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Born Losers: Crime in Dog Day Afternoon and Night of the Juggler

1980 was a pivotal year for New York City. It hosted the Democratic National Convention, flooding the city with thousands of tourists. New construction was also beginning to change the landscape and attract young people back after decades of abandonment. But most important: it was no longer the seventies.

The seventies in New York was a decade of decay, of collapse, of violence. New York was on the brink of financial and social catastrophes on more than one occasion. Fear engulfed the city to such an extent that it almost descended into civil war. In 1975, public-sector unions led by the NYPD created a front organization known as the Council for Public Safety to publish and distribute a brochure discouraging tourists from visiting. Titled “Welcome to Fear City,” it was notable for two reasons. First, it created such a stir among locals that it was never distributed. But second, and more concerning, it laid bare the antipathy many in the city felt for local government. The brochure opened by citing unsourced statistics — robberies up 21%, aggravated assault up 15%! — then attacked Mayor Abe Beame and warned tourists to “stay away from New York if you possibly can.”

While these feelings of resentment weren’t entirely fair, they also weren’t wrong. Between 1960 and 1970 crime in New York increased at an alarming rate. Murders jumped from 482 in 1960 to 1117 a decade later. Less serious but still traumatic crimes like mugging and assault rose at an even faster rate. This latter phenomenon, isolated, small-scale crimes that attacked residents’ quality of life, became so ubiquitous that it earned its own name. These “lonely crimes,” as described by reporters Dick Schnapp and Jimmy Breslin in an infamous week-long New York Herald Tribune expose, were everyday occurrences that came to define the image of the city. New York was no longer “fun city,” the place of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. It had turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of knife-wielding muggers and dopesick predators.

As often happens, the stories of murder and Schnapp and Breslin’s lonely crimes migrated from newspapers and the evening news to bookshelves and the silver screen as quick as they appeared. Writers borrowed from real-life stories in novels like Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), earning widespread acclaim for complex narratives that explored the darkest recesses of human nature, but frustrating many New Yorkers with their bleak portrayals of the city and its residents. And tax incentives meant to encourage filmmakers to show off the vibrancy of neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs achieved the opposite result. Beginning with Midnight Cowboy (1969), New York films became a genre unto themselves. These movies were gritty, sardonic, and volcanically pissed off. It wasn’t enough to portray cynical and angry people raging at each other and tourists, these characters had to ping-pong back and forth between criminal and mark. To be a New Yorker on film in the seventies and early eighties meant you were both a victim and victimizer at the same time.

Never is this dichotomy clearer than in two of the best films of the era, one released at the height of New York’s panic period and the other a summation of those years that dropped in 1980. These are films that approach the issue of crime in different ways because, intentionally or not, they stand as a point-and-counterpoint. One is a raised fist pumping in the air and demanding acknowledgment, and the other is a balled fist tensed and hanging rady to strike back at an attacker’s jaw.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) follows criminals Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) as they bungle their way through a bank heist. From the opening of the film it’s clear this won’t be a straight-forward story about cops and robbers. Director Sidney Lumet begins by taking the audience on a tour of New York, but this isn’t the glamorous Big Apple they’d grown accustomed to in studio films like All About Eve (1950) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). This is one of contrasts. Black and white, rich and poor, haves and have nots. Lumet begins on the Staten Island Ferry then cuts to a dog eating out of the trash; he jumps from a rooftop pool to municipal workers tearing up concrete; idyllic townhouses transform into a man hosing off dirty streets. Eventually, we settle on a car pulling up in front of a bank as a security guard struggles to break down an American flag. Sal emerges from the car and enters the bank. Sonny, carrying a large gift box, goes over the course of events as they should unfold then follows.

It won’t be spoiling things to say that their attempt at robbing the bank doesn’t succeed. The tagline on the film’s poster even gives away the tragic nature of the story. Dog Day Afternoon is engrossing precisely because Sonny and Sal’s mistakes multiply by the minute and we learn more about Sonny and his motives as he’s forced to respond to new wrinkles in his plan. Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson aren’t concerned with law and order, at least not in the traditional sense. Crime isn’t statistics, graphs, or charts, created to scare tourists — it’s people. In their view, crime is real people who suffer under the weight of inequality and injustice and sometimes make terrible decisions because they can’t think of any other way out.

That isn’t to say Lumet and Pierson don’t acknowledge Sonny’s shortcomings or try to spin the story in a way where he isn’t culpable for his actions. He’s not a hero even if he is the protagonist. At one point, Sonny’s lover Leon recounts how terrified they are of him because of his temper, how he’s attacked friends and family. But the story unfolds in a way to suggest that Sonny, like so many others, was always going to end up in this place, making the choices he made, struggling to understand the how’s and why’s of it. Lumet highlights this by framing the film in closed locations, most of it taking placing inside the bank. He contrasts close-ups with kinetic camera movements to toy with both Sonny and the audience; no matter how hard he/we/us wriggle to break free, we’re trapped. Crime is more complex than good and bad and we can’t escape through vague political posturing (“Attica!, Attica!”) or bartering for more time.

In many ways Night of the Juggler (1980) is a direct rebuke of Dog Day Afternoon. It’s Death Wish (1974) by way of Greek mythology. Ex-cop Boyd (James Brolin) is fighting with his wife (Linda Miller) and trying to work out the terms of a separation and shared custody of their child Kathy (Abby Bluestone) but she wants to leave the city with Kathy to escape the “ghettos and slums.” Meanwhile, Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) is an embittered landlord who blames the city and real estate magnate Hampton Clayton (Marco St. John) for pushing Black and Latino residents into his neighborhood to drive down property values. His plan for revenge? Kidnap Clayton’s daughter Virginia (Robyn Finn) and ransom her off. If it isn’t clear by now, crimes in New York never go as planned. Soltic mistakes Kathy for Virginia and grabs her instead. Boyd, who witnesses the kidnapping, gives chase across the city.

The most notable aspect of Night of the Juggler is its pacing. Despite running an hour and forty minutes, the film feels much shorter because it never allows the viewer time to breathe. It wastes no time developing unnecessary characters or subplots. After a brief introduction to acquaint us with the characters, Boyd barrels through half of Midtown Manhattan on foot and in various cars as he chases Soltic. The first 30 minutes follows one chase sequence, choreographed in breathtaking detail by stunt coordinator Chris Howell. Boyd jumps from accident to accident in a single-minded pursuit of one goal: rescuing his daughter. He steals cars, punches out cops, and assaults anyone who comes between him and that goal. Unfortunately, even ex-cops aren’t allowed to commit crimes to save their kids, so he’s arrested and the real story begins.

While Boyd is the clear hero of the film, Soltic is its center. Writers William Norton and Rick Natkin develop the character in a way that never fully elicits sympathy but still allows him some humanity. Moments intended to undercut his racism and make him appear more complex linger a bit too long. His attempts at consoling Kathy over body image issues begin as sincere and border on endearing but then cross into leering and grooming. Much like Sonny, we learn enough about Solitic to understand that forces beyond his control shaped him, but unlike in Dog Day Afternoon, we’re never able to identify with him at anything more than a surface level. It’s all sleight of hand. We begin with a broken person then peel back layers until we uncover someone who seems more complex and complicated, but this is the trick. Norton and Natkin force us to stay with Soltic until we come back around and see he’s who we thought he was in the first place. He’s a scumbag, a creep, a loser.

Directors Robert Butler and Sidney Furie guide Boyd and Solitic on their journeys by taking them both through Hell. Boyd’s quest sends him into the depths of 42nd Street to wade through the filth and vice while Solitic trudges through collapsing slums on his path away from Boyd. Butler and Furie make fantastic use of era appropriate ruin porn in locations like the Bronx and Midtown to showcase the city’s decay and heighten the film’s otherworldly feel. Long shots of Solitic dragging Kathy through shells of buildings provide a sense of scale and contrast the tighter spaces Boyd finds himself confined to while in police stations and sex shops.

More than that, the parallel paths reveal the film’s perspective on crime. In Night of the Juggler crime isn’t complicated. Bad people do bad things. Maybe they caught a bad break but their choices are theirs and theirs alone. Our pasts don’t define us. It’s what we do with those events and how we respond to them that make us who we are. In that sense, the film makes the case that we don’t need to think too hard about who’s good and who’s not because people will make it clear through their actions. Boyd is a conventional hero because he responds to crisis by throwing himself headlong into harm’s way to save his daughter. Soltic at times hints, like Sonny, at being an anti-hero but, through his actions, we come to learn that he’s a loser. There’s no late reveal of an altruistic motivation or character quirk that set him off. He’s motivated by resentment and greed.

Like their flawed criminals Sonny and Gus Soltic, Dog Day Afternoon and Night of the Juggler couldn’t be more different. The former won an Oscar and became a defining film of the New Hollywood era. It’s still studied in film schools today. Night of the Juggler opened to poor reviews and disappeared soon after its release. The film remains an oddity, too rough-edged to fit in with other mainstream movies from the era, but not quite sleazy enough to match the grime and depravity of exploitation contemporaries like The Exterminator (1980). This, however, is no sleight. Night of the Juggler stands defiantly alongside Dog Day Afternoon, a cogent counterargument to that film’s bleeding heart. It’s angry, like all good seventies New York movies, and it demands recognition. Taken together, it’s hard to say which film is right because they’re both effective at conveying their points of view. The city of New York sidestepped this concern by choosing a third way and enacting broken windows policies, resurrecting long-dormant cabaret laws, and assisting in the process of gentrification. Crime didn’t disappear, it moved outward. But maybe that’s the point? That there is no right answer. That, like Sonny and Soltic, we’re trapped by forces outside of our control and have no say in how the world around us will change. That all we can do is fuck up and fuck up and fuck up. That, for most of us, we’re born losers.

About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

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