“If anybody gets up, they’re dead. Anybody moves, they’re dead. Anybody makes a sound before I leave this movie, they’re fucking dead,” the voice of John Wojtowicz, “The Dog,” warns us as the leader tape counts down to the start of the documentary about his life. Right away you wonder if his bark is as bad as his bite. It doesn’t take long to figure out that they are one and the same.
Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite movies. Directed by a former Dead End Kid, Sidney Lumet, and starring Al Pacino in an instantly iconic role. It wasn’t iconic just because of the great acting, it was original, daring and ahead of its time. John Wojtowicz, the Dog in The Dog and Dog Day Afternoon, was original, daring and ahead of his time. Wojtowicz pretty much loved Dog Day Afternoon and when he got out of prison after completing a six-year sentence he rechristened himself Dog. He is still The Dog.
The new documentary The Dog, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, looks at the man who robbed a Brooklyn bank on a hot sunny day to pay for his wife’s sex change. A sex change Wojtowicz didn’t even want him to have, by the way, because John wanted the man he fell in love with at first sight. Oh, did I have to mention that his wife was a man?
The documentary is a historical gem, telling the story of the rising gay rights movement in New York City with copious vintage film. It is also a suspenseful crime doc: the planning, the false starts, the fights and the pre-robbery fucking are all detailed. Very detailed. You might say graphically detailed. But every detail rings true with the honesty of the liars who lived it.
But what works best, for me, what always works best for me, is the humor. Sure, it’s a serious subject that the filmmakers take seriously, but that doesn’t make it dry. It is filled with the everyday, casual wit of the streets of seventies Brooklyn. Everyone has a sad story to tell, but Berg and Keraudren make them happy to tell it. And when they tell it, every story has at least one laugh-out-loud line. It was like listening to my family. The cadences, the casual way profanities, obscenities, and perversions slip off the tongue as mere descriptions.
Wojtowicz is a self-professed pervert because he loves to fuck. Men, women, transsexuals, what’s it matter? He’s not unromantic and he’s not without his charm. One thing you have to say about John “The Dog” Wojtowicz is the guy’s got charisma. Pacino caught a lot of this in Dog Day Afternoon, but even without the classic “Attica Attica” scene, Pacino’s Sonny crystalizes Wojtowicz’s magnetism with humor and self-effacement. That’s the way John comes across. When he tells a story, no matter how great or horrible the scenario might be, he brings humor. John Wojtowicz is a steadily uneven mix of bravado and humility. He can’t believe he got to be in the situations he was in, but he wants you to know was the first one there. It doesn’t matter if he’s bullshitting or setting the record straight, sometimes in the same sentence, he’s an outsider looking in and an insider looking out.
The Dog zips along at a car chase pace under the deft editing of Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. The interviews are so animated they are themselves an action movie. These are raw memories pouring out of real players and they conjure images no actor can access. Pacino acts the shit out of Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, but Wojtowicz was the shit. No shit. For all his bullshit, the whole story, down to the camera angles, are in his words and in the pauses between the words.
John Wojtowicz came of age in the sexually liberated sixties and put the most hedonistic rock stars’ sexual appetites to shame. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and didn’t gamble. He was an angel, with horns, and that made him one horny angel, because the only thing left to him was fucking. He neither discriminated nor regretted any love or fun he grabbed. You get the feeling he remembers every quickie, or maybe every other one. He had his first gay experience in basic training on his way to Vietnam. He was having a dream about getting a blow job to find a hillbilly named Wilbur sucking him off. Wilbur blew great, “like a summer breeze,” and the Goldwater Republican happily rode that action straight to Saigon and Da Nang, where he became a McCarthy peacenik after 90 percent of his unit was killed. Wojtowicz says he only lived through the war to spite his future in-laws.
John Wojtowicz says he’s a romantic. There’s sex and there’s love, Wojtowicz considers himself a lover and he knew, idiot, that it is possible to love more than one person. He had four wives and 23 girlfriends. They all knew each other. Like The Rock, as the Prudential Insurance Company was known, he gave a piece to everyone. Wojtowicz was an early gay activist. He joined the organizations to get laid, not for any particular reasons, but he always volunteered to be on the front lines.
But then comes the archival footage. Miles of it. The entire landscape of New York City is caught from street level and fire escapes on every available medium. Professional news coverage mixes with super eight home movies. Major motion picture clips crash up against public access shows. The sexual liberation is laid bare on Betamax, VCR and 16 millimeter pieces of celluloid. Street signs and billboards that I haven’t seen since I was a kid flash by and it feels like my life is passing before my eyes. There’s old Times Square. I miss old Times Square, where you could get a pint of ether and some codeine cough syrup or watch movies for seven hours straight for three bucks. There’s the old Village, the old clubs, the old clothes, hairstyles and shoes. There goes disco, The Stonewall, the Wonder Wheel and Nathan’s Famous. You don’t have to be interested in The Dog to get a visceral kick out of the footage. It is history.
This bank robbery galvanized New York City at the time. We all watched it on TV. I heard it on the radio. One of my uncles went to 3rd and Avenue P in Gravesend to watch. Three years later, Al Pacino gave a phenomenal turn as “Sonny.” Pacino caught the body language of Wojtowicz so expertly that it is sometimes hard to tell photos taken during the failed heist from movie stills.
The documentary really underscores how much trouble Dog Day Afternoon went to for the perfect casting. Carmen Bifulco, John’s first wife, gives her side of the story and you have to check to make sure she isn’t being played by Susan Peretz. Judith Malina, who I loved so much in the feature film, was just a mere shade less mama superior than Terry, John’s mom. Terry followed her son to the clubs, spying on him. She calls him on his stories. Christopher Sarandon was actually underplaying Ernie Aron, later Liz Eden.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren started filming The Dog in 2002. All the major players have died along the way. John Wojtowicz died of cancer in his mother’s house at age 60 on January 2, 2006. Liz died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987.The film marks their passing with bittersweet endnotes and snapshots on a shelf.
I watched Dog Day Afternoon again after watching this documentary and it was a new movie. It must have been my twentieth time watching Dog Day Afternoon in my lifetime. It’s always been pure joy to watch and as I shared it with my kids, The Dog kept crowding it out of my consciousness. I corrected and explained all the tiny details. I was as excited to watch it as the first time I saw it and I will love The Dog forever for that alone.
The Dog will hit theaters on August 8th and be available On-Demand on August 15th.