Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece. As my first Lumet film, is it too early to coin it his magnum opus?
The story of the bank heist has been told a billion times; the premise could be told as a five minute montage. In Snatch (2000), bumbling fools enter a bank, find creative ways out of their situation, and end up in jail anyway. But instead of playing the scenario for comedy, this film creates serious drama and an exploration of psychology and sexuality, with the calculating moves of a police procedural. Sequences run for as long as they need to, teeming with moments of silence, yet simultaneously not running for too long. During the editing process, Lumet told his editors to put material back in the film in order to improve the pacing. There’s a sense of breathing room. Because in reality, these events cannot be tied up in five minutes.
The situation is in flux, with no clear outcome. Is a character going to shoot? Will Sonny’s demands be met? Are the civilians going to be alright? Neither the bank clerk nor the cop nor the driver know if they are going to survive that day.
Is there an authenticity to the film? Whilst based on real life events, much of it was fictionalised (including character names). Wojtowicz refused to meet with the screenwriter, and Sonny was instead constructed from other people’s recollections. Yet the narrative is formed around Sonny as the focal character, where the entire film exists because of the situation he is in. The film presents real life events in close to real time, with a documentary-esque camera. It doesn’t need to purport to be a mockumentary, or use the one-shot real time narrative used recently by films such as Victoria (2015); that would feel too constructed and gimmicky, rather than true to life. Manipulation of space is limited: where we leave one location in physical form, we move to a few blocks away, yet it still has a presence within the TV set in Sonny’s family’s home.
There’s a real sense of chaos. The police, the mob, the hostages and the gunmen interact, yet without a notion of black and white. Al Pacino previously played the other side of the law as a cop in Lumet’s Serpico (1973); here, he embodies the criminal as Sonny. Sonny is not a monster. Misguided and mentally ill, perhaps. Through his negotiations and concessions with the bank manager and the police chief, they are able to find common ground: a wife and two kids. He isn’t overtly villainous, he’s complex; a good, Catholic person, venerated Vietnam vet and a pacifist (he raises a white flag and consistently checks for guns), placed within a bad situation. He can have fun with a blank teller, teaching her how to stand with his gun. In every other situation, Sonny could be the hero. He’s kind – and only reacts with fury when provoked by the mob and by the police acting upon their instincts.
A person in the mob raises his middle finger, and the police immediately jump on him. A couple of scenes later, the police arrest a man who fights with Sonny, alongside a handful of other people in the crowd too – the mob mentality. There’s an irony that the unarmed are seen as more dangerous as the armed. Sonny is treated with sympathy; the crowd are treated with suspicion. But the same is true of the ‘gang’ of Sonny and Sal. Grossly unequal: one with the gun and mentally sound, the other the complete opposite. Yet as soon as Sal shoots, they are seen as equals, despite Sonny only ever firing one bullet and hurting no-one.
Sgt. Moretti remains so composed throughout the film I’m impressed, keeping with Sonny’s increasingly ludicrous demands. Why spend the money on hiring the backup, co-ordinating airplanes and taxis when they could just as easily shoot him and save the state millions of dollars? That’s not to justify it, only to frame it. He and Sonny rely on a balancing act, and both characters remain sympathetic.
Were this story told today, Sonny would have been arrested within a minute, caught by automated locks and CCTV, shot dead on the sidewalk whilst every person in the crowd watches the tragic shooting through their phones, sharing the footage on YouTube, ready to be packaged into CNN and NBC’s news programming.
Since the film’s production, a system of glaringly obvious inequalities within the police that have come to light: Ferguson in 2014, and cases like the Hillsborough disaster and the battle of Orgreave, where police anxiety provokes unwanted arrests of comparatively peaceful crowds, or killing far too many, especially amongst racially profiled and class lines. These interactions between the police and the gathering crowd are becoming increasingly relevant. Similarly, these themes of mass media is something Lumet explores in more depth in Network (1976).
I went into this film knowing that it explores trans issues in some way, but without knowing the details – I assumed Pacino’s character might be female. But what the film actually presents us is actually more perfect.
Sonny’s actions to fund his girlfriend’s gender reassignment surgery are honourable. From trans friends, I know that two of the major issues when it comes to transitioning is a) waiting lists and b) money. Even with the NHS, transitioning isn’t free. Under the commercial, corporatised American system, it’s probably worse. Rather than an act of malice, it is an act of compassion and romance for the woman he loves. Most people probably wouldn’t be willing to rob a bank to fund their loved one’s transition; today, we have Indiegogo and other sites to deal with that. But it’s the same notion of do you allow a person in poverty to steal bread where they are starving?
The films is still problematic, reinforcing the consistent stereotype of ‘LGBT person with a mental illness’. But Sonny is so well realised, and Leon is presented as outside of it, not wanting Sonny to steal the money. She is empowered as a victim and a person in herself.
Leon is consistently misgendered, but never as part of her own identification. Sonny’s mom even uses the right pronouns for her. The cops laugh at her when she tells her story. When talking about her to other characters, they refer to her wrongly. Where the press catch wind of her compelling backstory, the headlines shift from “BANK ROBBERY” to “TWO HOMOSEXUALS IN BANK ROBBERY”. Sal asks Sonny if he can ask the press to change their headline; but he is powerless to do so in the face of a powerful media built upon stereotypes and simplified stories reduced to headlines, iconic images and pull quotes.
Sal doesn’t want to be seen as a homosexual, because he isn’t. Sonny isn’t gay, he’s married to a woman and dating a woman. It’s depressingly still relevant today, if not more relevant. Recently, there have been several instances of trans women in the UK sent to men’s prisons, misgendered by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. In the US, Kayden Clarke was shot by police, yet major news networks, including reputable sources such as The Independent, misgendered him and focused on narratives outside the trans narrative. When Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual last year, the Daily Mail and The Mirror labelled her as bisexual, silencing her power to self-identify.
As the film progressed, I was pleasantly surprised at the strength and sensitivity of this narrative. 40 years on, The Danish Girl (2015) fails to approach the subject manner in an accurate way, but here is a film that succeeds, yet not acknowledged enough, although not without its own issues. In face of its strengths, there is Sonny’s last will and testament. He says the only woman he will ever love is his wife, and speaks of the love a man will have for another man. This raises some major questions: in the face of his support for Leon, does he view her as male? If he was introduced to her as male, does he still view it as a gay relationship?
The credits reinforce a binary distinction between ‘life as a man’ and ‘life as a woman’, talking about how Leon is now “living as a woman”. It’s a misconception that is incredibly common, and only helps to perpetuate this misconception.
Unfortunately, the film’s producers don’t help at all. The making of was a difficult watch; I cringed in pain than every time I heard the words “sex change” in lieu of “gender reassignment surgery”. Martin Bregman talks of it as a gay love story within the first minute; Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino talk about how playing a gay character could destroy Pacino’s career (Cruising (1980) didn’t do that later on either); Chris Sarandon talks about trying to not make Leon look too gay, and the relationship between a “drag queen and a gay man.” When even the film’s own creative team doesn’t understand what trans means, what hope does the audience have of understanding an issue they may not have previously been exposed to?
I’m not going to attack Lumet as a transphobe. It was brave of him to explore these issues. It was 1975, the same year that the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Today, most countries class being trans as a mental disorder. Whilst ignorance should not be honoured, “sex change” was the common language; it’s only in the past couple of years myself that I’ve come to understand the correct terminology through actually knowing trans people. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to have gender identity and sexual identity once again conflated.
Arguably, the situation has improved, with Caitlyn Jenner making the trans identity more acceptable and mainstreamed, although far from the best spokesperson; yet people like Germaine Greer remain on podiums able to reject another person’s identity. Films like About Ray (2015) continue to present the issue in the wrong light, with a cisgender creative team. Things still need to change.