From Spike Lee, a wildly overbaked yet vital account of the
seventies-era “Son of Sam” killings. The film has much to say about the
effects of fear and paranoia, none of it comforting.
Released in the summer of 1999, SUMMER OF SAM was Spike
Lee’s first “white” movie--meaning that in contrast to most of his
previous films (SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X,
INSIDE MAN, etc) the cast is largely Caucasian. As usual, Lee made an
ass of himself promoting the film, stating that then-NRA head Charlton
Heston “should be shot with a .44 Bulldog,” a thinly-veiled reference to
the type of gun used by David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the “Son of Sam,” who
terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977.
SUMMER OF SAM was heavily criticized for its allegedly
stereotypical portrayal of Italian Americans, although no less an
authority than Martin Scorsese stated (in Premiere Magazine) that
the film is actually quite accurate in its recreation of a very specific
time, place and atmosphere. It was not a success at the box office, but
I believe SON OF SAM remains one of Spike Lee’s most memorable films.
During the summer of 1977 an Italian community in New
York City is thrown into an uproar by a succession of random shootings
of women with shoulder-length brown hair, perpetrated by the
self-proclaimed Son of Sam. The latter is a chunky freak who lives alone
and believes dogs are speaking to him.
Among those impacted is the studly hairdresser Vinny,
who goes to pieces after seeing a couple of Sam’s victims outside his
house. Vinny finds his relationship with his wife Dionna, which was
already strained by his incessant womanizing, crumbling amid the terror
of Sam’s killings. Also impacted is Vinny’s best friend Richie, who’s
just returned from a trip to the UK and antagonizes his pals by talking
and dressing like a British punk rocker. The fact that Richie also turns
tricks in a gay club doesn’t exactly improve his standing.
Vinny and Richie’s pals take it upon themselves to
patrol the neighborhood, and beat up anyone different from themselves.
More mayhem occurs during a citywide blackout, precipitating mass
rioting and ratcheting the tension up another level. Following a
debauched nightclub orgy Vinny and Dionna have a violent altercation…and
Sam’s killings continue.
Suspicion for the shootings falls upon Richie. Vinny’s
pals convince the mentally deteriorating Vinny to lure Richie out of his
house to be beaten up--just as the real Son of Sam is finally
In common with many of Spike Lee’s 1990s productions (CROOKLYN,
GIRL 6, HE GOT GAME), SUMMER OF SAM is excessively scattershot and
long-winded. There are impressive elements but also quite a few annoying
ones (including the distracting conveyer belt-cam that has the effect of
making actors move while standing still, which Lee insists on using in
nearly all his films). The good stuff, however, ultimately outweighs the
Lee makes excellent use of tunes like the Who’s
“Teenage Wasteland” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Abba’s “Dancing
Queen,” and the film’s overall recreation of Disco-era New York feels
authentic. Not all the performances are up to snuff, but Adrien Brody
and John Leguizamo (in an adroit reversal of the standard Hollywood
practice of casting white actors in Hispanic roles) are top notch, while
Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito provide enormous sex appeal (though
not a whole lot else) as the female leads.
Viewers expecting a straightforward true crime saga
a la ZODIAC
will be disappointed, as Lee has turned out a highly impressionistic
account that delights in visual quirks. Lee’s primary concern is with
creating an overall atmosphere of apprehension and suspicion, and he
“Sam” is as much a psychological force here as he is a
physical one--and a good thing, as the scenes of the killer (Michael
Badalucco) harassed by a talking dog are seriously goofy--infecting
people’s minds and affecting the way they interact and have sex. This
film’s sexual content, it must be said, is quite strong for a big studio
movie, which gives it a definite edge (and probably contributed to its
failure at the box office).
SUMMER OF SAM may be long-winded, but it has a lot of
uncomfortable truths, and is even, in its own wonky,
bulging-at-the-seams manner, quite exciting.
SUMMER OF SAM
Director: Spike Lee
Producers: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee
Screenplay: Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Editing: Barry Alexander Brown
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito,
Anthony La Paglia, Ben Gazzara, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, John
Savage, Michael Badalucco, Michael Rispoli, Mike Starr, Spike Lee