Reel Brooklyn is a new biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Movies as archaeology—more than most cities, Brooklyn is in a constant state of rapid cellular evolution, often leaving movies, going back a century, as our only record of how the neighborhoods used to breathe, bustle and roll. If you know Windsor Terrace and the northern outlands of Flatbush, for instance, you’ll feel the bite of authentic Brooklynosity watching Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), one of the American New Wave’s breath-holding landmark launches into sweaty American reality. Al Pacino and John Cazale play two very real, very lost schmoes who in 1972 cluelessly charged into a bank on Avenue P (on the north edge of Gravesend) and tried to rob it—igniting a day-long cascade of fucked, and an epic media carnival that played like a proto-reality show on Kosher Kush.
This is what passed for a Hollywood star vehicle in those days—equal parts bullshit allergy, wide-eyed Method-y psychodrama, and choked-down comedy, shot on the streets. The film is magnetic and absurd because it’s real, as we watch these native subterraneans stumble into the daylight of public awareness, in the dog days of the Vietnam War and Nixon administration, and become for a brief instant actual prime-time celebrities. Perfecting the this-is-New-York hyperealist style that he’d found in 1971’s The Anderson Tapes, Lumet obviously sought out authenticity in lieu of normal Hollywood reflexes—famously, the supporting cast was even told to wear their own clothes. The bank interior was a scrupulous re-creation of the real Avenue P bank (which is now a Santander), either in a warehouse on 10th Avenue in Flatbush, or actually at the same spot, at a converted storefront on Prospect Park West between 17th and 18th, where the street exteriors were shot. (Depending on who you believe, Lumet either demanded bona fide continuity between interior and exterior, or settled.)
Either way, in that sleepy bank or out on the riotous street, the movie captures a sense of mundane borough life, specific to the early-mid 70s, so palpable you can practically smell the souring aftershave and sidewalk trash. Lumet knew the film’s worth depended entirely upon it nailing its milieu and moment to the audiovisual wall for all time—from the buttons busting on police negotiator-human meltdown Charles Durning’s shirt to Pacino’s incantatory chant of “ATTICA!” in the face of cop subterfuge. Reportedly, the real Brooklyn onlookers that gathered during the shoot outnumbered the 300 extras hired by the production, and you can believe it—rocking and cheering, the neighborhood itself becomes a major character in the film. For those real Brooklyners, revisiting a head-shaking incident that happened just blocks away just three years earlier, it was delightful hometown business as usual. For filmgoers, who could only expect for a few short years that a movie like this would be made at all in this country, it was a day trip downtown, still ungentrified and seething with unpredictable life.