Meet John Wojtowicz. At 2:50pm, August 22, 1972, he and two barroom acquaintances entered the Chase Manhattan Bank on Avenue P in Brooklyn, New York, with the intent to rob the financial institution. The motive for the heist? To secure the $25,000 necessary for a sex reassignment operation for Wojtowicz’s lover, the pre-operative transwoman Liz Eden, who was on suicide watch at a psychiatric ward after a near-overdose of sleeping pills. Within minutes, however, police swarm the building and the two remaining holdup men take the bank’s employees hostage in a desperate ploy to avoid capture. A 13-hour standoff ensues, the bungled robbery transformed into a three-ring circus attended by the media and borough residents with the attention-hungry Wojtowicz as its ringmaster. The sideshow ends on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport when law enforcement kills the second assailant, 18-year-old Salvatore Naturale, and arrests Wojtowicz while the exhausted hostages are released to safety. Of course, this stranger-than-fiction account of a bank robbery gone terribly wrong inspired Dog Day Afternoon, which screened in movie theatres three years later to great critical acclaim and box-office success. The raggedly entertaining documentary The Dog recounts this and other chapters in Wojtowicz’s unorthodox life by giving its abrasive, opinionated, reckless, in-your-face subject the spotlight (once again) in which to tell his story with uncensored relish. “I’m the bank robber,” he gleefully boasts at one point in the film, his snaggle-toothed grin wide. “Fuck Al Pacino.”
The Dog reveals both expected and unexpected things about this oddball character to keep you interested, such as his military service in Vietnam, his early gay-rights activism, and the details of his relationships with his first (female) wife, who bore him two children, and later (male) wives, including the ethereal, fragile Eden, who underwent sex reassignment surgery using the money Wojtowicz received for the film rights to the notoriously botched stickup. Wojtowicz’s narrative of that infamously hot and humid day over 40 years ago also discloses beyond-bizarre details not depicted in the movie, such as the would-be bandits’ matinee viewing of The Godfather at a 42nd Street theatre beforehand to criminally inspire them. Throughout, it’s evident that the “Dog,” an unflattering nickname presumably based upon the 1975 film and Wojtowicz’s insatiable sexual appetite (but not as explicitly descriptive as “Littlejohn Basso,” the sobriquet the self-proclaimed horndog happily explains as referring to his Italian heritage and dick size) loves the idea of a captive audience (meaning you). Eventually, his sometimes comic, often pitiable need to feed a hungry ego gets in the way of the documentary’s full potential. Berg and Keraudren may get the co-directing credit here, but there’s no question who’s in charge of this show, as demonstrated by Wojtowicz’s frequent movie-set pronouncements of “Quiet on the set!” and “Cut!,” said in half-jest, half-seriousness. The man badly wants to prolong his 15 minutes of fame as much as possible, even when his gaunt and haggard appearance from spreading cancer signals its end. Try as you may, however, you can’t turn away from this obscure footnote in pop culture history, even at his most aggravating. It’s that twisted thing we call celebrity.