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SUMMER OF SAM(director/writer: Spike Lee; screenwriters: Victor Colicchio/ Michael Imperioli; cinematographer: Ellen Kuras; editor: Barry Alexander Brown; cast: John Leguizamo (Vinny), Adrien Brody (Ritchie), Mira Sorvino (Dionna), Jennifer Esposito (Ruby), Michael Rispoli (Joey T), Bebe Neuwirth (Gloria), Patti LuPone (Helen), Mike Starr (Eddie), Anthony LaPaglia (Detective Lou Petrocelli), Roger Guenveur Smith (Detective Curt Atwater), Ben Gazarra (Luigi, mafia kingpin), Jimmy Breslin (himself), Michael Badalucco (Son of Sam), Spike Lee (John Jeffries), John Turturro (voice of Harvey the Black Dog); Runtime: 142; Touchstone Pictures; 1999)
“Spike Lee’s take on the summer of 1977 in New York City.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Spike Lee’s take on the summer of 1977 in New York City. It’s a time when a serial killer was on the loose, causing a citywide panic by killing couples parked in lover’s lane. The serial killer was David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, who was eventually apprehended due to a parking ticket that was traced to him.

But Spike is not that concerned with the serial killer as his perspective of the event is taken from how it influenced an Italian Bronx neighborhood, bringing out its paranoia. The most interesting character in the film is not David Berkowitz, but Vinny (Leguizamo) from the Bronx. He’s a hairdresser possessing a weak character, someone who has adapted to his neighborhood’s provincial attitudes, trusting only Italians who think like he does. It is through his tortured eyes that the viewer sees how a lynch mob mentality unfolds in a tight-knit Italian neighborhood, how sexually repressed these Bronx Catholics are, and how God will make Vinny pay for his sins. Vinny’s sins are: oral sex and adultery. Due to his repressions he refuses to have oral sex with his wife; he believes his wife shouldn’t do such things. Instead he has oral sex on his extra-marital affairs, which is his excuse for having the affairs. What changes his life is that he was almost the target of the serial killer on the night he made it with his wife’s cousin and is now guilt-ridden and thinks he has to change his ways or else. He believes that God gave him one more chance by sparing his life in favor of the other couple that was killed that night.

It was at times a film that bordered on greatness, but then for long stretches it seemed like a mess. It was filled with stereotypes of Italians, while losing track of its story about the psycho .44-Caliber Killer. It suffered from being too long (142 minutes), from failing to say anything relevant about the Son of Sam, and from being too ambitious. Son of Sam was unintentionally portrayed in a comic manner; he was seen talking to a barking black dog named Harvey and suffering because he was hearing delusional voices. Michael Badalucco’s characterization of the killer added nothing to the story. It was a disappointment that his character wasn’t even attempted to be explored, except as a caricature; we know nothing more about him from this film than the public did from the police sketches of him placed in the newspapers to identify him.

“Summer of Sam” concentrates its energy on two young Italian-American couples from the Bronx. The first couple is married for two years: Dionna (Mira) is a waitress in her father’s Italian restaurant; Vinny is her philandering, hairdresser husband. They both share a love for disco and the night-life. The second couple is made up of two lost souls who don’t quite fit into the neighborhood, but haven’t been able to move away. Ritchie (Brody) has just returned from England to live with his mother (Patti LuPone)and new step-father (Mike Starr), who upset him greatly by kicking him out of the house to live in the adjacent garage. He has returned with an affective accent imitative of the Sex Pistols, has spiked hair and is wearing a dog collar. The local girl he befriends is named Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), better known on the street as Ruby the Skank. She joins Ritchie in forming a punk-rock duo–providing a contrast to the disco marriage of Dionna and Vinny’s. Ritchie also has a secret life as a male performer in a gay theater on 42nd St., and is turning gay tricks to get some money to buy an expensive guitar. When this news hits the neighborhood it is too much for the locals to handle, even his best friend Vinny turns against him. All the male leads seem to lead secret double lives.

The film derives its verve from the Daily News headlines of the mounting number of couples killed by the serial killer that summer and the scary headlines the paper keeps putting out to an alarmed public. We hear Phil Rizzuto covering the Yankee championship baseball season on radio. The team’s star is Reggie Jackson, who is amusingly connected by one of the neighborhood boys to the killings because his uniform number is 44. That is the same number as the type of gun used by the serial killer. Columnist Jimmy Breslin fills us in on the Daily News coverage where he was a reporter at that time. Spike acts as a black TV reporter who is pleasing to the white audience by playing down the ‘black thing.’ There is a Con Ed blackout in the record hot summer days of July which causes looting in Harlem, while in contrast it is shown how the local Mafia chiefs keep the white neighborhood looter-free.

Much like in Fritz Lang’s M the police are baffled by the killer and go to the underworld to get help, here they will go to Luigi (Gazzara) who is the local Mafia chief. He puts up a reward to get the killer and then puts together a list of those he suspects might be the pervert. Added to the mix of those on the look out for the Son of Sam are the local Italian wiseguys, who hang out by a sign that says Dead-End. Joey T (Rispoli) is the tough leader of this group, a low-level drug dealer who has a daughter and tries to keep his neighborhood free of social undesirables. He’s completely oblivious that what he is doing is paradoxical. Vinny and Ritchie are part of Joey’s group. The group suspects Ritchie of changing so much, making it possible for them to believe that he could be the Son of Sam. Meanwhile, Vinny’s life seems to be unraveling and he is too confused and drugged to understand what is going on.

It’s a messy film, moving in many different directions, but it is filled with all sorts of wild ideas and is always engaging. The lead performers Leguizamo, Brody, Esposito, Sorvino, and Rispoli give crisp performances. Leguizamo’s performance is very moving. His rage is what the film keys in on.

It is a film that should be praised more than it should be lambasted for its faults. It should be praised for showing how scared people are of those who are different from them and how they need to blame someone for what they don’t understand. The paranoid scene near the end of the film was particularly violent and revolting, giving the film the jolt it needed to make its case about those who are narrow-minded.

This was not a film about the killer, its victims, or about the summer of 1977, as much as it was a film about urban whites of Italian origin: their fears, their angers, their prejudices, their repressions, and their eroticism. Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) keeps the African-American view to the summer of 1977 down to the bare minimum. He shows the Son of Sam killings in their gruesome aspects, but maintains that is not the only horror story going on in the city. Therefore, little is made of the serial killings. It almost seems as if the story about the Son of Sam was not even needed. This was a film almost exclusively about an Italian neighborhood and their xenophobia, and it could have taken place in any year or season after 1950.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”