The electric DOG DAY AFTERNOON!

By Rosalie Tirella

The Late Movie show on Channel 56, Boston. Introduced by the pleasant guy with glasses. That’s how we used to see all the great iconic American films back in the 1970s. No TCM or AMC for $. Or paying to see the revival at Showcase Cinemas in downtown Worcester. Just the original – sometimes cut for decency – on the late late show, “screening” on our grainy black and white TV set with its crooked rabbit ears strategically twisted for better “reception” in our Lafayette Street living room – beaming the art.

I was 13 years old. My mom and kid sisters were fast asleep in their beds, so I could be the night hawk and watch MASH, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, CITIZEN KANE. With the lights out and my imagination on. Me. Alone, a kid watching DOG DAY AFTERNOON on our vinyl, hand-me-down red sofa whose cushions were held together with gray duct tape at the corners … me, not understanding the film, but mesmerized nonetheless. The semi-nudity, the politics, the long-haired men, the violence … the movies of the 1970s reflected it all. They spoke to the times. Still do!

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As a kid I am watching Al Pacino, not knowing the stuff adults know, but the film’s STILL GETTING THROUGH TO ME. There’s a “permeability” to kids – you don’t feel it quite the same way as a grown up. Too many wheels turning in your head, your adult baggage nagging at you every step of the way. Yes, you’re caught up in the movie, but you’re being carried away as a 60 year old, not as a hormone-fueled adolescent whose mind is a canvas. Innocence lost. As a kid: feeling Pacino, Brando, Voight and Hoffman’s intensity, their intensity flowing into yours!

Today, DOG DAY AFTERNOON is still pretty fine. I’m watching the film tonight – a young, gorgeous, intense Al Pacino stars. …
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… Desperado Pacino as Sonny the bank robber; he’s chewing up the scenery. But that’s Sonny: showman extraordinaire. I love all the great actors in this film – especially John Cazale as Sal. And director Sydney Lumet captures the vibe of a big, complex city with all its crowds and outcasts that stand out in the crowds. But it’s the film’s SCRIPT that draws me in. The writing is FREAKIN’ TERRIFIC! Love all the dialog: YOU LOOK ALL SQUEEZED OUT the cop says to Sonny. … I’M SQUEEZED OUT, Sonny says. The real life-sounding conversations between bank teller and bank robber, teller and teller, pizza delivery man and robber … tumultuous, wild, funny. “You didn’t plan!” says the feisty head teller to Sonny. He looks at her – and knows she’s right. The un-gentrified Brooklyn is blue collar, racially diverse, down to earth – and filled with good people.

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Sonny and the feisty head teller

You root for Sonny and sad-eyed partner Sal …
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John Cazale as Sal.

– the FBI and cops are the bad guys in the film. They are part of the system squelching the free spirits. But the free spirits are toting rifles. Is that freedom? As is today, about 10 social problems fester and come to a head through a crime. Cops, like our public school teachers, are called in to clean up society’s mess. Deal with the end result of poverty, despair, mental strife – and in the movie, a gay man in love with another guy “trapped in a man’s body.” No one used the word “transgender” back then. But that’s the reason why Sonny is robbing the bank – to get the thousands of dollars needed to pay for his boyfriend Leon’s “sex change operation.”

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“Attica! Attica!”

Watching the film, you also get to see how far America’s come re: gay rights. In the film, Sonny is first adored by the crowd amassed by the bank – he’s their hero. But then he’s reviled, his fans turn against him, boo at him – people throw rocks at his getaway bus – after they learn he’s gay.

When the film begins, you sense the shaky ground on which our protagonists stand: they ride up in a clunker, their getaway guy has second thoughts and bolts outa the bank – with their getaway car! The bank vault holds only $1,100. Still, Sonny, wild-eyed but smart, has the head teller take him to all the teller drawers for more cash. Their trash bag is filled with loot. Sal, wielding his machine gun and exuding deep deep despair, and partner in crime, Sonny, can make a quick exit. But just as they’re about to head out the door, one of the tellers has to pee. Sonny, a humane human throughout the film, asks: Anyone else need to go? And just like in kindergarten class, all hands fly up, and the guys accommodate them.

As Sonny and Sal coordinate the big bathroom break, the NYC cops, FBI, snipers in helicopters, reporters and TV cameras converge. It’s too late. Sonny gets a phone call from cop Charles Durning … and the circus begins. Unhinged, growing more desperate by the hour, Sonny comes up with the mad idea of demanding a plane to fly to safety. He wants to go to … Algeria. Out of the country. Sal wants to leave America, too – he wants to go to Wyoming. Sal is a lost soul, clinging to Sonny for purpose and safety. … The guys, by now, have bonded with their hostages – one teller refuses to be handed over to a cop, another does a military drill with Sonny’s rifle – after Sonny, an army vet, shows her how! Sonny revels in their 15 minutes of fame. He loves the crowd – and the crowd loves him back.

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They chant: SONNY! SONNY! SONNY! whenever he walks out of the bank and gives his swear-laced little sermons on the hot pavement. The head teller pumps her fist and shouts to her fellow bank tellers: I was interviewed! I’m on TV! … The TV news cameras are riveted on the riveting Sonny who tells the lead FBI agent: I’d hate to think you’d kill me out of duty – I’d want you to kill me because you hate me. … Like I said, inspired dialog.

Before his dim-witted wife Angie is put through to him on the phone by the cops, Sonny says: They can put any one on. The Pope. The richest of the rich, the wisest of the wise. Who do I get? … But when Angie calls herself fat, Sonny says: You’re not fat. Don’t ever call yourself that. He’s a great father to their two children.

You see the connections, the relationships – all of them loving – Sonny has with people, even his hostages! Most have entrusted their lives to him …they are on his side. As she gets off the bus at the airport, one hostage smiles, tears in her eyes and gives Sal her rosary so he won’t be afraid of flying – he’s never been on a plane. When Sonny first points his rifle at a teller, he looks scared and says: “I’m a Catholic. I don’t want to kill anybody.”

Amen.

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Based on a true story …