With Sidney Lumet’s best work, the devil is always in the detail, and so it is with Dog Day Afternoon. In the hands of a lesser director, this would have been just another heist film, with perhaps some interesting performances. In Lumet’s hands, it becomes a film that tastes and smells of New York, bursting with the life of its actors, filled with passing details and seemingly unimportant moments that add up to a snapshot of a much wider picture. Not only that, but here is a film from the 1970s—only a few years after Stonewall bought gay rights to the forefront—treating its LGBT characters not as caricatures, but as human beings. It is surely one of Al Pacino’s best roles too, edgy, nervous, but completely fully-rounded, to say nothing of the rest of the cast, which includes one of only five feature film performances from John Cazale.
You wouldn’t think an obscure, largely forgotten, Sidney Lumet cop drama from 1990 would have any relevance today, but what’s striking about Q & A is that large parts of it still feel fresh and engaging. It is far from a masterpiece by Lumet, for whom films that dealt with policing and corruption in America were bread and butter, but here we are; 25 years since this film’s release and a half-century since the Civil Rights Act, minorities in the USA still face harassment and institutional discrimination daily. This bigotry manifests itself most brutally in the form of police violence. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and countless others at the hands of police is clue enough, not to mention other brutal acts of near-enough genocide and fascism not related to the police such as the Charleston shootings. This a film that, for all its faults, is not afraid to talk about how race functions in the police force.
The basic story revolves around the investigation of police detective Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) and his involvement in the murders of various members of a Hispanic gang. The lawyer bought in to investigate the case, Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton), is told it is open-and-shut, that Brennan acted purely in self-defence and that the investigation ought to be over in a matter of days. However we the viewer know this to be untrue from the start; the opening scenes shows Brennan murdering a member of the gang in cold blood. What follows of course, is an investigation that reveals a huge amount of corruption in the NYPD. This is all relatively standard, generic stuff that we have all seen thousands of times in myriad other cop films. What sets Q & A apart from all that is how much of a crucial part ethnicity plays in the film. Most other films would treat the crime as a straight murder of another human being, with Brennan little more than a monster for whom racism is purely incidental (how many other corrupt cinematic cops speak the same language without ever having the camera truly scrutinise their racism?). Here however, we see how his racism and bigotry forms an integral part of his policing method; he is also homophobic and transphobic, and targets also his fellow cops on racial lines along with people on the street. The racism is central to his corruption, the two go hand-in-hand, and therefore contribute to the deterioration of the strength of law to enact change and justice.
This anger and rage within Brennan is communicated brilliantly by Nick Nolte’s performance, with a mad, bullish fury sparkling in his eye throughout, evidently the work of an actor enjoying chewing the scenery and playing a great villain. The same cannot be said of Timothy Hutton, who is bland and unconvincing in the opposite role, a faceless nobody. One of the film’s sub-plots involves a broken relationship with an ex-girlfriend (Jenny Lumet) who dumped him after his reaction to meeting her black father for the first time. Though this opens up another avenue for the film to discuss how racism works even on a subconscious level for some, both actors are weak and forgettable, killing the sub-plot’s potential rather quickly. As far as legendary New Hollywood casting their offspring goes, Jenny Lumet is nowhere near as bad as Sofia Coppola was in The Godfather III, but she’s certainly no star either.
However, despite these meek performances in two very important roles, many of the supporting actors fare much better. In particular, Armand Assante as a Latino crime kingpin trying to go straight and pin Brennan for murder is superb: the picture of a smooth, clever and intelligent operator, and elsewhere Luis Guzman is equally excellent as a cop facing bullying from Brennan for helping to investigate him. Indeed, Q & A is loaded with excellent small supporting roles throughout, from various underrated character actors that are often seen but just as often forgotten. Again, we are always given a window into how their ethnicity affects their relations with other characters, a drop in the ocean of racial tensions and their real-life currents.
Visually, Q & A is simple but effective; Sidney Lumet rarely felt the need to stylise his films in order to achieve a particular dramatic effect throughout his career, and here again he prefers to let the dialogue and the actors do the work, although the inconsistent cast doesn’t always hold up their end of the bargain. Whilst Q & A is at its heart a relatively basic, by-the-numbers cop thriller, Lumet keeps the tension clicking and thrumming nicely throughout the film, with most of the parts in good working condition, despite a horrifically cheesy and out-of-place soundtrack. Beyond that, the film still asks questions that are worth asking today, that need to be asked today: is racism endemic in the police force? Though the legislature may enshrine laws against discrimination in word, if those enforcing that legislature do not hold themselves to the same standard, can we ever be free of corruption and racism? The films doesn’t provide answers and certainly concludes pessimistically, but it is at least a film that is unafraid to ask the questions, and the fact that these elements of Q & A still feel relevant today speaks volumes about how little the human race has progressed.