Summer of Sam Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

The city that never sleeps has come to a standstill.

Summer of Sam Logo

On the morning of July 29th 1976, approximately 1 am in the morning, Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti were shot in their car by an unknown assailant, who was armed with a .44 Charter Arms Bulldog handgun. Though Donna was killed instantly in the hail of bullets, Jody was able to escape and seek help after the attacker fled on foot. But because of the shock of the incident, she was unable to provide a useful description of the assailant to police. With no apparent motive and little evidence to go on, the New York Police Department classified the assault as a random act or a botched mob hit. However, what they did not realize at the time was that Donna Lauria was merely the first victim of New York's most notorious serial killer, David Berkowitz, whose random attacks eventually paralyzed the city of New York in the summer of '77.

Two more attacks occurred during the fall of 1976, injuring three more New Yorkers. Unfortunately, despite a similar modus operandi, the police were never able to recover an intact bullet from the crime scenes, and thus never linked the separate attacks to the same individual. However, on January 30th 1977, another shooting claimed the life of Christine Freund, after which the case came to the attention of Detective Sergeant Joe Coffey. After noticing the large bore of weapon used by the attacker, a .44 Charter Arms Bulldog, he formed a theory that it was the same weapon and the same individual that had been involved in the four unsolved attacks. Unfortunately, a detailed examination of the victim's histories did not yield any common elements that would point to a possible suspect, other than the fact that all the victims in the shootings were attractive brunettes with shoulder-length hair.

On March 8th 1977, after Viriginia Voskerichian was killed while on her way home from classes, the police had found a matching bullet that linked the attack to the previous four. The attack was followed by a press conference held by the city's police commissioner, who announced that the NYPD were seeking 'a white male, twenty-five to thirty years old, six feet tall, medium build, with dark hair'. In addition, the Operation Omega task force was organized, chartered with identifying and stopping the unknown serial killer.

On April 17th 1977, a few short weeks after the Voskerichian shooting, the so-called '.44 caliber killer' struck again, killing Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau, as they sat in their car. However, this time around, Berkowitz left Captain Joe Borelli, the head of Operation Omega, a note that announced to the world his name-- Son of Sam.

Dear Captain Joseph Borrelli,
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the 'Son of Sam.' I am a little brat.
When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house.
Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood.
'Go out and kill,' commands father Sam.
'Behind our house some rest. Mostly young -- raped and slaughtered -- their blood drained -- just bones now.
Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by.
I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wavelength then everybody else -- programmed too kill.
However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first -- shoot to kill or else keep out of my way or you will die!
Papa Sam is old now. He needs some blood to preserve his youth. He has had too many heart attacks. 'Ugh, me hoot, it hurts, sonny boy.'
I miss my pretty princess most of all. She's resting in our ladies house. But I'll see her soon.
I am the 'Monster' -- 'Beelzebub' -- the chubby behemoth.
I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game -- tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are prettyist of all. It must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt-- my life. Blood for papa.
Mr. Borrelli, sir, I don't want to kill anymore. No sur, no more but I must, 'honor thy father.'
I want to make love to the world. I love people. I don't belong on earth. Return me to yahoos.
To the people of Queens, I love you. And I want to wish all of you a happy Easter. May God bless you in this life and in the next.

- excerpt of a letter left at a crime scene by David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam

Despite the intensive efforts of the task force, which included the creation of a psychological profile and checking all of the registrations of .44 caliber guns in the New York area, Berkowitz claimed more victims in the following months. Panic began to grip the city of New York, as brunettes began dyeing their hair blonde in the hopes of not becoming a Son of Sam victim, parents placed curfews on their children, and businesses closed early. With his actions awash in the glare of publicity, the Son of Sam brazenly wrote a letter to Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin, in which he implied an 'anniversary' killing, one year after having shot Donna Lauria. Though July 29th 1977 came and went without incident, Berkowitz claimed his last victim, Stacy Moskowitz, on July 31st.

With a collective sigh of relief, Berkowitz was arrested within ten days, and his subsequent trial landed him six consecutive life sentences. Interestingly enough, it was a parking ticket that had been issued to Berkowitz's car that had led police to identifying him as the Son of Sam. And thus ended the David Berkowitz's reign of terror. Today, over twenty years after his heinous crimes, Berkowitz still remains behind bars, though he now has another 'calling'. Having 'discovered' Jesus in 1987, Berkowitz has paradoxically become a Christian role model, and has even created two evangelical videos. Both feature Berkowitz offering a message of redemption and hope to the incarcerated and the wayward, and they are entitled "Son of Sam/Son of Hope" and "The Choice is Yours with David Berkowitz". Not surprisingly, the marketing and distribution of these videos have been met with controversy.

"Summer of Sam", the latest 'joint' from director Spike Lee ("He Got Game"), details the effect of Berkowitz's reign of terror on a small Italian neighborhood during the summer of 1977. And though Berkowitz (played by Michael Badalucco of "The Practice") does appear from time to time during the film, the film is actually a subtle examination of the widespread deterioration of American society, of which the Son of Sam was only one symptom. In addition, in the vein of "The Lord of the Flies", "Summer of Sam" explores how fear and intolerance can become the catalyst for ordinary people to commit some of the cruelest acts.

John Leguizamo

"Summer of Sam" follows two couples through the long hot summer of '77. The more perfect of the two is Vinny (John Leguizamo of "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet") and Dionna (Mira Sorvino of "The Replacement Killers"), a lovely married couple. The other couple is the pairing of Vinny's best friend and sister, the antisocial punk music fan Ritchie (Adrien Brody), and the local slut Ruby (Jennifer Esposito). Though there are a number of other supporting players-- including Ben Gazarra ("Buffalo 66") as the local Mafia boss, Anthony LaPaglia ("Trees Lounge") as a detective, and Lee himself as a roving reporter-- the focus of the story remains squarely on the dynamics of the two couples and the opposing transformations they undergo during the summer.

Though it seems that Vinny and Dionna have a wonderful marriage, it is quickly revealed in the film that Vinny is uncontrollably unfaithful. Unfortunately, Vinny is too quick to blame others for his transgressions, and as a result, he never takes responsibility for his own actions. Interestingly enough, even though he is involved in a number of ignominious activities, he holds those around him to a higher moral standard. On the other hand, though Ritchie and Ruby have less-than-reputable backgrounds, they are able to accept each other's shortcomings and form a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding.

I swear Ritchie... I think the guy saw my license plate... I think he might be stalkin' me.

Adrian Brody

Both couples find their lives increasingly complicated with the ongoing Son of Sam killings. One night, after being unfaithful to Dionna, Vinny stumbles across the bodies of Valentina Suriani and Alexander Esau, which leads him to believe that the killer may have seen his car and is now after him, which creates an interesting backdrop for Vinny's unending pangs of guilt. For Ritchie, the killings create an increasingly hostile environment for both Ruby and himself, as they are singled out for being 'different' and suspected of playing a role in the shootings.

As the long hot summer progresses, the city of New York is on the verge of exploding from the tension. Panic-stricken citizens have begun calling in their neighbor's suspicious activities to the police, baseball bat-wielding vigilante groups are patrolling the streets, and bold tabloid headlines have become the sole purveyor of coffee shop discussions. As the city races towards paranoia-induced anarchy and mob violence, the relationships between Vinny, Dionna, Ritchie, and Ruby are severely tested.

At first glance, "Summer of Sam" does not appear to be the archetypal Spike Lee joint. Unlike his previous films, the cast in this most recent film is predominantly white. In addition, whereas Lee's previous films have been described as 'sermonizing', offering often heavy-handed and unmistakable sociopolitical dogma (such as in "Get on the Bus"), "Summer of Sam" is much more subtle in the manner it delivers its cautionary 'message', through the use of metaphors instead of long-winded speeches. Furthermore, the dim pallor of Ellen Kuras' cinematography forms quite a contrast to the 'brighter' look of Lee's previous films.

However, there are some aspects of the production that are distinctively from the Spike Lee bag of tricks. The editing and scene construction in this film continues the tradition he began in "He Got Game", in which he uses multiple types of film stock and quick-cut interludes to bring an almost surrealistic quality to the proceedings, not unlike the 'Oliver-Stone-school-of-filmmaking' ("U-Turn"). One standout sequence has Vinny and Dionna dancing in an empty disco in a moment of magic surrealism (capturing the energy and sensuality of disco in the manner that "The Last Days of Disco" should have), and other sequences feature the distorted reality of Berkowitz's headspace.

In addition, another Lee touch is the juxtaposition of other media with the images he presents on the screen. For example, a pivotal argument between Vinny and Dionna is counterpointed by the syrupy backdrop of ABBA's "Dancing Queen", while a play-by-play of a Yankee's game echoes in the background as Berkowitz stalks one of his victims (which serves as an interesting commentary on the media's role during the crisis).

And despite the lack of black characters, "Summer of Sam" has much in common with Lee's "Do the Right Thing". Like his celebrated examination of racial tensions on a hot summer day in a New York neighborhood, this most recent film shows illustrates how seemingly inconsequential occurrences, coupled with intolerance and the need for scapegoats, can fray the fragile social fabric of a family, a community, and a city. It may be a different time, and a different part of the city, but the ultimate effect is the same.

I know who the killer is... I figured it out: Reggie Jackson.

Although "Summer of Sam" effectively captures the essence of the Seventies and provides an interesting commentary on the moral depravity that is endemic to modern society, there are a number of weaknesses in the script that prevent it from becoming a truly well-crafted film. Surprisingly enough, "Summer of Sam" is devoid of any well-developed characters, with many of them falling into predictable patterns. And though Leguizamo, Sorvino, and Brody turn in some very convincing performances, their motivations are never truly addressed-- they do what they do 'just because'.

This guy calls himself the Son of Sam... Uncle Sam... Yankee Doodle Dandy... the New York Yankees. What weapon does the killer use? .44 calibre. What's Reggie Jackson's number? 44.

Part of the problem is that the script (which Lee wrote with Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli) spends too much time illustrating the 'global' effects of the Berkowitz killings, such as the backroom deals between the police and the Mob, how Vinny's friends spend their days speculating on the identity of the Son of Sam, or Berkowitz's schizophrenic visions. While these diversions are interesting, they end up taking time away from the four central characters, and the end result is a very unfocused story that meanders slowly through its two hour and twenty-minute running time.

With "Summer of Sam", Spike Lee gives us an interesting look at a bygone era. It was a time when America was in transition between the high-rolling hyperinflation of the Seventies and the harsh recession of the early Eighties, between the happy-go-lucky dancehall beats of disco and the rise of the cheerless punk movement, and between the age of free love and the age of AIDS. It was a tumultuous time rife with uncertainty, and the Son of Sam killings only heightened the tension. In addition to the history lesson, Lee has also crafted a cautionary tale that speaks to a number of issues that are still valid in today's world-- times may have changed, but people remain the same. Unfortunately, weaknesses in the script derail Lee's intentions and diminish the intended impact, and the final result is a film that lacks the energy and urgency of its central conceit. In this instance, Lee could have done more with less.

Images courtesy of Buena Vista. All rights reserved.


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