The dog days of summer are over. But on a morning 40 years ago, in late August 1972, a Brooklyn bank robbery was botched and a pop-legend was born. Covered by the press during a long stand-off with police, and mythologized in director Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, the story focuses on the 14 sweltering hours that employees were held hostage, bonding with their underdog captors in the process. As a study of ordinary people under pressure, it’s a great movie. But as a portrait of late-20th century, metropolitan decay, and the popular antipathy for institutions of authority, (that either precipitated or was caused by it), the film still serves as a resonant visual document of our lasting anomie.
From the opening montage, showing a gritty, steamy New York City, & set to Elton John’s appropriately elegiac “Amoreena”, to the accurately set interior scenes where the confined action occurs behind banal aluminum storefronts, on vinyl-composite-tile floors, under bleak fluorescent lighting, the expertly authentic production design, handheld camera, and subtle performances unite to underscore the tenuous hold of civil trust and the decline of establishment credibility – from law enforcement to familial and financial institutions – that characterized America in the ’70s.
Our cities may have been cleansed in the intervening decades, and corporate homogeneity and urban terrorism may have inured us to breaches of public decorum. Watching this classic again, in the heat of the waning summer, offers a nostalgic view of the breakdown, and a wistful look back to a defining moment of loss. It’s not too late for a good look back.