Those whose movie addiction firmly took hold in the 1970s have a deep affinity for such films as Nashville, Taxi Driver, and Dog Day Afternoon, three perfect melds of storytelling and cinematic virtuosity. What many may forget about the latter film - directed by Sidney Lumet and with a volcanic Al Pacino at its core - is that it was based on a real bank robbery concocted by a real person, now the subject of The Dog.
Born to a Polish father and Italian mother, John Wojtowicz went to Vietnam a Goldwater conservative but came back a “peacenik.” His dual personality played out in the bedroom as well; his first wife, Carmen, was soon trumped by his second spouse, Ernie, a man whose female persona was known as Liz Eden. It was Ernie’s wish to have a “sex change operation” (as it was known in the early Seventies) that propelled John’s plan of August 22, 1972 to rob a bank in Brooklyn to pay for the surgery.
Dog Day Afternoon unfolded all on one sweltering day, with John (played by Pacino, with the name Sonny) and an accomplice taking the bank employees hostage and making increasingly strange demands. Indelible scenes from the film include Pacino working the sidewalk like a carnival barker, blowing kisses to the thousands who had gathered behind police barricades, throwing bills into the air, and taunting the officers with chants of “Attica! Attica!”
News crews captured the whole day with less artistry than Lumet’s. It's surprising that in that less tolerant decade, the police seemed to sincerely acknowledge one of John’s demands: that Ernie be brought to the scene from the psych ward in which he’d been hospitalized for a suicide attempt. The ordeal ended with the hostages safe, the accomplice dead from a bullet to the brain, and John on his way to a shockingly short stint in prison.
Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, The Dog was luckily filmed before several of its participants had passed away, including John, his mother Terry, and the first wife, Carmen. John is a charismatic character even toward the end. He gives the filmmakers a colorful tour of his coming out in the Stonewall era and as a member of one of the earliest gay rights group, the Gay Activists Alliance. Much of John's early activism was filmed by a GAA member and it’s noteworthy that John and Ernie’s wedding may be the first between same sex partners ever recorded. Also ahead of the curve was his mother, who’s seen at the ceremony offering full support of her self-described “pervert” of a son.
In a welcome feat of scheduling choreography, Dog Day Afternoon and The Dog are both playing at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown, where audiences have the chance to see either the true story, the cinematic version, or binge on the pair of worthy titles.
The Dog| Dir. Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren | 100 minutes | Playing at Alamo Drafthouse, 1400 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 816-474-4545.