Dog Day Afternoon
Dog Day Afternoon

By Heather Hendershot.

The following is excerpted from When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited, edited by Jonathan Kirshner and Jon Lewis (Cornell University Press, 2019), by permission of the press.

In 1965, John Lindsay beat out Abraham Beame and William F. Buckley Jr. to be elected mayor of New York City. It was perhaps the worst job in America. The city was spiraling down economically, and crime rates were on the rise. That same year, only two major films were shot on location in New York.  Few Hollywood directors had the stamina to brave not only the tough city streets but also the labyrinthine permit system, not to mention the bribes required by the cops and the Teamsters. Just two years later, the streets were no cleaner, but forty-two features were shot in the city. Lindsay had created the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting in 1966, and shooting a movie now required acquiring only a single permit. The idea was to bring business to New York. Lindsay famously said he wanted to make the city “fun.”

A few of the movies made thereafter did show a fun version of New York (The Producers, Mel Brooks, 1967) or at least a nostalgic version (The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), but the vast majority conveyed despair and decrepitude: the New Hollywood showed New York as a place not for jaunty, singing sailors (On the Town, Stanley Donen, 1949) but for pitiful, sweaty no-goodniks (Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger, 1969).

If the old Hollywood had been based in the City of Angels, New York would become the City of Losers, symbol of the shattered fallout remaining in the wake of Attica, Vietnam, Mayor Daley, Nixon, and Watergate. Al Pacino emerged as the preeminent tour guide of Mayor Lindsay’s “fun” town, initially with Panic in Needle Park (Shatzberg, 1971) but most notably with his 1975 masterpiece Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet), a dark but also improbably optimistic film about hapless, failed bank robbers.

Dog Day conveys a city where things go awry, some people are cruel, and the law is a force of coercive violence, but where people can still care about each other – or at least can try damn hard to care. This is signaled from the very beginning, in an opening that represents a complicated ecosystem of neighborhoods and class barriers but ultimately favors the proverbial “little guy.”

The set piece kicks off with an overhead shot of a Circle Line boat pulling out into the Hudson, as the Elton John song “Amoreena” plays. Circle Lines tour Manhattan as an announcer on a loudspeaker relates history and trivia. The narrative is designed not to sugarcoat but to convey a complicated metropolis that one should – or could, with an openness of spirit – come to love, warts and all. The deck of the Circle Line boat in the opening shot of Dog Day is crowded, even though a title has already informed us that we are about to see a true story from August 22, 1971. This is no time to for a sightseeing cruise in New York City. It’s just too damn hot.

The film next cuts to a dog sifting through garbage on the streets. She has a collar with tags, presumably belonging to someone, but at this moment she’s on her own – and patently a she, given the teats hanging from her underbelly. Life in New York City in the summer, it’s a bitch. Tilt up, pan right to some middle-aged white gents with hands in trouser pockets, smoking, hanging out, one sitting on an old milk crate, not necessarily down on their luck, but not at the top of their game either. A black man sits forlornly by himself on a step ten feet away. Cut to the top of a luxury high rise, where lucky children find relief by jumping into a swimming pool. Then cut right back down to the blacktop, where hard hats are toiling with shovels and jackhammers. Note that the hard-hat riot had taken place fifteen months before this scene, when some two-hundred construction workers chanting “All the way, USA” had beaten college students demonstrating against Vietnam. (One counterdemonstrator held up a sign saying “Only America could have produced a champ like Nixon and a chump like Lindsay.”)  John Avildsen’s Joe (1970), about a bigoted hard hat, and released just two months after the riot, had patently cashed in on this. Joe was an indictment of white working-class men. But Dog Day simply shows hardworking men trying to get through the day.

Cut next to the brick row houses of Queens, where middle-class people have tiny rectangular front yards. A man waters his with a garden hose. Another man hoses down a sidewalk in front of a store labeled simply “Chairs Tables Stools.” Cut back to the blistering asphalt, as cars pass through tollbooths, and then onward to a public tennis court, with tufts of grass poking through the ill-tended sidewalk outside the chain-link fence. It is not only those with fancy rooftop swimming pools who engage in recreation on a hot day.

But not everyone can play. The next shot returns viewers to toiling construction workers. Next we head to Coney Island, where regular folks sit on the boardwalk or beneath umbrellas on a beach strewn with bottle caps and cigarette butts. Back in midtown Manhattan, a large fountain is for show, not relief, as a New Yorker improbably suns herself nearby with a reflector. Cut to a man also “lounging,” passed out on a sidewalk, and then to squinting businessmen in suits, caught on a macadam crosswalk. This is followed shortly by a shot of bumper-to-bumper cars on the highway, haze and heat distortion making the air around the traffic menacing. Meanwhile, back on the city streets garbage men empty cans, making no attempt to keep up with the effluvia floating in curbside puddles.

Finally, we make our way to Brooklyn, where balding men powwow on sidewalks in lawn chairs, a yogurt delivery truck drives past a bank, and a gigantic cemetery is set against the Manhattan skyline – as if to say, “don’t forget, New Yorkers, you’ll be here someday!” Cut back to that bank from before, and Al Pacino’s name appears, and then the film’s title. Ah-ha, the movie is starting! But, of course, it started two and a half minutes earlier, with its relentless back and forth between wet and dry, hot and hotter, work and leisure, kipple and more kipple. This is Lindsay’s New York, somehow captured at a moment between garbage strikes, teacher strikes, transit strikes, and (no kidding) gravedigger strikes. People are muddling through a hot day, going about their business. New York is capable of equilibrium, but for how long?

Several men enter the Brooklyn bank at closing time. One of them, Sonny, carries a large flower box tied up in ribbons. Sonny’s partner Sal sits at the manager’s desk, quietly holding a gun on him, as Sonny awkwardly wrenches his own gun out of the box, flummoxed by the ribbons. One suddenly realizes that this is sort of a comedy and that Sonny is not running a slick operation. This may be a smart heist movie, but it is not going to be a classy heist movie. If Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970) is the filmic equivalent of Tiffany’s, with a new shipment of Fabergé eggs just in, Dog Day is Filene’s bargain basement, and today vinyl handbags are 75 percent off.

Sonny has once worked in a bank, and he is showing off. He knows where the trick alarms are and which bills are marked. He spray paints over the security camera lenses. But he has screwed up already: he probably should have gone for the cameras first. Sonny burns the daily register in a trashcan, for no clear reason. He tries to put the tellers in the vault, but one of them has to go to the bathroom, and he never considers ignoring her request. Though he’s high-strung, he seems like a nice young man. But he’s a total wash as a criminal. The smoke from the trashcan has come out the exterior vents, raising suspicions across the street. Before you know it, the “half hour job” has escalated into a hostage situation, with Sonny in charge of negotiations, and Sal brooding, itchy trigger-finger at the ready, intimating that he is just as open to wiping out the hostages as he is to blowing his own brains out.

Meanwhile, the hostages are scared, excited, and looking out for each other. Offered a chance to escape, the head teller instead stays to take care of her girls. The manager, too, has an opportunity to leave but chooses to stick with his team because it is the right thing to do. When the air conditioning shuts off, the ladies loosen their blouses and fan each other. A crazy guy starts phoning in and telling Sonny to kill everyone, and Sonny hands the phone off to a gum-chomping teller, who freaks the caller out by retorting with a heavy breathing routine.

As day drags into night, the tellers goof around, dancing, and at one point the gum-chomper is holding Sonny’s gun and demonstrating a drum majorette routine . . . but then we realize that it’s probably the reverse, with him teaching her his Vietnam drill training. Amping up the black comedy another notch, the negotiating head cop outside on the street, Moretti, teeters between blustery and apoplectic. When he uses a bullhorn, the assembled civilian mob mocks him by repeating his words. Later, we spot him haplessly observing the crowd while eating spaghetti from an aluminum takeout container.

In sum, this is utter mayhem, with one exception. Sheldon the FBI man stands expressionless behind the hapless Moretti, patiently awaiting his opportunity to take over. Sheldon has the look of a soulless contract killer. His double-cold assistant Murphy stands behind him, silent until the end, when he will be ordered into action. Sheldon is played by James Broderick, who had appeared as a somewhat ludicrous bohemian type in Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969). In 1969, he was traipsing about in overalls, considering starting up a commune. In 1975, he is in a suit and tie, impossibly devoid of both sweat and emotion, staging the point-blank murder of a maladjusted bank robber. If Broderick represents the counterculture at its most silly in Alice’s Restaurant, in Dog Day he is the Establishment at its most chilling.

Inevitably, the news media arrive. Sonny is terribly excited when a TV anchorman calls him for a live interview. He begins to lead the crowd in chanting “Attica! Attica!” Sonny may be somewhat simpleminded, but he has intuited that media coverage is what validates resistance by virtue of making it visible.

Attica (Cinda Firestone, 1974)

The prisoners who led the 1971 Attica prison revolt understood that it was in their interest to get the media immediately involved. As Carol Wikarska explained in a review of the film Attica (Cinda Firestone, 1974), “two Black cameramen…were allowed to film in the Yard… and the events at Attica were to be followed by the public via television and the front pages of the newspapers for days to come . . . [the uprising] was a media event as much as it was a political event.”

The question remains: what exactly is Sonny revolting against? Is he a “prisoner” of America, or, more specifically, of New York City? Perhaps what he feels is much narrower, the imprisonment of his own circumstances. He pays his parents’ rent, his kids are on welfare, his first wife (Angie) never stops talking, his other wife (Leon) has mental troubles, and his only friend is a psychopath. Long before the bungled burglary, the pressure has been getting to him, and he hasn’t really thought through the best way out. Desperately, he demands an airplane. So, in evoking Attica, Sonny taps into the crowd’s sense of injustice but also into its awareness that it is on TV. Even the pizza delivery boy who brings pies to the hostages is thrilled to be on camera, shouting exuberantly “I’m a fucking star!” The film simultaneously seems to be saying that to be excited about publicity in and of itself is hollow and foolish but, also, that the exuberance that Sonny and others feel is genuine, perhaps the only way to feel “real.” Being a star, even briefly, feels better than being an anonymous nobody in a city determined to grind the life out of its residents.

Their demands for a ride to the airport and for a jet apparently met, Sonny, Sal, and the hostages finally make their way out of the bank. Upon their arrival on the tarmac, Murphy shoots Sal between the eyes, and Sonny is cuffed as he sadly watches medics cart away Sal’s corpse. End titles tell us that today (1975) Sonny is in jail, Angie is on welfare, and Leon has had the sex-change operation. That’s one happy ending out of three possible ones. Notably, the film closes much more succinctly than it began, with credits divided into three groups – the Law, the Family, and the Street – as if to say, well, this is what life is, these are the three things that we must deal with.

At the end of the day, New York City may be the real kidnapper in this film, holding all of its people hostage. If the bank tellers quickly fell into Stockholm syndrome, coming to empathize with and root for their own kidnappers, the bigger picture is of people who manage to care for a city even as it constantly constrains them and lets them down.

After Dog Day, New York is not felt strongly again as a central character in Pacino’s work.  Still, the city does emerge as crucial one last time in HBO’s Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003). If Dog Day was a film of largely working-class people, Angels, which is set in the Reagan years, is a film of doctors and lawyers at the top and homeless people at the bottom. This is no longer a world populated by the hopeful and deluded losers of the New Hollywood, the sad sacks who think that just one robbery, one road trip, one drug deal, one con job, one decapitation (!) is all they need to become winners.

In Angels, Pacino delivers a devastating performance as the homosexual-hating, anticommunist, right-wing sodomite Roy Cohn. In the classic style of the New Hollywood losers – Gene Hackman in Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975), Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974) – Pacino as Cohn deceives the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and pitifully  “wins.” And then he drops dead. If Angels  had been shot in the 1970s, this death scene could only have cued a fade to black. Instead, Angels ends by showing the optimism and resilience of the surviving characters, jolting us to the realization that Pacino’s caustic performance and inevitable death make us nostalgic for an earlier era of filmmaking.

In Alfredo Garcia, Oates had pathetically asserted, “Nobody loses all the time,” but in the context of the New Hollywood, this sort of declaration could never be more than wishful thinking. Nothing confirms this spirit of inevitable human failure more potently than Pacino’s New York City films of that era.

Heather Hendershot is a professor of film and media at MIT. She is the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Children’s Television before the V-Chip, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture, What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, and Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line. She is currently researching a book on outsider political candidates.

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