Dog Day Afternoon Essay Topics

Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon represents sexual identity in the early 1970s in terms of an “ante-closet” temporally and spatially located “ahead” of or “before” more familiar closet epistemologies.[1] The dominance of the closet as a metaphor for the withholding and disclosing of sexual secrets was established by the publication of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s influential The Epistemology of the Closet in 1990. In the wake of Sedgwick, Henry Urbach adopted the term “ante-closet” to describe the “swing” of the closet door, and with it a less rigid spatiality for thinking about sexual disclosure.[2] Urbach’s term didn’t catch on, but I will reanimate it here to identify the film’s dialectical presentation of liberation and incarceration in spatial terms and to speculate on the potential for “free space” to arise in the midst of the film’s representation of arrest, kidnapping, hostage-taking, surveillance and marriage. A tale of kidnapping and incarceration laced with disclosures of queer sexual identity is one ripe for an analysis in terms of its closet epistemologies. But although the film’s plot points all turn on the question of containment, it paradoxically proposes that spaces of containment and freedom are dialectically interimplicated.  So even in the midst of the dawning of a gay liberation movement focused intensely, and quite properly, on the question of liberation, the potential of the closet as something more than a space of incarceration was also realized in the film’s quasi-documentation of false imprisonment and failed liberation. 

The term “ante-closet” dates, in English, from the beginning of the eighteenth century according to the OED.  The “ante-closet,” in Urbach’s usage, nuanced the way in which the closet was understood precisely as it had risen to prominence as the most viable and visual metaphor for both the secrecy and the sequestration that the figure was understood to imply.  “Ante-closet” instead describes a space where exterior engagement with the closet’s interior contents may be made; because it’s a spatial rather than visual metaphor it serves well as a way to parse situations where engagement of material from an interior is made in the space described by the swing of the closet’s door.  The ante-closet offers space to focus on the collective rather than the individual, where it describes a theatre of action rather than a space of subjective revelation, identification, or empowerment.  It returns to the closet metaphor a critical spatiality—this against the way in which arguments about the closet tended, post-Sedgwick, to fall into debates about visibility.  By my reading, Dog Day Afternoon makes sophisticated representation of a politics of identity that is associative rather than binaristic, about similarity rather than about polarized difference (in/out), and it imagines from the most unlikely ingredients the possibility of “free space” in the midst of a culture of carceral homophobia. For Dog Day Afternoon the ante-closet offers a spatialized sexual modernity that facilitates the allegorical working through of shared space outside conventional sanctions of political alliance.  It also offers an addendum to Frederic Jameson’s discussion of figurability in his influential analysis of the film, finding ways to accommodate the particular of the historical within the figurability of the fictive. A mobile metaphor for the closet can, in this way, reframe a critical theoretical moment for theories of modernity and sexuality or, in other words, sexual modernity.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on an historical incident, the robbery of a bank in Brooklyn in 1972, and on its retelling in a story in Life that same year. What is meant to be a quickly executed heist becomes prolonged when local and then national law enforcement get involved, the robbery mutates into a hostage-taking situation, and negotiations are protracted across the long, late summer afternoon of the film’s title. The three robbers form an unlikely cohort, and almost immediately one of them, Stevie (Gary Springer), abruptly leaves the scene; it is up to Sonny (Al Pacino), and Sal (John Cazale) to complete the crime. The robbery stalls and eventually law enforcement occupies the street in front of and surrounding the bank: first local police, represented by Detective Seargant Moretti (Charles Durning) and later FBI Agent Sheldon (James Broderick). At the same time locals turn the events in the bank into a form of unexpected entertainment, following the siege both in person and over live TV, and a variety of media record the events with the aid of various technological prostheses that range from cameras to helicopters. The dilemma of the robbers—how to get out of the bank—anchors the film’s central negotiation, the provision of a plane for transportation out of the country. 

The film organizes its events through a series of interlocking spaces of openness and enclosure.  On the one hand, the bank is represented as a collection of articulated closed rooms, porous at front and back but secured internally via locks, grills, and gates.  On the other, the police and the crowd that gathers to witness the siege occupy the street outside the bank.  Although they are spatially aligned, the latter two groups stand politically athwart one another. Moretti initiates negotiations with Sonny that mostly take place on the pavement outside the bank, and these negotiations take on an overt political quality when Sonny frames them by initiating a chant of “Attica! Attica!” The equation Sonny is making is clear: he juxtaposes policing responses to the heist with the recent events at Attica prison in upstate New York, where a riot in 1971 saw 43 people die when state police took back the prison. Comparing himself, and by implication his hostages, with the prisoners, Sonny is in one sense merely reporting the kinds of relationships and identifications that are also taking place in the bank, where an esprit de corps begins to animate his and Sal’s interactions with the hostages, who, with the exception of the bank manager and security guard, are women. The bank under siege is a space of risk for the hostages, though that risk is mitigated as empathic relations grow between Sonny and the bank employees.[3]  Illness rather than violences cause the hostages to be as well as feel vulnerable, and though he is sometimes curt, Sonny’s caretaking response to their illness builds bonds between captor and captives. Sonny’s relationships with the women in the bank in particular become schematic and affectionate.

The rescue plane, which appears towards the end of the film, wears the livery of Modern Air, a carrier that flew from 1946 to 1975.[4] This design joins a contextual sequence that begins in the credits of the film and remains lively throughout: allusion to the condition of spatial “modernity” within which the crime occurs. By spatial modernity, I mean the ambient conditions through which an experience of contemporaneity is registered: for instance climate, a “natural” phenomenon altered by the contemporary conditions of modern life such as air-conditioning and the partitioning of space, smog and the congestion of cities, and so on. That condition is felt bodily and viscerally, as the film’s characters register the implications of the “dog day,” supposedly a time of sluggish inaction but one requiring urgent response, first from the would-be robbers, then from law enforcement.  Equally it is felt in the merged conditions of natural and man-made climate: human bodies subjected to the heat and humidity register a “dog day” that is also fostered and filtered by human habits and drives: the credits linger on a sign for Kent cigarettes “with the famous micronite filter” that also time-stamps the initiation of the heist at 2:57. The early 1970s city—Brooklyn, diegetically, but also Queens and Manhattan in the credits—is an anthroposcape—an urban landscape entirely transformed by the presence of people and human action, whose contours remain decrepit but absolutely determinedly modernist alterations of a “natural” landscape. Clear lines of “visibility” are established only ironically, for instance in the aural counterpoint provided by the lyrics of Elton John’s “Amoreena” and its evocation of pastoral nostalgia; the song plays over the credits but turns out to be diegetically supplied by a car radio. The peculiar qualities associated with summer in the city attenuate the way in which time passing is registered in terms of ambient distress. Dog Day Afternoon brings together these circadian and calendrical rhythms and the degraded, late modernist landscape without suggesting any simple disymmetry. Rather, I will argue, a form of sexual modernity rises from their ashes.

A description of the “natural” landscape, then, is subordinated to the status of overheard lyrics in the credits and obfuscated by the unfiltered density of “modern air,” and where the film might establish a “natural order” for modern sexuality, that normative regime is quickly obscured or marginalized by a visual rhetoric that insinuates another way of being. This logic is exemplified by the appearance of Sal’s wife Angie (Susan Peretz) in the credits, walking with two children under the marquee for a revival screening of 1954’s A Star Is Born. Angie’s very early appearance—the first appearance of a character in the film, gently dropped into a quotidian streetscape—flags the film’s later preoccupation with Sonny as a spouse-caretaker, including its comic rendition of hostage taker (of female victims) as stressed husband.

Angie is located beneath the cinema’s marquee announcement of the revived classic in a juxtaposition of pure contiguity, it seems. Situating Angie beneath a sign for A Star Is Born looks like a form of incidental documentation, whose veracity is signaled precisely by its happenstance occurrence, but Andrew Ross has reminded us how important a figure Judy Garland was for the gay community of the late sixties and early seventies, noting the “happenstance” occurrence of her death as prelude to the Stonewall riots of 1969.[5] Stonewall is indirectly cited in the film when the crowd outside the bank chants “out of the closet and into the streets, out of the closet into the streets” and is an essential precursor to the identification that arises between Sonny, the crowd outside the bank, and the hostages.

Jameson’s 1977 essay on Dog Day Afternoon presciently located in the film an opportunity to consider figurability, where Hollywood film processes social realities in such a way as to create the kinds of allegories Jameson goes on to identify as critical to the presentation of cultural modernity. In particular, he locates the film’s quasi-documentary style as offering both that fictionalizing “unity” that characterizes the work of art and a sense of urgent address of historically contingent social issues. For Jameson, the “fundamental requirement” for class structure to become “representable in tangible form” arises through “figurability” itself, sheer visibility.[6] In retrospect it might seem simple to see that kind of “figurability” allied to the concerns of various liberation movements that arose temporally in synch with Jameson’s prognosis, and in particular, because of its own intractable forms of invisibility, the visibility, or figurability, of sexual non-conformity that became a dominant motivation for “coming out” movements over the decades that followed Stonewall (and earlier).[7]

The story of Dog Day Afternoon offers interesting scope, then, to consider the relationship between activist politics and sexual modernity. When Sonny analogizes his situation and the recent siege at Attica, he also makes visible questions of sexual and gender identification in the wake of Stonewall. Viewed again in the context of recent debates in queer studies, around trans* lives, marriage, and police brutality, Dog Day Afternoon facilitates a shift in understanding the “figurability” of sexual modernity. Jameson would disagree—at least, he would have done so when he was writing his analysis, where he explicitly quarantines liberation movements from performing consciousness-raising on a par with the stakes accorded social class. According to Jameson, the “novelty” of the queer elements of the film’s events—Sonny’s putative homosexuality, the eventual revelation that he has two wives and is robbing the bank to help fund his second, trans* wife’s sex-confirmation surgery—in fact mitigate against their capacity to be part of a social description of the figurable, and the film’s fidelity to the “real” events of the historical event, including its representation of queer lives, short circuits the possibility for the film to generalize (39). Jameson argues rather that precisely because the film is faithful to the contingent (documentary or historical) elements of the crime—those elements that made an otherwise mundane set of events noteworthy—it becomes insufficiently generalizable (fictional).  Without the capacity to generalize, of figurability, or, later, orient cognitive mapping, the depiction of these anomalous social formations serve only the forces of containment (54, 39).

Dog Day Afternoon depicts early or nascent forms of loose identification that would form core business in the work of queer theory twenty years later. The issue of figurability, core to Jameson’s formulation of a problematic around the representation of social reality in cultural narratives, prefigures the epistemology of the closet Sedgwick describes over a decade later.  From the late nineteenth century secrecy itself, according to Sedgwick, becomes critical associated with an “endemic crisis” concerning the disclosure of sexual secrets.[8] The work of making visible or locatable social realities such as homosexuality is served by the master trope of the closet: the closet as a spatial metaphor that simultaneously figures and dissimulates the presence and absence of a secret. So the capacity to figure (disclose) always carries with it, according to Sedgwick, the capacity to hide (inhibit). This double-gaited, ambivalent structure is emblematized in Dog Day Afternoon by its repeated recourse to the street outside the bank, as ante-closet, for statements of identity and also of community and solidarity. The “social” element of the depiction of marginal identity frames these “novelties” as forms of community, performed by the film’s attention to its spatialized sexual modernity. The pavement directly in front of the bank becomes a focal point for the articulation of Sonny’s grievances, the conditions for the release of the hostages, and for the continuation of the film’s allegorical rendering of sexualized space. During one fraught exchange Sonny asks Moretti to kiss him because “When I'm being fucked, I like to be kissed.” It’s only later that this apparently metaphorical usage is unveiled as proleptic. Having established the territory of the street outside the bank as his bully pulpit, Sonny uses it to incite a mimetic response in his audience: at first crowds form to support his anti-establishment attitudes but the space becomes activated as one of mobile empathic identification—onlookers and activists mingle as they claim the events as their “own,” both an Everyman protest against the financial system and, ambiguously, power, and specific claims for equality and representation of the queer love and marriage of Sonny and Leon.  Members of the crowd brandish placards carrying pro-gay slogans alongside unaligned onlookers who cheer Sonny on.

This shared “modernity” of the streetscape, both proletarian and gay, is exemplified by the entrance of Leon. We are encouraged to think that Sonny is about to engage with his (female) wife when Leon is presented as a different wife, and speaks to Sonny on a phone located in a barbershop across from the bank. The barbershop is a space of community mingling, constitutively male. The interposition of Leon in this space proleptically indicates that Leon is also male but equally that the masculinity of the space is transitive, on a masculine-feminine spectrum that permits the role of male wife.  The space in front of the bank is also transitive as it collects diverse communities of identification who mimic and amplify Sonny’s situation.  Rather than being “exceptional,” Sonny metonymizes or figures a marginal status—identified with prisoners, identified as queer—whose meaning is communal, not individual. It is by virtue of the film’s revelation of Sonny’s multiple identity and its figurability, to use Jameson’s term, that a claim can be made for the film’s cognitive mapping of sexuality as shared territory and shared concern, across the crowd on the street.  If “figurability” allies as a concept with a closet epistemology, the space before or in front of the bank becomes available to a separate repertoire of spatialized sexual subjectivities. It offers spatial orientation for “figurability,” as a representation that is formally cognate with fiction and historically cognate with fact.

The alliance between the fictive and the historical as figurable forms what the film offers as a potential “free space” for the representation of queer co-existence and coalition: arrest, kidnapping, hostage-taking, surveillance, and marriage, abductive leaps of logic. The story of the film, which is mostly built from historical facts, organizes its social argument fictively because spatially, demarcating interior space as incarcerating and the street as a space where oppositional relationships can be struck and maintained as such.  Whereas in the bank power-based relationships between captors and captive—relationships one might expect to be hyperbolically unequal—dissolve into alliances based on mutual subjugation, the cordoned area on the street outside is available as “ante-closet” for the rehearsal of those subjectivities in empathic relation. This deployment of the street for the articulation of political alliances operates in two distinctive ways: first, those alliances accumulate, bound to the diegetic revelations that provide the major plot points of the film, and two, those alliances are constitutively alliances as much as they are framed as oppositional (pro Sonny, contra law enforcement). The accumulation of alliances creates an anthology of historically relevant structures of oppression.  Sonny cites Attica to reframe the collectivity detained in the bank as carceral subjects, but the film offers that space as one as liberating as it is constraining. At the film’s opening the bank guard carefully lowers, furls and secures the US flag that otherwise flies at the exterior of the bank.  The guard then facilitates the entrance of the robbers. Here, in the “dog day afternoon,” the suspension of a set of institutional rules is augured by the removal of the flag, and so at the same time the bank, its vaults, lobbies and foyers, represents a form of prison (Attica) it simultaneously represents a space of incarceration that is liberated from the kinds of rules and procedures that would ally it with the state. We see this liberation in the development of warm social bonds between the robbers and their hostages, in, for instance, Sonny showing the young female bank tellers how to do military things with his rifle.  A sexual segregation is effected by the hostage taking situation as well, where the police and law enforcement occupy the traditionally male space of the barber shop opposite the bank, and where Sonny repeatedly reports that he “only has women” in the bank, a statement that is erroneous in fact but reflects the film’s initial sorting of inside and outside spaces in terms of familiar forms of segregated space.

In disarmingly sophisticated attenuation of the sensational potential of its revelations, even as their sensational reporting is documented, the film doesn’t adjudicate their valency in terms of any “authentic” subjectivity. For example, whether Sonny is homosexual or bisexual, or how Leon and Sonny’s identifications operate, are only canvassed in terms of the way in which they prompt or codify forms of resistance and affiliation.  Sonny’s sexual identification is never processed as an individual or personal matter of accounting: Sonny understands both marriages as authentic romantic engagements, and when he dictates the terms of his will late in the film he testifies to the value of each marriage on its own terms. As the crowd gathers outside the bank it is contoured by the revelation of his marriage to Leon with the addition of gay rights activists as well as dissenters; pro-gay chants are made alongside the use of “queer” and “maricone” as slurs directed at him. Identification, never codified, becomes a communal activity that takes place in the space of the “ante-closet,” where both the literal inhabitants of the bank-closet and the figurative play between contained and uncontained subjectivity are available for social experiment. 

Daniel Tiffany has noted in Sedgwick a “tendency to structure the homosexual closet as a space (whether taxonomic or subjective) occupied by an individual, as an isolation cell.”[9] By allying the closet with figurability, and locating this alliance in the ante-closet, I’ve proposed a social closet, one where forms of identification (even negatively enunciated, as with the “queer” offered by the crowd) are organized as social rather than individual identities.  This socialization offers a way to rethink the problem of a relation to the specific—which Jameson sees as counter to the generality necessary to bolster figurable depictions of social relations—because it affords identification with the specific rather than the specific as a form of ultra-individuation. These crises of definition, which I’ve tried to summarize as evidenced through the unfurling of plot in Dog Day Afternoon, pivot around the figure of the closet.  In my description of the bank as a space simultaneously of involuntary incarceration and liberated free movement, and of the kinds of alliances brokered through these cordoned spaces, I’ve tried to illustrate a symptomatic iteration of closet logic. In the film’s broad alliances between prisoners, gays, trans people, women, it conjures an unlikely space for the representation of common cause among a variety of actors. The film articulates potential domains of action: the street, the vault, the lobby, “modern air.”


Notes

[1]Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet (1975; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2006), DVD.

[2] Henry Urbach, “Closets, Clothes, disClosure,” Assemblage 30 (1996): 62-73, 70, 72.

[3] Stockholm Syndrome was named as such in 1973 after a hostage taking situation in a bank in Stockholm where similar kinds of affiliation arose among captor and captive, and of course the saga of Patty Hearst begins one year later.  This apparently anomalous affective schema then also figures a contemporary conundrum.

[4] “Modern Air Transport” at zoggavia.com/Modern_Air_Transport.html.

[5] Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 135.

[6] Frederic Jameson, “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture,” in Signatures of the Visible (Routledge: New York, 1992, rpt. 2007): 51.

[7] On “earlier,” see for example Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L. A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, And Lipstick Lesbians on the Cooper’s Doughnuts Riot of 1959 (1).

[8] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1.

[9] Daniel Tiffany, My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 111.

Sidney Lumet's cherished true-crime drama is impeccably anchored in time, place, character, and story. Screenwriter Frank Pierson won an Academy Award for his script based on a Time magazine article about a Brooklyn bank robbery committed by John Wojtowicz, a gay man attempting to pay for his transsexual lover’s sex change, during the summer of 1972.

Al Pacino's bank-robber Sonny is as complex a character as the celebrated actor ever played. We marvel at Sonny's shameless humanity in the face of a doomed situation. Over the course of the film, Sonny becomes a most unique anti-hero. Character revelations arrive after Sonny and his two accomplices set foot inside a bank at closing time. John Cazale plays Sonny's partner Sal with a suicidal intensity. Sal is afraid of everything except his ability to kill people. The third accomplice (Gary Springer) gets cold feet and abandons the robbery before it begins. Sonny has worked in a bank so he knows specialized things like how to avoid alarms and marked decoy money. True to the reality of the times, Sonny is also a Vietnam veteran. More importantly, Sonny genuinely cares about the female bank employees he and his nervous partner corral into the bank's vault. His compassion for their comfort will cost him his getaway.

Lumet eschews music, allowing the dialogue and background sounds to carry the material's intrinsic drama. The quickly barricaded street outside the bank fills up with New York cops and local onlookers who feed the story's nervous sense of urban claustrophobia. Panic strikes when Sonny releases the bank's asthmatic black security guard.

In a scene that has since been copied countless times in film and in real America life, evidently racist plain-clothes cops handcuff the hostage under the assumption that he is an accomplice to the crime. News photographers jockey for a good angle when detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) invites Sonny to come out on the street to see the rooftop police snipers and flatfoots itching for a clean shot. Expressive crane camera shots give a visual sense of the enormous crowd that had gathered. Sonny seizes the tense moment to incite the mob with chants of "Attica! Attica! Attica" in reference to the recent prison uprising where guards indiscriminately gunned down prisoners. Suddenly the balance of social order shifts. Intimidated cops are ordered to put their guns down. For an instant Sonny has the power of public support. That power will recede when the crowd learns of his bisexuality.

As much as it is about a deeply troubled individual, "Dog Day Afternoon" is about a national shift toward exploitation in the American media via live television. The bloodthirsty public, which feeds off of its pernicious influence, wishes it had what it takes to be someone like Sonny, a uniquely flawed and brave romantic.

Rated R. 150 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no stars)


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