Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon; politicising everyday life

Sidney Lumet died last month, and although this is a little late for a ‘tribute post’, I thought I’d write something on what I consider one of his most interesting films, Dog Day Afternoon.

Released in 1975, Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalised account of a bank robbery that occurred in 1972 in New York City. On a boiling August morning, John Wojtowicz, a former bank teller, and two accomplices walked into a branch of the Chase Manhatten bank in Brooklyn with the intention of robbing it. It went wrong. One of the accomplices got cold feet and fled the scene when he saw a passing police car in the street, they held a number of hostages for 14 hours, and there was a botched attempt at a negotiated escape (a classic hostages for helicopter scenario) which ended bloodily, but Wojtowicz survived.

In the film, John Wojtowicz is substituted for Sonny Wortzik, who is played by Al Pacino (interestingly, Wojtowicz later stated that he based aspects of his plan on scenes from The Godfather, which he had watched earlier in the day), and aside from several minor aspects that Wojtowicz later stated were embellished for the film, the actual robbery itself is mostly an accurate representation of what happened.

In his recent tribute to Lumet on Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film, ‘politicises everyday life in ways that modern films wouldn’t dare do’, and this is the film’s main appeal; that the motivations behind an act that most films would take at face value, a bank robbery, along with the political atmosphere of the time, are spelled out and form the backbone to the film. Instead of a film that is just about a bank robbery, Dog Day Afternoon presents an uncompromising insight into the society in which Sonny lives. At the present time, there is a tendency in film and literature to follow the cue of a depoliticised society, where social problems and acts are personalised and diluted of their political significance, Lumet’s films, notably Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and his excellent 2006 release, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, treat everyday occurrances with the political significance an overreaching post-political, and post-ideological culture denies them. Lumet is the enemy of what the documentary maker Adam Curtis has called ‘oh dearism’, the spectacle of an event that has been removed from its political context, and therefore not understandable or possible to analyse through any meaningful political discourse. The example he used was the Rwandan Genocide, which, deprived of its political context by a media now confused by its inability to use the good guys-bad guys dichotomy of the Cold War, which had recently ended, was reported solely through a constant barrage of awful images with little political explaination, to which the only possible response from the viewer can be a neutral and helpless ‘oh dear’.

The film begins as it means to go on. To the tune of Elton John’s Amoreena, we are presented with a four-minute long montage of shots that we typically associate with 1970s New York. Long traffic jams, litter-strewn streets, open fire hydrants, people sitting on benches and talking the day away, dogs eating out of bins, all conducted under exhaust fumes and a boiling summer sun. Then the camera focuses in on the bank, and we see the prospective robbers arriving. The first part of the robbery plays out like black comedy. We have Sonny wrestling with the box he has hidden his gun in, unable to get it out, his accomplice panics, asks Sonny if he can leave, and nearly drives off in the getaway car so he doesn’t have to walk home, and a general series of unfortunate events that eventually lead to the police turning up. Then, after the shots of the massive police presence descending on the bank, barriers being erected, and snipers settling on rooftops, Sonny begins to communicate with the negotiators, and the political side of the film begins from where the initial montage introduction took off.

Sonny eventually goes outside to remonstrate with the police, and with the camera acting as his eyes, he is faced with the overwhelming nature of his situation in wide shot, complete with jittery cops pointing guns down the camera lens. The local residents are another important aspect of the film; as the police turn up, so do the locals. As the police surround Sonny and the bank, the local population surround the police, constantly pushing against the barriers to catch a glimpse of the action, and the relationship between these three sets of protagonists is explored throughout the film. When Sonny goes outside for the first time, this is when the film reveals its political nature.

Sonny talks with the negotiator, and, failing to be convinced by the usual ‘you’ll get off lightly’ arguement, he then fires up the crowd with shouts of ‘Attica! Attica!’, invoking the name of the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot, where prisoners staged an uprising after the death of George Jackson, an inmate and Black Panther Party member, at the hands of prison guards. After four days of rioting and negotiations, the riot was put down by force, at the end of which 39 people were dead. A New York State Special Commission on Attica, set up after the riots, concluded that,

‘With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.’

The crowd are soon heard shouting in support of Sonny’s anti-police speech. As Sonny is under siege in the bank, the police are under seige in the neighbourhood, and when the camera ventures outside, we usually see the crowd surging against barriers and pouring scorn on the police.

The invocation of Attica renders the anti-police atmosphere obvious, and another exchange between Sonny and an FBI negotiator, who has replaced his police counterpart, makes an equally pertinent political statement. Sonny asks the agent if he would be willing to kill him, and the reply is ‘Yes, but I would only be doing my job’. A familiar response from an authority figure (and one that I heard countless times from those policing the student protests in London in the winter), it is interesting to remember that the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it was known, had recently closed in 1971, and was very much still fresh in the public mind when Dog Day Afternoon was released.

Established in 1956 by J Edgar Hoover, the aim of COINTELPRO was to, ‘expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize’, ‘subversive activity’ in the United States. It did this through smear campaigns, wrongful imprisonment, illegal surveillance, violence, and even assassination, against targets such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, left-wing groups, anti-war activists, and even monitored the activities of Albert Einstein. Implicated most notoriously in the murder of Fred Hampton, a radical black activist, the existence of COINTELPRO was dramatically and publically revealed after the burglary of an FBI field office in 1971. At a time when law enforcement agencies in America had just been found to have committed political assassinations, Sonny’s reply to the negotiator, ‘I hope if someone kills me it’s because they hate me’, is a powerful negation of the ‘only doing my job’ arguement, the attempt to divest yourself of personal responsibility by deferring responsibility to somebody else, in this case, your superiors, or your ‘job’. And unless the FBI solely consisted of completely barbarous individuals, we can assume that in the immediate post-COINTELPRO years there were many guilty people moaning about ‘only doing their jobs’.

For most of the film, however, we are trapped in the bank with Sonny, Sal, and the hostages. Again, when the camera reverts back to the inside of the bank, the dynamic between the hostages and hostage –takers is almost comedic. The hostages don’t condemn Sonny, they mostly see the episode as an inconenience, and almost treat Sonny with the familiarity of a boy from the neighbourhood ‘gone wrong’. We see them chatting together, and in return Sonny is more than willing to indulge their demands for food, bathroom breaks etc. This dynamic cements the political aspect of the film to the extent that when we see the hostages interacting with the police outside, usually through Sylvia, the head teller who has a maternalistic attitude towards ‘her girls’ (John Wojtowicz referred to her as ‘The Mouth’), she is usually shouting at them or upbraiding them for some oversight. Subverting the dynamic of traditional bank robbery films, and introducing the political atmosphere of the time not as background to the story but as a central feature of it, we are more inclined to view the hostages, Sonny, and the neighbourhood on one side, and the police, the representatives of traditional authority, on the other.

This is something that recent cinema has often failed to do. When we see the apocalyptic ‘last days of Sodom’ madness of seventies New York through Travis Bickle’s eyes in Taxi Driver, we are well aware that his reponse to it is psycopathic, but we understand his motivations, as we sympathise with Sonny, who in essence is holding a group of innocent people hostage in a bank. Compare this to Martin Scorcese’s The Departed,which is in many ways a film of ‘oh dearism’, and the differences are obvious. The criminals are sweary, violent, selfish, one-dimensional characters, the policemen mirror them almost exactly, and the story requires no further thought beyond, ‘crimes are being committed in this film, oh dear’. Where we sympathise with and understand the motivations of the morally dubious actions of Sonny, and the morally dubious and downright psychotic actions of Travis, there is no such depth of theme, or understanding required in a film like The Departed.

Soon after Sonny’s ‘Attica!’ speech, the media arrives, and are treated with the same deserved cynicism that was developed in another Lumet masterpiece, Network, released a year later in 1976. Network tells the story of unhinged news anchor Howard Beale, who, after finding out that his ratings are plummeting, announces on air that he will commit suicide live on television. This accouncement causes his ratings to spike, and as he uses the show to deliver increasingly deranged rants to his audience, he is exploited by a ruthless television executive who uses his madness to further her own professional ambitions.

The message in Dog Day Afternoon is a similar version of this, as Howard Beale is exploited in his madness, Sonny becomes a minor celebrity overnight as his situation is exploited as light entertainment for news channels. He sees himself on television, and is telephoned by reporters, who conduct a live interview with him while he is in the bank. Sonny is baffled by the inane questions; he is asked why he is committing the robbery, and after a moment’s stunned silence Sonny answers, ‘cos they got money here, I need money’. He is asked why he doesn’t get a job, and Sonny runs through the reasons why he can’t find a job, which, given the dire financial straits of New York City during the seventies, is justifiable. He then turns the conversation around, asking the interviewer how much he earns a week, introducing a class dynamic, and further entrenching the idea of ‘us and them’ which is apparent throughout the film, which places Sonny and the hostages in much the same social situation.

By looking at the state of New York City during the 1970s, it is impossible to imagine how Lumet could have made the film without the political thrust that it has. Deindustrialisation as a consequence of a slowdown in the post-war boom, along with mass emigration of affluent city-dwellers to the suburbs, combined to lead to an almost perfect storm of social disintegration. The decade saw an estimated million people leave for the suburbs, taking their jobs and businesses with them. As a consequencce, unemployment rocketed, leaving over a million people living on welfare, property prices dived, crime increased rapidly, and entire districts became slums. Strikes, blackouts and rioting became endemic, and many landlords took to burning down entire apartment buildings to claim insurance on now mostly worthless property, leading to the term ‘Dresdenised’ being coined to describe block-upon-block of burned out buildings in slum areas. One South Bronx fire station in the mid-seventies was recognised as the busiest in America, having to deal with arson attacks of this nature daily. And if this wasn’t enough, in 1977 the city came within hours of financial collapse after defaulting on its loans, and in that summer experienced one of the worst blackouts in its history, which led to massive rioting and looting over the course of two days, during which 4,500 people had been arrested.

Through the context of these events, the social setting of a film like Dog Day Afternoon, or the claustrophobic atmosphere of Taxi Driver, where we see the madness of the city through the dirty windows of a taxi speeding through a ghetto, are all the more important.

In the crowds of Dog Day Afternoon, swarming around and goading the police, we see the expression of this environment. This braying crowd is made up of the slum dwellers of mid-seventies New York, and their threatening nature and vehmently anti-establishment feelings are an obvious result of their dehumanised conditions, and this is spelled out clearly in the film. Christopher Null said that it, ‘captures perfectly the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom…John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with.’ The character of Sonny is the desperate individual consequence of these conditions, and it is this emphasis on social and political relevence where Dog Day Afternoon succeeds, and where many films that are consciously de-politicised fail.

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1 Comment

Filed under film, politics

One response to “Sidney Lumet and Dog Day Afternoon; politicising everyday life

  1. Pingback: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) | Old Old Films

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