Saturday, 3 May 2014

Dog Day Afternoon - Patrick Mann


"Attica! Attica! Remember Attica!? Attica!"

So shouts Al Pacino's character in the 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon as an army of New York policemen train their guns on him. Al Pacino and his partner played by John Cazale have just held up a bank but it's all gone horribly wrong. The bank was holding very little money and now they're surrounded by police 'wanting to kill them so bad they can taste it', so Pacino is now demanding a million dollars and a jet airliner to fly them out of America in release for the bank staff they're holding hostage.
Outside of the bank not only is there all the armed police but also television news crews, photographers and reporters, along with hundreds of spectators. Pacino is the centre of attention and in shouting out 'Attica' he evokes the memory of an incident a few years earlier when in a bid for political and civil rights inmates of a New York prison rioted and took prison staff hostage. The police responded by firing volleys of tear-gas into the prison and then going in with all guns blazing. In the end, 42 people were killed including 7 of the guards that were being held. Official reports at first stated the inmates had murdered the guards by slitting their throats but this turned out to be a lie. Everyone - inmates and guards alike - had actually all been shot dead by the police, sparking outrage throughout America.

For all fans of the movie this scene of Al Pacino shouting out 'Attica' is the most famous, his shouts being cheered and applauded by the spectators outside the bank but met with embarrassed and shameful silence from the police. And apparently, the whole scene was improvised. It wasn't actually in the script as such and it doesn't appear in the book but then it doesn't really need to as there's plenty in Patrick Mann's novelization of Dog Day Afternoon that makes up for it.

The film is without question a classic, capturing both Pacino and Cazale at the height of their acting powers but the book is also very well written though quite different from the film in many ways. The film's main premise is that Pacino is robbing the bank to pay for a sex change operation for his boyfriend but in the book this isn't the main storyline at all. Pacino's character - in the film called Sonny but in the book called Littlejoe - is robbing the bank in a bid to escape to a better life away from joblessness, suffocating and detested family, an unhappy marriage, as well as to help his boyfriend have a sex change.
Littlejoe is a fantasist but what he does in the book - far more successfully than in the film despite the Attica scene - is to hold a mirror up to everything and everyone around him. From his parents, his wife, his boyfriend, his associates, the police, the media, the banks, the general public, society, prejudice, morality, politics, and Vietnam. He reflects everything back on itself to show it in a truer light and being set in New York in the early 1970s it's an interesting time for this to happen.

In the book, Littlejoe mentions Attica but only in passing whilst advising his hostages that the biggest danger to all their lives was outside on the street in the form of the cops and FBI waiting there.
"Get it through your heads" he tells them "They kill too".
His point is practically proved when he releases one of the hostages only for that hostage to be almost blasted to bits by the police armoury outside before being thrown to the pavement, a police shotgun pressed to his eye, handcuffed and then hauled away.
"There," says Littlejoe to the remaining hostages "there's your law".

The crowd of spectators seem to be on Littlejoe's side as they mock and deride the police and cheer and applaud for Joe but that's only until his boyfriend dressed in high heels and make-up is brought to the bank by the police causing the crowd to realise that Littlejoe is actually gay. To cries and shouts of "Faggot drag queen!" and "Burn the faggots!" the prejudice of the crowd erupts. The revelation of Littlejoe's sexuality, however, suddenly brings out a whole new crowd onto the street bearing banners and placards reading 'Gay is beautiful' and 'We love you, Littlejoe'.

It's all very fast-paced and slickly written, pulling in new ideas and scenarios effortlessly and very subtly. At one point in the book Littlejoe is sat in a bar listening to the conversations going on around him:
"Every president is a thief. Every prime minister and king is a crook."
"Who are you to go against the rest of the country, something special? We elected him President. So he's a thief president. But, shit, he's our thief."
"... and it's thieves like you who want a thief in the White House. Otherwise his ass would've been out of there so fast it'd make your head spin."
"You better believe it, buster. Thieves like me and fifty million others. Why should we elect some honest square to front for us? We want somebody just like us, and boy, have we got him."
"What about the honest people?"
"Let 'em wake up and join the show."
Though not mentioned by name, it is, of course, Nixon that is being discussed.
The interesting thing, however, is that whilst Littlejoe is an unscrupulous thief, adulterer and ultimately a bank robber, he is actually trying to be a good person but all he can see is hypocrisy, lies and double standards. So what hope for him, then? What hope for anyone?

Dog Day Afternoon as written by Patrick Mann is a novel based in part on the screenplay written by Frank Pierson; the film being directed by Sidney Lumet who encouraged his actors to improvise and stray from that script.
Frank Pierson won an Academy Award for his script, Sidney Lumet was nominated for Best Director and Al Pacino nominated for Best Actor.
It's probably about time the book was recognised now too.

John Serpico

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