Two notable works by Sidney Lumet that make an excellent pairing are Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). A prolific director, Lumet was much lauded and loved, becoming a luminary of 70’s American cinema. As such, he both embodied and helped define that decade’s aesthetics and yet, there’s something odd about his films, a kind of sly working of characters and drama that distinguishes him from his contemporaries such as William Friedkin.
Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, although you might have a hard time believing this to be so. The film features the progression of a bank robbery masterminded by Sonny (Al Pacino), and aided by Sal (John Cazale). There was supposed to be a third member of the gang but he just decides he can’t go through with it after they enter the bank, a scene which undercuts the drama and tension of the operation and signals the offbeat direction this film will take. Cazale plays one of his typically burnt out characters, although this time you get the feeling he’s not all there and is ready to fire at will. Pacino runs around trying to keep him and the hostages happy while taunting the army of cops and detectives and FBI agents gathering outside the bank.
Seeing Pacino and Cazale together after their work on the Godfather films, it’s tempting to think of them as Michael and Fredo clones but Pacino does something very different here. He combines a nervy energy with elements of bravado, vulnerability, and exasperation as he improvises the botched robbery (most of the money’s already been collected from the bank) and his ensuing demands. A media circus brews outside on the street with lots of onlookers who side with Sonny as he yells “Attica! Attica!” rousing their anti-police sentiment and even the women tellers (the hostages) sort of sympathize and work with him. The allegiances go in uncertain directions, culminating with the reason why Sonny’s performing the robbery – if you haven’t seen the film, I’ll let you discover this part for yourself – it’s incredible.
Network is foregrounded as a Paddy Chayefsky script and as a satire, it’s well grounded, but the feeling seems very Lumet to me. It follows various characters at a fictional broadcasting network called UBS that goes through shake ups after corporate realignment. The news department is under fire because it loses money. Two of the major characters from news are the evening anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and Max Schumacher (William Holden), the president of the news division (but not for long). Representing the corporate side are Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall).
This is pre-CNN and Fox News, not to mention the circus-like graphics and festivities that attend news broadcasts today, so the film feels prescient. Its main subject is the prostitution of serious journalism standards in service to ratings and showmanship (the ghost of Edward R. Murrow hangs over the entire film). It’s not a subtle theme; in fact, the affair between Schumacher and Christensen only seems to run as an analogy to this mismatched relationship between journalism and commerce. However, the serious topic is delightfully upended by Finch’s performance as a man teetering on the edge with nothing to lose (the film starts when the veteran newscaster is given two weeks’ notice because of his low ratings).
Other memorable and wacky performances include those by Ned Beatty (yes, that Ned Beatty who plays Lex Luthor’s bumbling assistant in the Superman films) as the president of the parent corporation and messianic envoy for the wheels of commerce, and agitators/social terrorists from the Ecumenical Liberation Army. Unlike the Symbionese Liberation Army upon whom they’re based, the Ecumenical Liberation Army takes film footage of their bank robberies and sends it in to the news. Predictably, Christensen can’t wait to give them their own show.
When Beale threatens to kill himself on the air before his two weeks are up, this refers to an actual newscaster who killed herself on the air (Christine Chubbuck), but things get really crazy in this film with Beale hearing voices, fainting, and urging viewers to lean out their windows and screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Like the cry of “Attica! Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon, these moments of sheer unpredictable frenzy and abandon light up the film with an electricity that doesn’t seem to jive with its serious subject. Instead, it produces something original and riveting.
Lumet is heralded for his social realism (a hallmark of 70’s movies) and his work with actors (he brings out great, unconventional performances that are full of energy and exuberance). In that way, I think he’s more like Martin Scorsese (someone else who brings out strong performances from his actors and relishes an odd absurdity in his work) but without wearing his authorial presence on his sleeve the way Scorsese does. Or the way Stanley Kubrick does. There’s something almost sly (as mentioned above) in the understated way Lumet positions his camera and brings a reserve to the shots. It’s very generous of a director to do this, to refrain from heavily stamping a stylistic imprint onto his movies. Yet the way he cuts scenes together makes them seem both believable (the visual realism, actual locations, etc.) and precise, despite their improvisation and naturalism. The scenes are cut together so expertly they balance both the natural and surreal rhythms running through the films. This is not easy to achieve. The films aren’t just black comedies or full on satires, they’re something more odd than that, something more evanescent and difficult to pin down.
There is a fair amount of rage in these films but once again, the precise tonal nature of this eludes your grasp – it’s the engine hidden below the hood. They’re not what I’d call social justice films; there’s a bit of sadness in there somewhere, lamenting our natural state as human beings. In fact, you might not think these two films are all that similar, which only enhances the reason to watch them as a double bill. Personally, I just like watching the madness and chaos that ensues once the wheels start spinning and the engine lurches in directions you’d never anticipate.
Network and A Dog Day Afternoon are available on Blu-Ray now.