The Dog: Toronto Review

The Dog TIFF Still - P 2013

The Dog TIFF Still - P 2013

Vintage material and first-hand accounts add to engaging expansion on the true-crime tale

Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren meet the implausible real character behind "Dog Day Afternoon."

TORONTO — A nonfiction companion to one of the most memorable film portraits of New York City in the '70s, The Dog introduces viewers to John Wojtowicz, the bank-robber-with-a-backstory portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren have clearly spent years on the subject, interviewing the engagingly big-mouthed character when he was healthy and at different points in his fight with cancer (he died in 2006). The result offers both a fascinating expansion of the feature film's narrative and a picture of a sad but intriguing character; though it will reach most of its audience on video, a limited theatrical release would likely generate buzz.

The man who became famous for robbing a bank to pay for the sex-change surgery his male "wife" wanted actually had two wives at the time -- the other was a woman -- and would later add one to the roster without divorcing those two. "I'm sexually oriented," he explains, saying that while he doesn't drink, smoke or gamble, his libido knows no rest. But he believes in love -- twice here, he describes encounters as "love at first sight," and he did jail time as a result of extravagant gestures of devotion to two different partners.

After a quick rundown of his military service and first marriage -- heterosexual, but given that it was almost annulled on the wedding night, hardly straight-laced -- Wojtowicz offers a portrait of the Greenwich Village gay scene circa Stonewall. The Brooklyn boy joined nascent gay rights groups largely, it seems, to pick up men; more serious members of the Gay Activists Alliance are interviewed here to flesh out the scene.

Wojtowicz met the transsexual Ernie Aron in June 1971 and married him that December. They fought over Ernie's desire to become a biological woman (Wojtowicz says he wanted a partner "with big tits and a little dick"), but after Ernie attempted suicide and was institutionalized, he decided he had to come up with money for the surgery somehow.

Touring the filmmakers around what's left of his old haunts, Wojtowicz cheerfully explains how he recruited two men at a gay bar and drove around ineptly looking for easy-target banks. There's less detail about the robbery itself than one might expect (perhaps because Sidney Lumet did that job already); but we do meet Brooklynites who watched from the sidewalk that day. When they take him to the scene of his crime, the filmmakers even stumble across a man who was in the bank that day. He greets Wojtowicz with a hug.

Wojtowicz went back to the scene of the crime plenty, it turns out. After his release from prison (where he met third "wife" George Heath, interviewed here), Wojtowicz became something of a publicity whore, playing up his new connection to the movies and posing in an "I Robbed This Bank" T-shirt. Stories of how things played out with Ernie, now calling herself Liz Debbie Eden, are sad foreshadowing of the kind of exploitative dirty-laundry culture that would soon explode on daytime talk shows.

Interviews with Wojtowicz's first wife Carmen aren't as colorful as time spent with his mother Terry, who appears to have been just fine with having her ex-con son live at home and bring street kids home throughout the crack years. Terry (who has also died since filming) offers no real insight into how he became the sometimes delusional tough-talker we meet here, but she's a character in her own right. Talking heads aside, the movie gets a big boost from the wealth of news footage and post-standoff reportage the filmmakers cull from archives.

Production Company: Unleashed Films
Directors-Producers: Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren
Directors of photography: Amanda Micheli, Nim-Rod Bachar, Peter Ginsburg, Axel Baumann, Wolfgang Held
Editor: Frank Keraudren
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 100 minutes