September 29, 2013

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sidney Lumet, who died two years ago, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It's his best movie. Like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, and Lumet's own Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor: crime, crowds, police action, the media, and the enervated realism of a New York afternoon in post-Watergate America.

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do: it drops you into a Brooklyn bank right before a robbery, immersing you in the comedic tension of a day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of bozo bank robbers. Sonny (Al Pacino), the more decent and pragmatic of the two, needs the cash for his lover's sex change operation. Everything goes wrong for him: he's like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions get him kicked around, and the movie makes him a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion of smoggy sunlight as it sinks into an Edward Hopper evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody's face: the negotiators, the hostages, Sonny and his friend and accomplice, Sal. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone and everything in the movie grows exhausted and frazzled. It's a comedy of errors as the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside, where the boys in blue spend the day trying to keep the crowds from crossing the crime barricades as they chant "Attica! Attica!" The tone alternates between the frantic, the comic, and the exhaustedly placid, but stays completely lifelike.

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for 1970s movies because the police (the establishment) are treated sympathetically; the movie's point of view is that the street crowd's response to Sonny's plight—treating him like a celebrity and political hero—is nutzo and obstructionist. How did Lumet know that, decades later, we'd actually be willing to feel ashamed of our own corrupted '60s youth?

1 comment:

Dr. Goo said...

"Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for 1970s movies because the police (the establishment) are treated sympathetically"

Dirty Harry, New Centurions, French Connection, Colombo, Kojack, Baretta, Onion Field.

"It's his best movie."

Prince of the City is Lumet's best.

"a comic hero of the Watergate era... How did Lumet know that, decades later, we'd actually be willing to feel ashamed of our own corrupted '60s youth?"

He knew cuz NY paid the price.

Comic-tragedy than tragicomedy. It goes from laughter to (jeers and) tears.
What happens in the movie is indicative of the arc of counterculture itself.
The two guys are just crooks but the media frenzy and the politics of the Zeitgeist turn them into 'heroes' to the 'antiestablishment' moment. Blacks, homosexuals, agitators of all stripes, youths, and etc. project onto the robbers their fantasies of 'fighting the Man'. And Pacino plays along to the hilt and we cheer/laugh along, initially. And much of late 60s and early 70s were like that, with criminals and derelicts romanticized as heroes or victims of society. But then, NY went to hell, and all those 'heroes' just turned out to be thugs.
DDA is a radical-disillusionment movie.
But like Network(bad movie), it's as much about how an event is perceived and distorted(by the media and different groups) as about what really happened. The tension between the mundane unfolding of the event and the circus atmosphere really makes this movie. As time passes, the fun dissipates, things inevitably turn grave, and the cheers turn to jeers as the robbers fail to live up to expectations of the mobs who painted them as 'hero rebels'.

Lumet remained a liberal but lost some of his 'twelve angry men' naivete that placed the entire burden of moral responsibility on middle class white guys.