himself a “star” for the few seconds the cameras are focused on him. Sonny realizes the power of the media to influence the public to get them on his side. He shouts out “Attica,” referencing the disastrous police actions at the New York prison. He pays for the pizza, showing he is not trying to deprive a working man of his compensation. He throws money to the masses, looking like a modern day Robin Hood. He realizes what power he can exert, and it goes to his head a bit when he says he can get anyone on the telephone line, including the Pope. It is ironic that he gains empowerment, temporarily, as an outsider who does not play by society’s rules. When Sylvia chooses to remain a hostage with her “girls” in the bank, it lets the viewing audience know that the robbers are not such bad guys. The pervasiveness of the media is seen in her getting interviewed (which she enjoys) in the midst of a tension-filled episode between the police and Sonny. However, how news exposure can quickly turn the public against one is also shown when it becomes known that Sonny is a homosexual and is married to another man. While the gay community mostly comes out in support of him, the story takes place in 1972, and he is taunted by the crowds when Sonny frisks males entering the bank. The way in which the press distorts the truth is also shown when a TV commentator assumes Sal is also gay. He is upset by this error, and wants Sonny to fix the misinformation.

The film brings up for discussion the question as to who are the dangerous members of society here. The employees do not appear to consider the robbers a threat. After their initial fear, they are bored, waiting for the situation to be over. They watch TV soap operas. Sonny allows them to handle his firearm, and shows them how to display various rifle positions. He makes sure asthmatic Howard (John Marriott) is the first hostage to be released. He is concerned about the bank manager’s health. In the radio interview, Sonny’s specific problems are representative of many persons’ struggles. He says to get a decent job, one has to belong to a union, and non-union jobs, like bank tellers, make very little. He, like others, has a wife and a couple of kids to support. When he dictates his will, he wants his insurance money left to the people he loved: his husband, Leon (Chris Sarandon), for a sex change operation; and his wife, who, by the way, doesn’t let Sonny get a word in as she just bemoans her lot in life. Leon, who now would be understood by many as a man trapped in a woman’s body, is a subject for ridicule because of the narrow-minded attitudes of the time. One of the hostages, Maria (Amy Levitt), a Catholic, has kind words for Sal when she says she will pray for him. Sonny says, “I’m a Catholic, I don’t want to hurt anybody.” And the two don’t. Instead, Sonny gets a call in the bank from someone urging him to kill all the hostages. Sonny is shocked by this incident. The scary person here is not the one the cops are after. In the end, it is the FBI that does the shooting, killing Sal. At one point, the FBI agent, Sheldon (James Broderick), tells Sonny that he doesn’t want to kill him, but he will if he has to. Sonny responds by saying, “It’s your job, right? The guy who kills me, I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.” His statement shows the chilling nature of an arm of the government that can execute someone without any emotional concern. Sonny eventually was sentenced to twenty years in jail. Could it be that Sonny’s real crime was, as he put it, being an “outcast?”

But, this movie is not one-sided. Sal could have been dangerous. Leon relates how threatening Sonny was toward him. Sonny and Sal did attempt armed robbery and held people against their wills, and threatened their lives, at least to the police. The film doesn’t seem to be saying that criminals should not be punished for breaking the law. It does seem to be suggest that we should try to understand the reasons that turn people into outlaws, make attempts at preventing this conversion, and reassessing who we are classifying as “misfits.”

The next film is Easy Rider.

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