And When It Rains the Rain Falls Down

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino and John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon | Warner Bros.

Sonny’s eyes scrutinize. They search for something that will hold them. Their frenzy is just as sweaty and pacing as before—at the bank—but with less space to wheel about: they are locked in a head on a body latched by cuffs and spread out on the hood of a NYPD squad car. They can’t go anywhere. They are full of water and it won’t go anywhere, as if there is a screen holding tears in place, as if there is a dam between the way things are and what the plan was and now will never be. The eyes do not betray resentment or melancholy, even if they’re attached to a body haywired by those sensations. Sonny sees his partner’s dead body wheeled across the tarmac while the plane engine screams, not with the promise of freedom but with more locked boxes. He sees the hostages, already churning the long hot day into anecdotes, and the FBI men, machine-like in their cruel efficiencies. Sonny sees the place the plan went wrong. We look and watch as he does this, but the eyes don’t let us in. They just look back.

And so: starting at John F. Kennedy International, an airport shuttle travels back in time. It lefts and rights out of terminal access roads while, above it, jets stamped ‘Pan Am’ get yanked backwards out of frame like fly-fished lures. The shuttle’s wheels wind in reverse over the cratered 1974 tarmac, chasing the flash of reds and blues, being chased. Moving south to north up Lefferts Boulevard, the shuttle cuts across Brooklyn towards the park. It moves back towards 285 Prospect Park West and the bank and the place where things first curdled.

This impossible sequence—a reverse traversing of the penultimate minutes of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon—is made possible with a steady hand, the barest sense of timing, and a DVD remote. ‘Rewind’ is the word for getting back to another time, but it’s also the word for seeing the getting back unfold. Like lots of human-made things (banks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pizza pies), the devised construct has precedent in urges (greed for wealth, enforcement of hegemony, appetite for grease) that emerge from our human bodies. We use what’s in our flesh and feel as stencils for the world around us. To want to rewind, then, reflects our appetite for return. It emerges from the desirous and impossible get-back anxiety of realizing that the present has become the future, that our time is simultaneously permanent and passing. Even more, it springs from our gut’s impulsive want to watch and to attach meaning to our watching, a kind of nostalgia as anatomical byproduct.

The odds are stacked against our own understanding. How do you get one over on the odds? How do you pull a heist on the house that always wins? We can’t see the whole world. Our eyes only see what they see. When did what went wrong really get there?

Not when Sonny and Sal and the hostages actually leave the bank, in a lockstep phalanx that protects the two robbers at the center and gets everyone safely into the airport shuttle. And not before that, when the airport shuttle first pulls up in front of the bank. Sonny combs behind the seats and under the mats, on the lookout for anything that signals betrayal at the hands of the FBI and the NYPD. His eyes pop like movie screens. He is soaked through with sweat and pressures. “It’s okay,” he declares. The FBI man gestures to his flunky, who will drive the shuttle to Kennedy, where a plane is waiting on the tarmac to carry the robbers safely out of frame. “No, I want him,” Sonny says, pointing at the man who drove the shuttle to the bank. The FBI balks, Sonny insists. He gets his man, and the airport driver gets into the shuttle. 

Sonny strides to the vehicle’s open window. “Take a walk,” he says to the shuttle driver. “Gimme him,” he says, about the FBI flunky. The camera cuts to the flunky, the erstwhile Agent Murphy who stares back with a deadening robot calm that Lance Henriksen would perfect ten years later in Aliens (1986). Murphy’s eyes don’t betray him because they don’t betray anything human. “Take a walk…COP,” Sonny insists to the airport shuttle driver—the cop—whose eyes sharpen then deaden, shark-like. They lose their life, just like Agent Murphy’s, just like Agent Sheldon’s. Sonny slaps the hood of the shuttle, but slowly, somehow communicating wonder and outrage. “Everybody is a con man,” he says. 

This moment isn’t where the plan goes wrong, but in its playing out of playacting, it’s a cipher for the film’s particular spoken language: performance. Nominally an adaptation of real-life events and the ensuing Life article that helped sensationalize them, Dog Day Afternoon is a film—as in a physical skin—about the everyday con of playing at making a living. At its fervid heart is the central illusion we labor under, which is to say that, with a little hard work, we can make it. We put on the costumes of our labor, bank teller, law enforcement, pizza delivery guy, reporter, soldier. Sometimes this playacting lets us live with some stability, even if our job is managing the oppression of other play-actors. When the American promise of legible contentment and social/ financial stability don’t yield—as is often the case in films that approach crime from below instead of above—we home-make our own costume to combat our alienation. We become bank robber, street protestor, spectator, lover. 

Dog Day Afternoon makes this constant transformation textual by writing itself in the language of theatricality. It’s shaped by Sidney Lumet’s seeming-instinct for splitting the difference between the theatrical and filmic gesture, from the purposeful confinement to a single set (a bank, a street, an airport shuttle) to a narrative structure that depends upon revelations and repetitions. Its insistence seems to be that we perform ourselves all the time, a nearly fabular rebuttal of the scriptedness of living. Lumet’s insistence on three weeks of rehearsal with his cast prior to cameras ever beginning to roll not only molded the motion and size of the performances—John Cazale’s Sal, stupified by alienation, Charles Durning’s Lieutenant Moretti, wheeling with four different-sized spokes—but also shaped Frank Pierson’s script itself. Audio tapes were made of the rehearsals, actors were encouraged to improvise where they felt appropriate, and every night, Pierson would integrate the best improvisations back into his pages. An ensemble shapes an ensemble.

In Making Movies, his memoir text that moves happily between shit-talky and insightful, Lumet further recalls his directions to the actors: “They would wear their own clothes. ‘I want to see Shelly and Carol and Al and John and Chris up there,’ I said. ‘You’re just temporarily borrowing the names of the people in the script. No characterizations. Only you.’” It’s squarely an actor’s film, populated by Actor’s Studio members Carol Kane, Penny Allen, and Sully Boyer, and dominated by Pacino’s Sonny, a quintessential example of that actor’s instinct to move in the larger-than-life mode. And where that tendency would make some of the actor’s later performances see-saw towards self-parody, its grounding here—as firmly in sync with (rather than in opposition to) a genuine ensemble—makes it feel rawly nervy, a malfunctioning atom in a whole constantly trying to repair itself back to the status quo. When Sonny recites his last will and testament before the ensemble makes their move to the airport shuttle and the airport, it’s less an assertion of an inevitable end than an improvisation on an act in motion. It touches us because we also don’t know what will happen, what might happen. By theorizing acting as the vessel by which a genuine self might appear in a moving image, Dog Day Afternoon constantly collapses self and other, truth and performance. It generates its own tension.

The will-writing is the pallor before the film’s final rush into flooded faces, but it isn’t the moment that derails Sonny’s heist, even as it admits his vulnerability. It’s a monologue, in its delivery and its framing—the camera cuts between Sonny and his ensemble, listening and watching. It’s an uttered improvisation on a singular theme, like the film itself, and an opportunity for Pacino to perform softly, a mode he moves in just as comfortably as in his outbursts. “To my darling wife, Leon,” he says, trying the words, trying their softness, “whom I love more than any man has loved another man in all eternity.” It’s not just recitation. He says it with his eyes too. 

Sonny’s will manifestation is a devised acknowledgment of his family, to both of his wives and both of his children. It mirrors the nearly Dickensian structure of the last third of Lumet’s film. As time moves Sonny towards the only end imaginable in a film with these stakes, he must pass through all his (living) ghosts. His mother stands outside the bank door leaking portent (“He says he doesn’t have a son, he says you’re dead.” “He’s right,” says Sonny.) His wife Angie phones him from their apartment, a life away from where he is. She elicits Sonny’s snapped rage and he genuinely scares her—his anger leaks out in tannic waves, one part self-loathing, one part righteous agita. Susan Peretz, another Acting Studio member, plays Angie, gabbing a mile-a-minute with a robust Brooklyn dialect poached directly from Central Casting. It’s a lot of performance, which is the point: this couple doesn’t communicate, it performs for itself, even in something like love (which isn’t love).

And then there’s Leon, whom Sonny talks to once on the street and then again on the phone. Sonny proclaims he’s in the bank to help pay for Leon’s gender-affirming surgery. It’s structured like a cheap reveal, just as Leon’s appearance is—”Sonny, they’re bringing in your wife.”—but Lumet rebuts that almost immediately. Leon didn’t ask for Sonny to get that money, especially that way. Sonny knows Leon didn’t ask, especially that way. Sonny says it, simple: “Everybody needs money. You know what I mean?”

Dog Day Afternoon squarely fails the basic test so many movies fail: it casts a cisgender man as a trans woman. It’s an essential flaw, a corrupt file that throws so much of the film’s righteous anger—at the growing militarization of law enforcement, at the nascent and dehumanizing strand of all-the-time media, at the impossibility of making a living in America—into trouble. That Chris Sarandon would be nominated for numerous awards from vaunted institutions for his (inarguably tacky) performance as Leon further indicates the casual history-erasing Dog Day Afternoon finds itself perpetuating, both of trans actors working in the 1970s as well as Liz Eden herself, the real-life counterpart to Dog Day Afternoon’s fictional heist. This inherent failure of the film though, can still be understood in the lingua franca of performance. The film can’t conceive of transness as anything other than a performance done by someone who is “really” a Chris Sarandon. And whether this calculus was arrived at cluelessly or cruelly or as a proactive attempt to get out in front of an American audience Lumet didn’t fully trust—“I remember going as a child to the Loew’s Pitkin. It wasn’t the most sophisticated crowd that piled in on Saturday night. I remember rude remarks being yelled down from the balcony at Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel.”—makes little difference. In a film that otherwise marshals all of its energy at unseating and unsettling hegemonic forces under and on American streets, this performance is an act of violence that punches down.

It’s a failure but it’s not where everything went wrong. “You shouldn’t let something like that spoil your fun, you know,” Sonny says to the lobby full of hostages. His shirt has buttoned itself up, his sweat pooled less severely at his pits and roots. The television broadcast—a limb of static that both reflects and forms the consciousness of the chorus-like crowd outside the bank—has just outed Sonny, has just shown photos of his and Leon’s marriage. It’s not immediately clear what the reactions of the bank ensemble is. The Catholically-constipated Sal is perturbed (“Sonny, they said on the TV, ‘two homosexuals in the bank’…Well, I’m not a homosexual”) but the bank employees watch the news feed, some faces blank, some rapt, a few smirks. Lumet walks the finest line in folding in the actions and reactions of the people who spend the most amount of time inside Sonny and Sal’s heist. They are friendlier than the outside world, eventually taken in by the sheer absurdity of the bad plan gone badder and these two wayward men. But in their reaction to finding out who Sonny is, to finding out what the stakes of the heist they’re living in is, and to seeing the photo of Leon’s wedding dress on the television, they expose themselves as having more in common with the Loew’s Pitkin balcony crowd than we’d maybe hoped. 

Elton John’s third album, Tumbleweed Connection (1970), resituates the singer’s not-yet-set house sound, moving from the harpsichord pop of Empty Sky (1969) and the string-heavy singer-songwriting of Elton John (1970) for straight style: it’s a genre piece, country and western. There aren’t many similarities between the glammy, hammy pop singer and soft-tough director. A certain question of style intersects the two, a touchy word for Lumet—who was often accused by reductionary auteurist crowds as not having one—and one that critics would use to explain away John, sometimes without much consideration. “The way you tell a story should relate somehow to what that story is,” Lumet wrote. “Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story.”

Tumbleweed Connection uses an impossibly sepia Americana sound (*style) to tell a story that sounds familiar but that’s ultimately dislodged, from stability or stillness or home or warmth. It’s an outlaw story, which is both a little odd coming out of the mouth of an almost-successful English singer and simultaneously perfectly at home being pushed through the vocal cords of a young, angry man, closeted by a few different status quos. It is, more than anything else, a performance of a mode; the way it sounds tells the story of the body that sounds it. Successful as it was in 1970, the album produced no hit singles, and today feels mostly like a footnote to the superstar legend of Elton John, sandwiched as it is between albums that produced “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer.” The eighth track on the album, “Amoreena,” is nearly emblematic of the piece’s thematic gamble: rusty woogie piano—familiar, nostalgic, attaching—and a narrative about a lost love that features wonky imagery, figurations that emerge and spill over. “Living like a lusty flower/ running through the grass for hours,” the narrator remembers, lost and losing in the pain of pleasure gone by. “And she’s far away somewhere in her eiderdown, and she dreams of crystal streams.” ‘Eiderdown’ comes from the Icelandic ‘æthardūnn,’ probably, an emergence of a dislocated world in the American mid-seventies. It’s stylized language but it hits the same sensors we know by heart, a freaky feeling all the freakier for the strange recognition of want and loss, make and memory.

When Lumet would talk about Dog Day Afternoon, in various DVD commentaries and legacy interviews, he would use the word “freaks” in reference to his leading men. “This picture was about,” he said, “hey, we’re not these outrageous characters, like Pacino’s character. These people are not the freaks we think they are. We have much more in common than we’d like to admit about ourselves.” It’s an ungenerous word, if an understandable one, to lay on Sonny and Sal, two deeply disenfranchised men whose eyes mostly just telegraph pain. But Lumet’s second point is well made and taken by the film: we are all so much more disenfranchised than we think, all so much closer to bombastic acts and wild eyes as a totally reasonable response to living in this country. Whatever role we perform on the clock—bank crew or street reporter, pizza man or federal agent—forces us to indulge in behavior far freakier than any that emerges in our trying to (imperfectly) help people we love (imperfectly).

And so a movie unfolds in reverse, in the memory of a man locked to the hood of a squad car. The bullet breaks back through the temple and leaps back into the cop’s gun and Sal sits up and the airport shuttle winds back to the bank, where an ensemble of hostages move out of bored tedium into hot excitement and then, surprise, “sheer exhibitionism.” And the sweat moves mercury-like off the linoleum, back into shirts and pores, and coagulates into something like effort. A crowd shrinks in size. Hollers return to throats, smoke into its fire—and, before that, paper; the energy sits instead of wilds. And outlaws leave a bank walking backwards, fold their string bodies back into a car that is old even in 1975. And as they press play on the heist to take back a crumb of something from a stacked house, Elton John’s “Amoreena” plays on the car radio.

It’s like so many mornings in so many movies, which is to say, in so many lives: it’s the song in the car before the music is over and the work begins. It’s the moment every daily heist starts and goes wrong. It’s a soft bullet, all the time, even in the rewind.