Monday, May 16, 2011


by Douglas Messerli

Frank Pierson (screenplay, based on an article by P. F. Kluge and Thomas Moore), Sidney Lument (director) Dog Day Afternoon / 1975

Sidney Lument's death this month, on April 9th, sent me back to review his 1975 film, Dog Day Afternoon, a work I remember with great fondness.

For the first half of the film, however, it appears that Dog Day Afternoon might be weighted down with the thematic concerns that are so dominant in his oeuvre, focusing on the moral, political, and social issues as in works such as The Pawnbroker, A View from the Bridge, Serpico, and The Verdict. These films are all admirable, and are well-directed. But for my taste there is something almost lugubrious about many of them, as they slowly uncoil, revealing their characters' moral fibre and the social conditions which define them. In some respects, many of Lument's works never seem to be completely transformed from stage plays into cinematic creations, although that is precisely what I love about his Long Day's Journey into Night.

Dog Day Afternooon begins simply as a badly bungled bank robbery, with one young participant abandoning his cohorts even before the two central robbers, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino*) and Sal (eerily played by John Cazale) can notify the manager and tellers what they are undertaking. When they do demand to be taken to the vault, they discover that there is no money, it having just been picked up for deposit elsewhere.

The only takings that Pacino has for all his trouble are the teller's drawers, which he carefully empties, making sure that he does not pull all the bills out at once so that he will not trigger an alarm. When offered, by one teller, the wrapped new bills, he refuses, noting that they are marked. Yet for all his carefulness, he is soon called to the phone, where a policeman wants to talk to him, the bank having been already surrounded.

Suddenly we perceive the absurdity of the whole event. The inept robbers are now forced into a standoff with what appears to be, as Sonny later announces, "the fucking militia." Indeed, there are so many policeman, setting up camp across the street, blocking off cars, swarming the roof and the back of the building, and hanging from fire escapes that one would think they were responding to an international terrorist threat. Even though he is now forced to take the tellers and manager as captives, as he himself proclaims: "I'm a Catholic, I don't want to hurt anybody." Even the dense-minded Sal insists he doesn't smoke because "the body's the temple of the Lord."

Before long a large crowd has developed, and the movie appears that it will shift into a work dealing with police brutality, particularly when, on one of his sidewalk discussions with the police coordinator, Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), Sonny invokes the Attica prison riots of 1971, when, after days of negotiations, police killed and caused the deaths of over 39 prisoners. Pacino, brilliantly over-the-top, whips up the crowd for his cause—and assured safety:

Tell them to put their guns down! Put the fucking guns down!
Put 'em down! Put the fucking guns down! Put those guns down!
Attica! Attica! You got it, man! You got it, man! You got it, man!
You got it! You got it! (pointing to different individuals in the crowd
as they should ATTICA! ATTICA!)

Moreover, when Lument briefly inserts scenes showing Sonny's mother (hilariously played by theater director Judith Malina) and his overweight, beleaguered, and not very bright wife, we begin to fear that the film may attempt a psychological explanation for his acts.
But even early on, we suspect that the story has something important yet to reveal, particularly when, after being lied to by the Moretti, the two have the following interchange:

SONNY: Kiss me.
SONNY: Kiss me. When I'm being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.

Everything soon shifts, in a delicious twist of reality, when we discover the wife Sonny has asked for the police to bring to him is another man, Leon Shemer (Chris Sarandon), and the reason for the bank robbery is Sonny's attempt to get enough money for Leon's sex-change.

Even stranger, it is not Sonny demanding the sex-change, who seems to be perfectly in love with Leon as two gay men, but the psychiatrist's idea:

LEON: I couldn't explain why I did the things I did. So I went
to this psychiatrist who explained to me I was a woman
in a man's body. So Sonny right away wanted to get me
money for a sex change operation: but where was he to get
that? 2500 dollars! My God, he's in hock up to his ears

Before long the gays have joined the crowds surrounding the absurd standoff, Sonny becoming a kind of ridiculous folk hero in an era in which police were hated for their abuse. And Lument has sent his film on a loony and, quite frankly, bravely outspoken path where I am sure some members of the original audience had not been prepared to go. One must remember that the only major American film that had seriously and openly dealt with homosexuality was William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band of 1970, a film so based on gay stereotypes that, even after I had served for a few nights as an usher during its New York run, Howard and I, along with other members of the newly formed gay liberation group at the University, picketed the film outside the Madison, Wisconsin theater where it was shown.

Lument was not only taking on the issue of homosexuality in Dog Day Afternoon, but transgender sexuality, and, even more complicated, the subject of bisexuality, since Sonny was also heterosexually married with two children! Yet Lument allows this subject to be treated seriously, by including the scene where Sonny dictates a will, leaving most of his money to Leon, with only a small amount going to his legal wife.

Even though he is, as he admits, "a fuck-up" and "an outcast," Sonny is also a caring and loving man. As he admits to Sal, "I got all these pressures!" and, at another point, "I got to have all the ideas!"

And strangely and absurdly, he takes those ideas to their logical extension, planning to use the hostages to get an airplane traveling, of all places, to Algeria! When asked to what country he might like to go, Sal replies, "Wyoming." We know, accordingly, that there can now be no turning back, and there will be no way of returning to whatever they might define as normality for these poor, sweet outcasts. The only element of the plot still unrevealed is whether the two will be brutally murdered or simply arrested.

Both happens, as the limousine driver pulls out a gun and shoots Sal, the police arresting Sonny.
In real life, John Wojtowicz served 14 years in prison for the attempted robbery. The $7,500 he received for the movie rights went to his lover, Ernest Aron, for the sex change. Aron became Elizabeth Eden, dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Wojtowicz died of cancer on January 2, 2006.

Los Angeles, Easter 2011

* I might note that there is a wonderful irony in Pacino's performance, for which he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. In real life, Wojtowicz and his co-conspirator Salvatore Naturile had seen The Godfather, in which Pacino also played, earlier in the day and planned their robbery based on events in the film. John Cazale performed alongside Pacino in The Godfather as Fredo.


by Douglas Messerli

Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (book, based on the book by Shepherd Mead), Frank Loesser (music and lyrics) How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying / New York, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 2011 / the performance I attended was a matinee on May 7, 2011

I will admit to a certain sentimental attachment to the American Musical Theater, although I feel, given the quality of the musicals for which I care, there is no reason for apology. Most of my friends who cannot comprehend my love of this genre have perhaps never seen a musical comedy before 1970, when the genre, as far as I'm concerned, almost died. The handful of good musicals since that time have been so few (most of them composed by Stephen Sondheim) that one might almost say that the form has died out. Today, except for revivals, musical comedy is for audiences who like songs consisting of three memorable notes, repeated through chorus upon chorus of driveling lyrics sung at very high decibels. But then, we do, from time to time, have wonderful revivals of the older works of this genre that remind us of what the musical theater was all about.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
, the 1961 New York Drama Critics and Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Frank Loesser, was not, I am afraid, one of the "wonderful revivals." I do not mean to suggest that it was not worth attending, for, at moments, this version was absolutely delightful, but overall it simply couldn't live up the standards of the original and the movie version.

I have never before sat in an audience with so many first-time theater-goers, mostly teenage girls and their slightly stunned families in tow. The girl next to me was celebrating her sixteenth birthday and "just had see" Daniel Radcliffe, this revival's star attraction, "in the flesh." In some senses the freshness of the fans was a treat. And Radcliffe, a trouper already at age 22, was not about to disappoint them.

Radcliffe, who I suspect has by this time quite settled into his performance, was better by far than the critics led audiences to believe. Although, as the New York Times suggested he is not a natural "song and dance man" (I am not quite sure what that means, and when I think of such figures I can only conjure up Robert Preston and Robert Morse, the original J. Pierrepont Finch, neither of them great singers or even able dancers!), he can now belt out a tuneful song and, with the help of the able chorus, jump, leap, and hoof it across the stage quite ably. Once and a while you can still see him grimace a bit, as if muttering deep within, "I'm gonna be great!" And, at moments, he is! If nothing else you have to recognize that Radcliffe is giving his all, which unfortunately, if you have seen Robert Morse in the role—I saw only the movie version, but listened to the original cast recording so many hundreds of times in my youth that the old wax stereo recording is all scratches and scapes—is just not enough.

Oddly, given the fact that he has now been nominated for a Tony for a supporting role (while Radcliffe was ignored), John Larroquette seemed far less engaged in the piece, speeding through his lines at times as if he were trying to catch a plane, and other times performing on cruise control. When Larroquette "woke up" once or twice in his role as J. B. Biggley, as he did in "Grand Old Ivy," he was quite charming, with both him and Radcliffe performing brilliantly. Unfortunately, director/choeographer Rob Ashford could not leave a good thing alone, bringing a whole chorus of football players to dance along, wiping away one the few enchanting character encounters.

Most of the other cast members are quite excellent, particularly Ellen Harvey as Biggley's executive secretary, Miss Jones, Mary Faber as Smitty, and, although a little young for the role, Rose Hemingway (at 27 she seems more a neophyte than Radcliffe). Christopher Hanke makes the nasty Bud Frump almost likeable. And, although her humor switched on and off at times, Tammy Blanchard is basically an hilarious Hedy LaRue.

Perhaps the most serious problem about this revival is that, despite its obvious satirical intentions, the work seems extraordinarily outdated and unnecessarily coy today. For those who have never seen the musical, I'll briefly relay the plot: window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, enters the executive suites of the World Wide Wicket Corporation in search of a job, armed with a little book that promises immediate success, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Within minutes he has literally bumped into the president of company, J. B. Biggley, encountered a woman, Rosemary Pilkington, who falls in love with him at first sight, and captures a job in the mailing room by transforming the unpleasant encounter with Biggley into what the employment head interprets as a friendship.

Finch is highly likeable, even charming, but he is without a single moral principle in his desire to rise up the corporate ladder, and within hours, so it seems, he shifts into the positions of a junior executive, advertising manager, and, even after a disastrous failure, is elected Chairman of the Board, all before you can say, ROSEMARY, the woman with whom, along the way, he has reluctantly fallen in love.

Biggley's nincompoop nephew, Budd Frump, tries his best throughout to trip up Finch, as the other executives, terrified by Ponty's swift rise in the company and fearing the discovery of their own ineptitudes, plot to destroy him; yet Finch (as he reminds everyone F-I-N-C-H) miraculously survives each battle, primarily because he is so self-centered that he fails to see the restless men on the prowl.

The most famous song of the musical is Finch's love song to himself, sung into a mirror of the men's room as he shaves:

FINCH: Now there you are;
Yes, there's that face,
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you to hear me say it,
But say it I must, say it I must:
You have the cool, clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth;
Yet there's that upturned chin
And that grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you.
I believe in you

Women in this male-dominated world are all secretaries, whom the males are reminded, should are not be treated like toys—but nonetheless are. In today's world, it is clear that the efficient and trustworthy Miss Jones, the smart Smitty, and the quick-plotting Rosemary would be at the head of the World Wide Wicket Company instead of out bowling or wickedly spinning webs to find husbands. But in 1961...well, those gender lines were at the musical's satirical heart. Today the plot appears somewhat as a stale joke with little resonance.

For all that, I think the audience was willing to overlook the datedness of the piece if only the actors could come together and enjoy their own spoof. But time and again, it seemed, Radcliffe was not the only one grimacing. Everybody seemed to be playing it "the company way," refusing to get excited about anything. Two of the best dance numbers of Lambert and Fosse's original, "Coffee Break," (such a difficult number that the movie dropped it), and the sprightly "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," seemed lackluster in Ashford's staging, while at other times, as I mentioned, the director seemed to suck all the attention away from the actors through the introduction of gratuitous routines.

Finally, despite Radcliffe's pluck and elfin charm, I kept missing the puckish comedy of Robert Morse, the silly imperiousness of Rudy Vallee, and the jazz inflections of Michele Lee's voice.
One piece, alone, came to life and created for its few minutes the magic that might have stood as a beacon to these young performers. The last full number of the musical, "Brotherhood of Man," was so richly sung, punctuated by Ellen Harvey's coloratora soprano, and so thrillingly danced that it almost redeemed everything else. If only the cast might have realized that "brotherhood" earlier in the show, How to Succeed might have gone straight to the top!

In the end, however, it didn't matter. The young girls and their families stood up in celebration and absolutely roared (I've never heard as loud an applause) as Radcliffe bowed appreciatively to his fans.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2011
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2011).