Glorifying the Criminal Ideology in The Godfather, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Dog Day Afternoon
Stacie Mills

Almost every time someone puts in a video to watch or goes to the theatre they see a collision of two massive social institutions, media and the criminal justice system, both central to modern society (Surette 31). Besides being the central themes in police, detective, and gangster movies, crime and justice are often secondary plot elements in love stories, westerns, comedies, and dramas (Surette 30). Audience members realize, sometimes sadly, that films are simply not real. The entertainment media present a world of crime and justice that is not found in reality (Surette 47). The viewing public has limited sources of information on crime; not everyone, for example, knows a convicted felon (Surette 38). Therefore, “the social impact of the cinema is persuasive and extensive, affecting the American public’s values, political views, social behavior, consumption patterns, and perceptions of the world” (Surette 29). In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather, three of the most popular criminal films from the late sixties and early seventies, the respective outlaws, bank robbers, and mafia men, become glorified in the eye of the everyday movie watcher. According to philosopher Noam Chomsky, the media is not there to inform the viewing public, as many people believe. Its main purpose is to sell something to its audience. The film industry is trying to sell to the American public, through these individuals, that we can and should rebel against authority. These men are seen as heroes because they are portrayed by typically beautiful Hollywood celebrities, possess admirable qualities, elicit sympathy from the audience, and go out in an exciting and heroic fashion.

When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released, it grossed over seventy-five million dollars, and was well on its way to becoming the most popular Western ever made (Kooistra 9). Like such films as Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, “the film had its roots in the rebellious 1960’s in which a disgruntled younger generation made heroes out of social outcasts and even outlaws” (Andreychak 140). How does the production company begin to turn two real life criminals, responsible for the robbing of many banks in the southern United States and South America, into heroes? They cast Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the leads. No criminal could ever be as attractive as these two men. So they must not be criminals. Perhaps if we act like them, we could be attractive to. This is seen again in Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Both of the main characters in these films are played by the very charismatic and handsome Al Pacino. William Schoell states of Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon, “At first, Pacino, who is not a nerd, as Sonny is, seems miscast. But he manages to play a dork dynamically without making the character seem less of one. Although far more attractive than the real Sonny, Pacino does an excellent imitation of him…” (84). How many actors could take an inept bank robber who wants money for his lover’s sex change and turn him into a rebel hero (Gwinn)? Next, the director makes sure each admirable quality the criminal possesses is shown to its full potential.

According to Paul Kooistra, author of Criminals as Heroes, “although these men robbed and killed, we are told they did it with style. Moreover, these fabled outlaws are endowed with an assortment of endearing qualities – loyalty to friends, compassion for downtrodden, courage in the face of danger, honesty (most of the time), and cleverness in abundance” (22). Perhaps America’s most valued quality, and the best way to have an audience relate to a film, is through the family. In Butch Cassidy, Etta, Sundance, and Butch become their own family as they travel along the western hemisphere. They share their good times and bad times with respect, loyalty and love. In Dog Day Afternoon, the inexperienced bank teller turned robber “is put before us as a modern day everyman more than a hardened criminal” (Boyer 55). The modern day everyman is a family man, even in this case. Towards the end of the film, “as he dictates his will to the head teller, his generous and sensitive treatment of his loved ones of both sexes brings to this uneducated, resourceful, and lonely man, leaning against a wide pillar as a he speaks, a fragile but considerable stature and dignity” (Cunningham 221). In The Godfather, family is presented as the most important element. Don Corleone is seen as “nothing less than a ‘father of his country,’ a political figure who rises in time of crisis to manage the affairs in the interests of all his people,” much like a normal father managing the affairs of his children (Messenger 189). Chris Messenger writes of the novel the film was based on, “such a novel affirms what The Godfather will underscore a decade later in sensational fashion: that the family and home are primarily important” (183). Michael’s father, the head of the Corleone family and mafia says, “Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man”. Towards the end of the film, Michael Corleone, now the acting head of the family, witnesses his brother Fredo speaking against the family. Afterwards, he pulls Fredo aside to pass on his father’s good advice: “Fredo, you're my older brother and I love you, but
don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever”. The important thing the audience sees is the love and caring this family possesses. It does not matter that in the previous scene the Don had someone executed or we see him dealing in the dirty business of the mob. The American culture recognizes a commendable trait in this person, so he cannot be a criminal. These films also glorify the criminal by eliciting sympathy from the audience.

In each of the three films being discussed, the audience is made to sympathize with the criminals while viewing the law enforcement officials as the real villain. In Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny, while being surrounded on the street in front of the bank by the police and a large crowd, begins screaming “ATTICA! ATTICA!” He manages to manipulate the crowd, comprised mainly of working class men and women, with this reference to police brutality and abuse. The crowd then begins to cheer Sonny on while harassing the police officials. Frank Cunningham, a film scholar, states, “Sonny negotiates with police out on the street to the adulation of the crowd, as he in turn manipulates their celebrity worship and thus ironically contributes to the escalation of the madness” (219). In The Godfather, we also see this sympathy for the criminal through the abuse of the police and public officials. Because our knowledge of the mafia comes from the point of view of the Corleone family, everyone else seems corrupt, including the police. Michael Corleone’s states, “My father is no different any powerful man, any man
with power, like a president or senator.” His girlfriend Kay responds, “Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don't have men killed!” To this, Michael states, “Oh. Who’s being naïve Kay?” This film is suggesting that the police and politicians are corrupt, more so than the actual criminals. In fact, the Mafia is seen as any other organization. Messenger suggests, “Not the least of The Godfather’s powerful American fantasies is precisely that of the Mafia as not so much a criminally marauding business sucking the life out of real economy but rather as a ‘state’ with its own rights, treaties and problems” (189). We see the family through the lens of sentimental fiction. They are the people who were victimized and they were the people who grieved (Messenger 201). The audience also sympathizes with the criminals in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The law enforcement officials in this film are paraded about as ignorant, feeble-minded deputies and sheriffs. In one scene, a sheriff waits for the duo to appear so he may ambush them. However, Butch and Sundance had figured this out a long time ago and were already on their way to South America. Ending the film in a heroic fashion also overvalues criminals.
Dog Day Afternoon ends as it should. Sonny’s partner Sal is killed and Sonny himself is arrested. However, the production company feels the need to ensure us that he only received twenty years in prison. The audience knows that is a very long time, but after endangering the lives of his hostages one expects he would receive more. Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather, manages in one fell swoop to wipe out all of his enemies while he is attending his nephews christening. The scene cross-cuts back and forth between the christening and Michael’s grand plan. He is now the head of the family and the most powerful man in New York. His end shows that his criminal actions and those of his family have elevated him to this lofty position. Francis Ford Coppola was surprised to see that at an early screening of The Godfather, the audience felt inclined to applaud and cheer during the credits. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we also see this. Cassidy and the Kid are cornered in South America. They know there is no escaping, and history tells us that these two men do indeed die here. However, “as Newman’s Cassidy and Redford’s Kid are running together at the end with their guns blazing, they are immortalized in a freeze frame which then returns to the sepia tone opening of the film” (Andreychuk 140). Instead of seeing the two outlaws be killed by the law enforcement, we see them as brave and heroic men, who will live forever through this film and America’s own romanticism.

In Dog Day Afternoon, another ideology is present. This ideology is that homosexual men are more inclined to become a criminal. Sonny is robbing the bank to help his lover Leon pay for a sex change operation. When the police find out about this particular aspect of Sonny’s motive, their responses are the typical “it figures” and “I’m not surprised.” However, this ideology is overshadowed by the dominant ideology of criminal as heroes.
If one looks at I.A. Richard’s “triangle of meaning” with the symbol CRIMINAL, your head is filled with pictures of murderous villains such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson. The criminals portrayed in these three films are different from Dahmer and Manson, but not by much. Their intentions may be different, but they still pursue a lawbreaking life for their own selfish reasons. The ideology of the three films previously discussed is that the
criminal should be seen as the hero. Seeing the criminal portrayed as the hero and being rewarded for his criminal actions makes the viewing public believe they can succeed this way and should succeed this way. Rebelling against authority, as the people do in these three films, produces fame and, if not always, good fortune. The film industry does this by casting a beautiful actor or actress to portray said criminal, making their admirable qualities stand out over the negative one, eliciting sympathy from the audience over law enforcement officials, and by ending in a heroic, brave, or memorable fashion. This is fairly unsettling, considering our nations children can be very impressionable. After the film The Program was released, a teenage boy died after impersonating the actor who laid down in oncoming traffic. A child’s mind is easily pressed upon because they have not been exposed to the world. They are easily impressed by the criminal who is famous or wealthy, and for this reason alone, society should be educated as to the nature of these films.

Works Cited
Andreychuk, Ed. The Golden Corral: A Roundup of Magnificent Western Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997.
Boyer, Jay. Sidney Lumet. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Cunningham, Frank R. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
Gwinn, Alison, ed. Entertainment Weekly: The 100 Greatest Stars of All Time. New York: Entertainment Weekly Books, 1997.
Kooistra, Paul. Criminals As Hereos: Structure, Power and Identity. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.
Messenger, Chris. The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became “Our Gang.” New York: State University of New York, 2002.
Schoell, William. The Films of Al Pacino. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.
Surette, Ray. Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice: Images and Realities 2nd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998.

 

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