I saw Dog Day Afternoon when it opened in 1975. There are a lot of things that I’ve forgotten since 1975 (along with a few that I wish I could forget!) There has to be a good reason why images from that movie remain fresh after all the intervening years. On the surface it’s a forgettable story of a petty thief who bungles a bank robbery. But life is complicated. Sidney Lumet, who directed, and Al Pacino, who played Sonny the would-be bank robber, managed to make of this misfit character a sympathetic hero who spoke volumes about the frustrations of a decade that simmered in the aftermath of the tumultuous 60’s.
Other images from the same year remain, the most searing being the scene of helicopters airlifting desperate U.S. military personnel and South Vietnamese allies from Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War. I guess my mind prefers to linger over the figure of Sonny striding out towards the police barricades, brashly making demands in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, and the cheers his persuasive eloquence elicit from the crowd that has gathered for the spectacle. Memory is complicated.
A year later, in 1976, an even more riveting character captured the national zeitgeist with his now iconic rant "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" The movie was Network, which won four academy awards and is considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the best movies of all time. The director was Sidney Lumet. Peter Finch played Howard Beale, an anchorman on a fictional news network. He was a flawed character in a voracious industry in an insatiable culture. Like Sonny, he is both triumphant and tragic. Culture is complicated.
I have a short list of favorite movies that I revisit from time to time, but neither of these is on it. That isn’t why I remember them. I haven’t seen either one again in over 30 years. I remember because they are unforgettable, because they spoke to something in my own life, and left a deep impression. Meaningful art has that power. Hippocrates wrote “life is short, art long.” I have no doubt that Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) will be remembered. He made films that expressed how complicated life can be.