CLASSIC REVIEWS: “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network”
YATES: “Dog Day Afternoon”
This week I chose “Dog Day Afternoon” in remembrance of director Sidney Lumet, who passed away earlier this month. If you put Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in a blender, the end result would look a lot like a Sidney Lumet film. He contributed more than 40 films to Hollywood, many of them heavy with emotional dialogue and deep in verisimilitude, including classics such as “Serpico” and “Network.”
“Dog Day Afternoon” documents the true story of a botched New York City bank robbery and, more importantly, the motivation behind the crime. On a summer afternoon in 1972, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) walked into a bank and demanded they empty the vault. The joke is on Sonny, as the vault contents was collected earlier that day, and all that remains is around a thousand dollars. The police show up before Sonny and cohort Sal (John Cazale, “The Deer Hunter”) can escape, creating a hostage situation and a local media frenzy. As the crisis wears on, Sonny reveals he robbed the bank because he needs money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend Leon (veteran television actor Chris Sarandon). With frayed nerves and no options left, Sonny and Sal make a futile escape attempt that leaves Sal dead and Sonny arrested by the FBI.
The film is surprisingly charming and witty, considering the nature of the crime. Sonny’s aloof interactions with his hostages make him likeable, in spite of his menacing sidekick Sal. When the hostage negotiator sends pizza into the bank for the hostages, Sonny attempts to pay for the pizza himself. He also whips the gathering crowd into a frenzy with the now infamous line “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the recent Attica Prison riots. Sonny’s character development is strong, as Lumet wisely takes his time with the reveal that Sonny is gay and needs the money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend. A young Al Pacino is brilliant in a difficult and complex role of bisexual bank robber and Vietnam veteran.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a classic representation of the 1970′s film movement that featured gritty realism and anti-establishment themes. It features an anti-hero internalizing his struggle with everyday life after returning home from Vietnam, putting it on par with Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” It is an under-utilized style most recently employed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”). The only real criticism I have is the lack of illumination regarding Sonny’s relationship with Sal. Sonny obviously feels a strong loyalty to his partner in crime, but we never learn why. It is implied that Sal was previously in prison, but we don’t know what for. Ultimately, we know nothing about the relationship of the two men who are on screen together the most. Perhaps that is the way Lumet wanted it, instead emphasizing Sonny’s off-screen relationship with Leon.
Lumet stayed very true to the actual events that occurred on the fateful 1972 afternoon. John Wojtowicz, the bank robber who inspired the film, said that for the most part the film realistically portrays the events that unfolded during the botched bank heist. In the tragic real-life denouement, Wojtowicz ended up serving 20 years in prison for the robbery and other parole violations. While in prison, he received $7,500 for the rights to his story and paid for his boyfriend’s (Ernest Aron who went on to become Elizabeth Eden post-surgery) sex change operation with the money. After the sex change, Eden went on to marry someone else. She died in 1987 at age 41, and Wojtowicz died in 2006. The two were never married.
As one who studied journalism, I obviously must be well-versed on all cinematic takes on the field, from last month’s “Morning Glory” all the way back to “His Girl Friday.” So, my choice of 1976’s “Network” for this week’s Sidney Lumet tribute was a no-brainer. It’s a film powerful enough for television broadcasting to still use its plot as a yardstick for just how ridiculous the fall programming schedule will be, and one that was made to be cited in j-school classes the world over for decades to come.
It’s also a movie that can seem simple to peg – when crazed newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) glares into the camera to say “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” the quote is familiar, and sets up a fairly easy “lesson” for viewers to learn. Old-guard journalist goes off the rails and wakes up a brain-dead nation, television is evil, the end.
But what makes “Network” so compelling isn’t so much Beale as a solo character – what matters is that in screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s landscape, everyone is crazy. Programming exec Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, in her prime) might not have the populace screaming catchphrases, but she is someone who explains on a first date, “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.” It’s the genius of the story to allow the legitimately-unhinged Howard to serve as an entry point into all the nastier, more pointed kinds of insanity that lurk behind the broadcast cameras. If this was the kind of atmosphere I worked it, I’d probably have suicidal thoughts on air before too long myself.
Alongside, there are network higher-ups (Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty most notably) who share her single-mindedness for audience numbers. Howard’s best friend and former co-worker Max (William Holden) is the ostensible voice of reason, but hero he’s certainly not. The only person onscreen with a functioning moral compass is Max’s wife, played by Beatrice Straight with enough power that a single scene won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (still the record-holder for shortest performance).
While Howard Beale’s numerous onscreen tirades provide the bulk of the movie’s signature quotes, Chayevsky’s script allows every character time to pontificate. This mostly happens in extraordinarily loud voices, which can grate somewhat by the film’s conclusion. For the most part, Lumet maintains his reputation as an “actor’s director” by getting out of the way of the dialogue. But the moments where his visual flair takes over a bit — Ned Beatty’s one-scene-wonder, to take a prominent example — are remarkable.
“Network” thoroughly plants itself within the 1970s — there are mentions of Watergate and Patricia Hearst, not to mention the overwhelmingly brown color palette Dunaway is clothed in. But it is indeed timeless, and not in the sentimental, universal-values way that Capra movies are. It’s one of the lucky films that gets “prophetic” in 90% of its description, though the prophecy it holds doesn’t bode so well for the rest of the TV-watching populace of today. We can’t say they didn’t warn us.
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