Sometimes a Dateline profile would be enough.
Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino and John Cazale, was based on the true story of a man by the name of John Wojtowicz. Wojtowicz, along with his literal partner in crime Salvatore Naturale, held up a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank. What set this apart from most (possibly all) other bank robberies, is that Wojtowicz robbed the bank to pay for his boyfriend Elizabeth Eden’s sex change operation. If Sally Jesse Raphael was doing a show in the early 1970’s, this story would have taken up roughly a month’s worth of episodes.
Filmed over several years, the documentary The Dog profiles the life of John Wojtowicz before, after, and mostly during the kind of successful (for Eden at least) bank heist. Wojtowicz, a self-described pervert because of how much he likes sex, is definitely an interesting person in some ways. On camera he has a mouth that would make sailors blush, very openly talks about sex with multiple partners as if it was just him relaying the details of a business meeting, and speaks about the bank robbery as if it isn’t that big of a deal. He is very profane yet somehow detached at the same time.
The film spends quite a bit of screen time talking with Wojtowicz’s mother, who seems to be the biggest familial influence in his life. Nothing much is brought up about Wojtowicz’s dad in the movie, besides the fact that most people didn’t know him very well and that the mother seemed to make the pants in the family. Wojtowicz has two brothers but only one, Tony, is featured in the film. He is special needs and has been a ward of the state since he was a kid. Wojtowicz has a good relationship with him though and they are shown going on outings together throughout the film.
The Dog is a well-made film, but I couldn’t stop asking myself if this story deserved another movie made of it, documentary or not. Although Wojtowicz is an odd person, the film definitely feels a bit padded as it goes along and drags a lot in the middle. The filmmakers try to tie the story of Wojtowicz together with the burgeoning gay movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to varying degrees of success. Although I don’t doubt that Wojtowicz was highly involved in the NYC gay scene (there are pictures in the film to prove it), the history lesson kind of muddies the story and adds an unnecessary layer to an already kind of bloated documentary. Bloated at an hour and forty minutes I might add, and therein lies the rub.
The Dog is a film that would work very well (and probably has) as an episode of Dateline, or a similar news program, but as a film it lacks a through line. Wojtowicz is diagnosed with cancer as the film nears its close and by the end he has died. The filmmakers (Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren) try to wring some meaning out of this element, but it mostly falls flat. It isn’t that Wojtowicz wasn’t an interesting guy, rather at the end of the day he is still a guy that is only really known due to a bank robbery and he managed to milk that little bit of fame for over thirty years. Not that he was living the high life by any means, but this is still a man that was a criminal, and a rather bad one at that. Does his life story really warrant a quasi-fictionalized version and a documentary? I tend to err on the side of not so much, but perhaps others will find the film enthralling.
If Dog Day Afternoon didn’t exist, I might be able to more fully recommend The Dog, but as it stands I can’t really get behind the film. It feels like it’s a lot longer than it is because of padding, and the point of the movie is never fully clear. It just kind of meanders at the start and finish, with the middle just retelling a story that most people will know. John Wojtowicz was an interesting fellow, but The Dog never really gets its footing. Attica indeed.
Until next time…