Two Movies That Show Why Society Turns Criminals Into Celebrities

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The lessons of the recently deceased screenwriter Frank Pierson's classics Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon ring profoundly after the shootings in Aurora.

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Renowned screenwriter Frank Pierson—a three-time Oscar nominee who died in Los Angeles earlier this month—is best known for two films, Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), that present us with anti-heroes on opposite sides of what might be called the celebrity spectrum. At one end, we have a prisoner who fights the system (and fate) for the sake of his freedom and integrity. At the other, we have a hostage-taking bank robber who risks lives because he craves admiration. Taken together, these two films, made nearly a decade apart, say a lot about whom society and the media pay attention to—and about how they're happy to pay attention to the dangerous or reprehensible.

Both Paul Newman as Luke and Al Pacino as the stick-up artist treat us to exceptional performances. But it's Newman who's in the more enduring film. Quite possibly the best prison drama ever made, Cool Hand Luke follows a man, incarcerated for drunken petty vandalism, who has so much fight in him that he continuously finds a way to beat the odds. That tenacity is dramatized in an early scene during which Luke manages to win a poker game despite having been dealt some terrible cards. ("Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand," Luke says, thereby giving the character his nickname and the movie its title.) Luke triumphs, often, because he perseveres. Even in the corrupt place where he's imprisoned, he carries himself with dignity. Sure, he engages in the not-especially-dignified stunt of eating 50 eggs to win a bet—but more significant than that, he refuses to ingratiate himself with either the guards or the intimidating kapo, Dragline, who calls the shots among the prisoners. In the process, Luke becomes something of a spiritual beacon for the other inmates. At various points in the movie, it's even hinted that he's a Christ-like figure.

Luke, who rebels without harming others, is worthy of our attention. But people who hold civilization hostage, harm others, and manage to grab publicity in the process aren't—or at least shouldn't be.

Getting his peers to worship him isn't Luke's goal, however. He rebels against the unjust world he's trapped in not to impress anyone but because he has to answer to his inner god. In fact, his celebrity status in prison can feel like an unbearable responsibility; his awareness of how much he embodies hope for the other men weighs on him, suffocatingly so at times. At a certain point in the film—shortly after he's recaptured following his second escape from prison—Luke is sprawled out on his back, physically bloodied and spiritually bowed, shackled hand and foot, as his fellow prisoners are gathered around him, clamoring for the next show of his incredible will. Unable to muster it, he shouts, "Stop feedin' off me! ... I can't breathe! Give me some air!"

You could say that Luke has a "self-destructive" streak (and that Christ had one too). But it is inextricable from his self-respect; he'd rather live—and die—on his own terms than accept an eviscerated existence. Luke is engaged in a daily existential battle for his soul—and as the boxing scene helps to demonstrate, he's one hell of a heroic antihero.

You can't say the same for the man at the center of Dog Day Afternoon, a true-crime movie that's very true to the story it's based on. The film recreates the events of August 22, 1972, the swelteringly hot "dog day" afternoon in Brooklyn when John Wojtowicz, a married father of two, held seven Chase Manhattan Bank employees hostage for 14 hours after he and his accomplice, 18-year-old Sal Naturile, fouled up a heist. Wojtowicz (who's named "Sonny Wortzik" in the film) is a screwball charmer who is so very entertaining, that we, the movie viewers (and, it seems, the viewers who watched in real time as his crime unfolded) tend to forget or overlook the fact that he's not worthy of respect or admiration—far from it—even if he might be worthy of empathy.

Wojtowicz—a Vietnam vet who wanted money to pay for his male lover's sex-change operation—seems to have been as much of a character in real life as his fictional double, captivatingly played by Pacino in what was apparently a realistic portrayal. (Wojtowicz, at least, was impressed. "Al Pacino's performance has to be called 'out of sight,'" he wrote. "His characterization was flawless.") In the Life magazine story that informed the screenplay, writers P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore remark on Wojtowicz's "flamboyance" and his "reputation as a ... swaggering exhibitionist." They quote bank teller and hostage Shirley Ball as saying: "If [the robbers] had been my house guests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious ... Especially with John's antics, the way he hopped around all over the place, the way he talked. ... I really liked them both. They tried to be nice—except when they were cornered. Such aboveboard guys, they even told us they would kill us if they had to." Bank manager Robert Barrett told Wojtowicz, "I'm supposed to hate you guys, but I've had more laughs tonight than I've had in weeks." Rarely has Stockholm Syndrome sounded so appealing, huh?

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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