That Scary 70’s New York— Dog Days, But No Cynicism

The freak show that was 70’s New York both on- and off-screen can be summed up by the kicker of Pauline Kael’s review of Taxi Driver. Arguing that it made perfect sense for the murderous, psychotic Travis Bickle to be acclaimed as a hero, Kael affirmed Martin Scorsese’s view of New York as a modern Inferno: “The city’s crazier than he is.”

A year before Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon brought the atmosphere of a seedy three-ring media circus to the screen, and like Mr. Scorsese’s film, it was a big hit. For New Yorkers, the movie must have been a confirmation of the nuttiest aspects of city life. For those of us living elsewhere, Dog Day Afternoon and all the other New York movies of the era were as good an argument as any for not going anywhere near the place. (It would take the soft sunset pinks and browns of Annie Hall in 1977 for New York to be once more associated with romance at the movies.)

Everyone could see how good Dog Day Afternoon was. But it was also easy to lump it with all the other movies illustrating New York sleaze. Watching Dog Day Afternoon now (it has just been re-released in a new two-disc DVD), it’s startling to see its generosity. The director Sidney Lumet, doing the best work of his career, and the screenwriter Frank Pierson capture the public spectacle of a failed bank robbery without falling back on cynicism, without saying that the craziness onscreen is all there is.

Instead, Dog Day Afternoon is about people trying to live sanely amid the craziness. Mr. Pierson and Mr. Lumet and the near-flawless ensemble cast understand that what’s often mistaken for rudeness in New York City is simply an impatience with bullshit. And they know that the city throws together so many different sorts of people that the damnedest connections can happen, even if the wires are all crossed.

The inspiration for Dog Day Afternoon was an attempted bank robbery on Aug. 22, 1972, in Park Slope. In the course of the hostage drama that ensued, one of the robbers was found to have not just a wife and kids but a second wife, a pre-op transsexual. As played by Al Pacino, Sonny is a funhouse-mirror version of the put-upon family man. The poor bastard has so many responsibilities that he’s being eaten alive, and he’s bought into the notion that he’s responsible for everyone else’s happiness.

His wife (the superb character actress Susan Peretz) is a whining drama queen. The parents whose rent he pays consist of a father (Dominic Chianese) who hates him and a fearful, hysterical mother (Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina, whose two-scene performance is a small acting class in how stylization can seem like naturalism). Sonny’s partner, Sal (the late John Cazale, whose early death was surely one of the tragic losses of American movies), is such an innocent that he’s both frightening and endearing. At one point, he tells Sonny that he’s ready to start killing hostages if Sonny gives the go-ahead (Sonny isn’t about to); then, in the movie’s funniest and most heartbreaking moment, when asked what country he wants to escape to, he answers earnestly, “Wyoming.” And Sonny’s other wife, Leon (Chris Sarandon, whose performance remains a small marvel), for whose sake he initiates the robbery—in order to get him money for a sex change—is a suicidal wreck.

Mr. Pacino plays Sonny as so beholden to other people that he can’t even take charge of his hostages. He accedes to a claustrophobic’s demands not to be locked in the vault and allows everyone a bathroom break when he should be making his getaway. Sonny’s a sad sack with his finger on the trigger. When he gets a chance to showboat in front of the crowd gathered outside—chanting “Attica!” when a cop tries to sneak up on him—the attention clearly provides him momentary relief.

Much of Mr. Lumet’s movie work is characterized by its crude, sloppy forcefulness. It’s no surprise to learn, in the DVD extras, that Mr. Lumet and Mr. Pierson incorporated the actors’ improvisations into their script. (The movie is aided by the sensitivity to performance rhythms shown by the editor Dede Allen, for my money the greatest film editor of all time.) The direction here has a looseness, a responsiveness to the moment, rather than a pressure-cooker buildup.

What’s also clearer now is the film’s rejection of 70’s cynicism. It may be hard to remember now, but in the wake of Watergate (not to mention Vietnam), American movies of that era often reeked of self-hatred and hopelessness. In Dog Day Afternoon, there are numerous incidences of people’s bravery that, at the time, was easily dismissed as a movie-fed lie. When the head teller, a no-nonsense woman played by Penelope Allen, accompanies Sonny outside to talk to the cops, they try to convince Sonny to let her stay out. She says of her charges, “They’re my girls. I’m going back in.” Likewise, Moretti, the city detective assigned to the negotiations (Charles Durning, in one of his finest performances), isn’t treated with the distrust that authority figures automatically received in post-Watergate movies, but rather as a decent, harried cop willing to do anything he can for a humane way out of an impossible situation. And the relationship between Sonny and Leon is free of the fag-baiting humor you still found in American movies then. (When one uniformed cop snickers, Moretti silences him with a look.) It’s a movie of the strange collisions of city life, and the gritty grace that can spring from them.

In 1975, the rest of the country may have been watching Dog Day Afternoon as a document of the place they were glad they didn’t live in. Thirty-one years later, it seems not a lament for those forced to live here, but a perfectly reasonable explanation why so many of us choose to.

That Scary 70’s New York— Dog Days, But No Cynicism