Monday, 10 December 2012

Mad Men, Dog Days and Dum-Dums

My latest contribution to the South China Morning Post's 'Rewind' column, which looks back at a movie, book and album that share a common thread ... this week's theme was 'days', and the obvious suspect for film was Dog Day Afternoon.

On a sagging shelf in my dad’s dark and mysterious study, past the fraying macramé, the Ludlums, yoga manuals and The Joy of Sex, perched the tattered twin piles of his MAD magazines.

My dad favoured reading them on the porcelain throne, and so like father, like son. I’d grab a handful of dog-eared issues from the bottom of the pile and slope off to the loo, settling in to read my favourites, Dave Berg’s ‘The Lighter Side Of’’, ‘Spy vs Spy’, ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions’ and which ever movie was being lampooned by Madison Avenue’s most subversive talents.

This put me in the somewhat post-modern position of having read, often dozens of times, the MAD satires of many classic 70s films years before I would be allowed to watch them or be fully capable of understanding them.

Of all these warped masterpieces, one stands out: ‘Dum-Dum Afternoon’. I would pour over its pages, troubled and fascinated by these weird, wise-cracking, self-aware bank robbers, the cross-hatched exaggerations of Al Pacino and Jon Cazale – especially Cazale - and the seething cesspit of a city they inhabited.

When I finally saw Dog Day Afternoon for the first time, some time in the 80s, Cazale’s pale, stricken visage as Sal, the dim-witted accomplice of real life bank robber John Wojtowicz, played by Al Pacino, had already been cemented in my brain as the archetypal scary, wild-eyed weirdo.

Wojtowicz and his friend Sal hold up a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn in August 1972, bungle things badly, and in the hostage drama that ensues, New York becomes transfixed when it is revealed Pacino’s character has a second wife, a pre-op transsexual played by Chris Sarandon (in his first movie role).

Pacino gets the plaudits and pimp-suit, steals the scenes, sweats and screams, but Cazale’s pared-back portrayal of a sad, stupid, murderous loser in over his head and about to get a bullet in the brain is a revelation of a performance.

“There’s just something in that face that takes you into an area … that’s very dark. Personally dark … and … heartbroken,’’ said Sidney Lumet, Dog Day’s director. Cazale is the poster boy for New York in the mid-70s; a slouching, cadaverous angel of death in a broken city beset by blackouts, heat waves, muggers, riots, corrupt cops, gridlock, garbage strikes, race hate and decay.

When Dog Day Afternoon is released in 1975, New York City has just been declared broke and in massive debt. Vietnam is still raging, the Attica prison massacre has just happened, and Richard Nixon is seeking a second term.  (Taxi Driver, the other celluloid avatar of this era, is still a year away from its cinematic release.)

It’s an immediate hit, hailed as Sidney Lumet’s career high point, with a fine ensemble cast including Charles Durning, Carol Kane, and Lance Henrikson. Writer Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke) receives an Academy Award and a Writers Guild Award for his screenplay.

Cazale would die of cancer at 42 while making The Deer Hunter. Dog Day Afternoon is one of only five films he made, along with The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part Two.

Lumet, who died in April 2011, was the embodiment of the bruised Big Apple, the anti-Woody Allen, always ready to shine the spotlight on some new dank corner of rotten Gotham. Pierson, who passed away this July, also kept New York close: his last job was as writer and consulting producer on the much-awarded cable series Mad Men.

Dog Day Afternoon stands as a time capsule of New York at its nadir, and a monument to one of the most creative and exhilarating periods in Hollywood’s history.

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