This entry is part of the Always a Bridesmaid Blogathon 2019 for July 10: Favorite Character who is Barely Onscreen, but Working it
Character = Miriam in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) + Miriam in Inside Man (2006)
Dog Day Afternoon – It begins as a typical day in New York for Miriam, who is working her 9 to 5 as a bank teller. It’s a beautiful day outside and she and her co-workers are all clothed in cheery, colorful dresses (Miriam’s is the cutest of the bunch, a mint green number with dark polka dots and a pink flower corsage). Suddenly, three customers pull out guns and her normal day becomes anything but. She remains cool (she doesn’t quit chewing her gum throughout the ordeal) as she and her co-workers find themselves in the midst of a very bumbling bank robbery turned hostage situation. It is chaotic from the beginning; one of the robbers bails on the endeavor before a dollar has even been flashed around.
From the start, Miriam and her coworkers don’t quite seem to know what to think, fluctuating from confusion to terror to amusement. They watch with interest as bank robber Sonny (Al Pacino) batters back and forth over the phone with the cops, who are quickly informed of the situation going on inside the bank. Standing behind Sonny, Miriam smiles and waves to camera crew when she realizes they are being filmed from the outside as a crowd gathers and they become news.
I know I wouldn’t have been this cool, but Miriam is a New Yorker, the epitome of cool. Her armor breaks only once, at the beginning when she is enlisted to retrieve money from the vault and has to deliver the bad news to Sonny and his partner Sal (John Cazale) that it’s already been picked up and there’s barely anything left for them. Sonny is crushed, but doesn’t take it out on Miriam. They learn that’s not in his nature and they soon have got Sonny and Sal pegged. Sonny and Sal are clearly nervous, prone to sweating, shouting, talking frantically to each other, yet their hostages do not seem to fear them. They quickly come across as two guys who are not career criminals, but normal people with families and money troubles, who were driven to a desperate act. Their hostages end up feeling sorry for them and often side with them against the police. This feels less like Stockholm syndrome than it does just basic human empathy. Sonny and Sal are truly desperate men and it’s hard not to sympathize with them.
Flash forward to Inside Man – Another normal day in a New York bank. Customers are waiting in line or using the ATMs when a group of bank robbers in head to toe disguises pull out guns and demand everyone line up, turn in their phones, and undress to their underwear.
I’d like to think that the Miriam in Inside Man is the same Miriam in Dog Day Afternoon, now 30 years older and this new hostage deal feels like old hat. Only Sonny and Sal didn’t wear disguises or try to make her undress. So when Clive Owen’s bank robber menaces her with his gun and tells her to strip to her skivvies, she’s not having it. She is the only one of the hostages who talks back, despite having a gun in her face. This situation is much more frightening than Sonny and Sal’s brand of bank robbery. The robbers in this scenario appear to know what they are doing and are not tolerating any nonsense (as one unfortunate bank employee finds out). Miriam’s defiance is truly a brave act.
The actress who played Miriam in both films is named Marcia Jean Kurtz. In the 1970s, when my mom was living in New York, they lived in the same apartment building. They never had a real conversation and Mom only knew her by sight and the occasional nod in the hallway or at a tenants meeting. She realized she was an actress when she saw Dog Day Afternoon in the theatre and recognized her. Mom and I have followed her career throughout the years. We have enjoyed watching her not only in Dog Day Afternoon and Inside Man, but in films like Requiem for a Dream, Center Stage, and in one of her meatiest roles as the opinionated principal in the gorgeous masterpiece that is Arranged. She was born in the Bronx and attended Juilliard, earning a B.S. in dance. 4 years before appearing in Dog Day Afternoon in 1975 with Al Pacino, she made her film debut in another Pacino film, Panic in Needle Park. In addition to films, she has worked in television and on the stage. She is still working as an actress today; her latest IMDB credit is listed as If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018.
Kurtz’s repeat performance as a hostage named Miriam was no accident on the part of Inside Man‘s director Spike Lee, who said of the screenplay, “I liked the script and really wanted to do it. Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet, is one of my favorite films, and this story was a contemporary take on that kind of movie.”  Also appearing in both Dog Day Afternoon and Inside Man was actor Lionel Pina, who delivers pizza in the former then plays a pizza delivering police officer in the latter. So again, no accident. Kurtz has also appeared in several Sidney Lumet films since Dog Day Afternoon.
Both Dog Day Afternoon and Inside Man are incredible films (my two favorite of the bank robbery genre, in truth) and wouldn’t be half as much fun if they were without the defiant, cool presence that is Miriam (and Marcia Jean Kurtz). So, while I would suggest that Miriam just stay out of banks from now on, I’d sort of be disappointed if she did.