Today is July 29, and on this day 37 years ago, serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam,” began his horrific killing spree in New York City that would last until the following August. Berkowitz’s reign of terror over New York during that hot summer was the starting point of one of my favorite films, and one that I simply can’t understand why it doesn’t have greater recognition: Summer of Sam, made in 1999 by Spike Lee.

Summer of Sam is a great film because it’s much less about the serial killings of David Berkowitz than it is a portrait of life in New York, especially its ethnic and racial tensions, in a time that is now largely relegated to history. The main character, Vinnie (John Leguziamo), is an Italian-American hair stylist who constantly runs around on his wife (played by Mira Sorvino). One of his good friends is Ritchie, played by Adrien Brody, a young musician who plays in a punk band and takes after the British punk scene rather heavily–down to mimicking a Cockney accent. There are numerous supporting characters, including the gangster boss of Vinnie’s neighborhood, played by Ben Gazzara, and Mike Starr as Ritchie’s stepfather. All the characterizations are very well done.

What does this have to do with the killer? Well, the wildcat shootings by the Son of Sam terrorize the city and ratchet up the tensions more. The real arc of the story concerns Ritchie, whose neighbors begin to suspect that he is really the Son of Sam. The film’s central conflict is not about this, really, so much as it is about what it takes to dare to be different, and where the limits of friendship lie in tense social situations.

Summer of Sam is brilliantly shot and wonderfully directed. The city as it appeared in 1977 is spot-on. The film just feels hot–you can see heat shimmering off sidewalks and the humidity everywhere. The film also does something with the gangster character, Luigi, that you don’t often see in movies: the relationship of the Mafia to local neighborhoods. During the infamous New York City blackout of July 1977, the people of Luigi’s neighborhood fear that the darkness will be a temptation to the Son of Sam to commit more murders indiscriminately.  Luigi responds by organizing the young men of the neighborhood into patrols armed with baseball bats who basically lock down the neighborhood–while Luigi entertains everyone else by throwing a huge block party.

The film also plays on sexual tensions. Vinnie yearns for more adventurous sex in his marriage, but is afraid to ask his wife for anything more than straight missionary sex. In the meantime, Ritchie is revealed to be bisexual, and performs at a local gay club for money; this is known by his girlfriend. Adrien Brody’s performance as Ritchie is quite deep and very colorful. I think he probably deserved at least a nomination for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he would in fact win Best Actor in 2002 for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist).

Despite all it has to offer, this film’s reputation is shockingly mixed. It only has a 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes and critical response was largely, “Meh.” Spike Lee is uneven as a director, but this is easily his best film since 1989’s Do The Right Thing. Given the general weakness of strong movies in 1999, I think Summer of Sam is considerably better than the film that took home the Oscar for Best Picture that year, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (which is a very good film in its own right).

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, do check it out. Watch it at night after a hot day–there will still be plenty of those left this summer, I’m quite sure.