Whether you watched Dog Day Afternoon for the first time or the tenth when The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series featured it one year ago, you can surely attest to it being one helluva movie. I recently caught it on the big screen and, boy, does it slay audiences. It’s always refreshing to see a film go over so well from a genre that looks comparatively tame compared to modern day equivalents. Shots remain unedited for minutes and yet the action and the tension are palpable.
Now, even if you’ve never seen Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterpiece then it’s still hard to deny that the true life story was seemingly made for movies...
...one of such ridiculous extremes and bonkers moments that you couldn’t make up if you tried. It’s a testament to Dog Day Afternoon’s continued strength that a documentary about the film’s real life figures hasn’t emerged until nearly 40 years later. The Dog is just that, but sadly audiences would be best to stick just to the Al Pacino vehicle as this doc from directors Allison Berg and François Keraudren is a disappointing, thoroughly unlikable waste of a moment in time that has already proven its dramatic chops.
Where the film goes drastically wrong is in the way it indulges in its subject, John ‘Sonny’ Wojtowicz. Whereas the film was very keenly aware of Sonny’s populist, anti-“the man” charm it also never failed to show the destructive harm he was causing to those around him. Berg and Keraudren frame their film around the larrikin persona that Sonny very consciously projects and it left a rather foul taste in my mouth. As he sits there in close-up regaling tales of his youth that should probably be taken with a large pinch of salt, insulting everyone who ever gave him the time of day, and trying to eke fame and money out of an illegal act, I found him a deeply uncomfortably watch.
When it does work is when it focuses on the gay culture of the period that Sonny is clearly unashamed to have partaken in. It is always going to be a fascinating era and the film feels like a missed opportunity in that regard given their direct access to somebody who was not only there and in the thick of it, but who also had a national profile due to his exploits. Furthermore, the trans community is so often left out of these stories is here in the form of Sonny's transgender lover of the time, Leon. I'd have much preferred a film about her - yes, she did get the surgery - especially given the tragic circumstances that befell her.
Interviews with Sonny's mother are far too frequent given she doesn't say anything particularly illuminating and doesn't add as much pathos as one might expect (consider Divine's mother in another recent queer doco, I Am Divine, for a better example of how it can be done with class). Her sequences feel more like filler than they ought to. Not helping matters is the truly ugly digital camerawork that is frequently highly pixelated and washed of color. As proven by last year’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot feature, Dog Day Afternoon is a surprisingly handsome movie. The Dog is ugly on and under the surface.
The Dog screens at NYFF on October 8.