Tuned In: “Amoreena” in DOG DAY AFTERNOON

18 August 2013

The opening montage of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is one of the film’s signature sequences.  Set in Brooklyn, New York, the opening montage captures an average New York summer’s morning; quiet, ordinary moments in the city: ferry boats bring people to work, garbage collection, and traffic.   This atmospheric opening sets up the film, offering location, a socioeconomic status for the leading characters, and a sweltering season.

Furthermore, the use of nondiegetic sound in this opening montage adds complexity to this dynamic start.  As the images of the city flash before viewers eyes, Elton John’s “Amoreena” plays.  Initially, this song may seem a peculiar selection for the images it is juxtaposed with; however, retrospectively, the song, which repeatedly mentions a “lady” (perhaps Amoreena) who brightens up the daybreak, presents as much build up to Lumet’s film as the images it accompanies.

An important structural note about Dog Day Afternoon is, post this montage, the film begins with a bank robbery, carried out by the film’s protagonist.  There is not lead-up to the robbery, aside from this opening sequence, although, as the film progresses, the heist’s motivation and rationale are slowly revealed.  When Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale), two leading characters, walk into the bank the audience does not know who they are, why they chose to steal the bank’s money, or what their motivation for theft is.  In consideration of this atypical way to begin, two things must be said about Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon: 1) this is, by far, not a formulaic film, and 2) the opening montage is clearly more important than it may, at first, seem.

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To briefly summarize the narrative, once the robbery is underway, and still only minutes into the film, a series of mistakes tip police off to the scene of this armed bank robbery with hostages.  When the police attempt to contact the robbers, Sonny emerges as the brains and voice of the operation, as opposed to Sal, who remains muted, tense, and fearful.  Sonny negotiates with the police for hostages, and eventually attempts to work out a deal in which he and Sal can leave the country, escaping their precarious situation.  While this deal is being worked out, more and more information about Sonny’s life is revealed.  Sonny is married and has two children, but he is a gay man who has also married his lover, Leon.  The reason for this bank robbery: Sonny wants the money to pay for a sex change operation for Leon.  As the hours continue to pass, a deal is eventually worked out and Sonny and Sal, along with their hostages make their way to an airport.  However, before they board it becomes clear the authorities are unwilling to allow the pair to escape.  And, in the film’s final moments, the standoff between Sonny, Sal, and the police ends with a bang.

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It may seem odd John’s pop ballad “Amoreena” plays during the opening montage of a move about a bank robbery; however, after more consideration, the song contributes a great deal of meaning to Lumet’s film, including contribution to Sonny’s characterization.

First, John’s tune speaks of a “lady,” also called a “lusty flower,” who lives in the beautiful countryside, full of grassy hills.  This lady can brighten the daybreak, even sheltering herself from rain in her cozy, warm bed.  Essentially, this lady is portrayed more like a goddess or muse, but it is also clear there is an ethereal quality to her; her surroundings are heavenly, and therefore otherworldly, and her radiance is too perfect, too fantastic to be true.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny is gay.  He admits loving his wife, but clearly is not in love with her.  There is nothing romantic about the relationship between this man and woman; however, the film is not without a degree of romance.  Sonny robs the bank in an effort to fund a procedure he believes will improve the life of his true love, Leon.  Leon’s sex change operation is Sonny’s objective, and he is so driven to accomplish this goal he breaks the law (for the first time), risking his own life for the betterment of another’s.

Might the lady, the “lusty flower,” in John’s song be Leon?  It is certainly plausible this untouchable, ethereal woman might be a manifestation of how Sonny sees Leon.  To Sonny, Leon is feminine.  Moreover, Leon is just out of hospital, perhaps “And when it rains the rain falls down/ Washing out this cattle town/ And she is far off somewhere in her eiderdown” is a loose connection to Leon’s stay in his hospital bed, sleeping off a difficult time.  The song’s beautiful grassy hills are a far cry from Brooklyn, which was so clearly painted in the opening montage, but this heavenly daydream is all Sonny and Leon have.  In fact, as they are about to hang up the phone with one another—during the only conversation the audience sees the two have—, Leon tells Sonny he will see him in his dreams.  Might the world John creates in his song be that very dream?

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Retrospectively, the song contributes meaning to Sonny and Leon’s relationship, but, in addition to that, the song also helps Lumet characterize Sonny even before the audience hears him utter a word.  Sound is a strong device filmmakers use to connect with their audience.  For example, Scorsese often amplifies sounds, like gunshots, in his films to heighten tension and evoke greater emotion from viewers.  Even silence, the lack of sound, is a useful tool for filmmakers to hook audiences with.  “Amoreena” in the opening of Dog Day Afternoon helps Lumet establish a tone, and, although this is a movie about a bank robbery, the tone established by this song is not a threatening one.

As the opening montage rolls John’s tune creates a light, upbeat mood.  Referencing a lady who lives in a beautiful country town is a bit ironic when set against the New York City scene, but the song brings a carefree daydream amid the daily hustle and bustle.  Immediately, the film establishes a unthreatening environment, signaling safety to viewers.  Moreover, once the audience sees Sonny, Sal, and Stevie (a man originally involved in the heist, but who breaks down and removes himself from the robbery early on), “Amoreena” changes from nondiegetic to diegetic sound; the men’s car is playing John’s song as it parks outside the bank.  This is incredibly significant to these robbers’ characterization, particularly Sonny, since he is the film’s protagonist.  An average bank robber would not pull up to heist listening to Elton John, right?  No.  The audience does not know these men, but they have an idea of the robbery they are about to pull off.  Yet, how much of a threat could three Elton John cruising men actual be?  Through this song Lumet begins to characterize his robbers; they are not ruthless, violent thieves; these men are everyday people, like the thousands also listening to “Amoreena” on their morning drive n 1972.

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Establishing sequences are always significant to a film, and Lumet always takes his openings seriously.  To characterize the robbers and, retrospectively, add deeper meaning to the romance between Sonny and Leon, Elton John’s “Amorenna” plays over the opening shots and contributes subtlety yet essentially to the film as a whole.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 18/08/2013.

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