August 22, 1972: two men walk into a Brooklyn branch of Chase Manhattan, intending to rob it. They take seven bank employees hostage. The police barricade the place. The press gets a whiff of the situation and the scene becomes a media circus, with one of the would-be robbers front and center negotiating with police. After 14 hours, the negotiating would-be robber makes it out alive; the other man ends up shot down by the FBI. The surviving man would go on to serve 6 years in prison, make enough money to cover his partner's gender reassignment surgery, and become a Greenwich Village cult figure. You may not remember his name, John Wojtowicz, but you should recognize Sonny Wortzik, his cinematic counterpart.
Wojtowicz's real-life story inspired a LIFE magazine article, a book and a film starring Al Pacino as Wortzik. Yes, the one where he screams "Attica, Attica!" That movie was Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, which placed fourth at the 1975 box office and was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning one for Original Screenplay). The New York-set film received acclaim for the authentic storytelling and performances from critics like Pauline Kael, who called it "One of the best 'New York' movies ever made" in her New Yorker review. Almost 40 years later, Dog Day Afternoon continues to rank highly amongst casual movie watchers and cinephiles alike. This impact continues to be felt and could be seen at this year's New York Film Festival. Two of the festival's selections reference the seminal film in particular, but in entirely different ways in the forms of The Dog, a New York-centric documentary, and Alan Partridge, a British broad comedy.
Directed by Declan Lowney, Alan Partridge is the latest (and first cinematic) installment in the adventures of Norwich-based radio DJ Alan Partridge (a role Steve Coogan has perfected over the past two decades, first having appeared on the British radio program "On the Hour" in 1991). After a recently fired former coworker comes back to the radio station with a shotgun and takes the office hostage, Partridge assumes the role of mediator between the disgruntled fellow DJ (Colm Meaney) and the British police. As the de facto face and voice of the hostage situation, Partridge ends up on the news and gets a bump up in his career with a new albeit unearned level of celebrity thanks to YouTube. Sound familiar? Steve Coogan said, "One of our reference points was Dog Day Afternoon because that film has a big siege in it, it's an extraordinary event that's actually quite localized and, in the scheme of things, not a huge story." Alan Partridge juggles taking a distinctly British character in front of a worldwide cinematic audience and succeeds by following Dog Day Afternoon's similar, albeit more dramatic, model of authenticity (Norwich vs. Brooklyn) and broader themes (waning sanity in both) to a boatload of laughs both here and abroad.
The creative team (including The Thick of It and VEEP scribe Armando Iannucci) utilizes the events of Dog Day Afternoon, including a few nods like ordering pizza and an older female figure (Partridge's assistant rather than Wortzik's mother) coming to visit. While Dog Day Afternoon's fast structure added drama to the situation, Alan Partridge relies on the script's quick British wit to keep the pacing up and that adds to the onslaught of chuckles. Coogan (a big Pacino fan) explained at the film's NYFF press conference that they had to cut back on the inventiveness of the photography early on ("too much dynamism in the camera moving that was distracting") in order to focus on the comedy. Along a similar vein, Dog Day Afternoon has received some criticism over the years that it didn't pack that Lumet signature style (12 Angry Men, Serpico) to which Lumet responded (on the 2006 edition DVD audio commentary), "the important thing in style is stripping away everything except what that picture needs." For Dog Day Afternoon, the picture was stripped to a story of struggling New Yorkers, fraught with emotional drama. For Alan Partridge, it was stripped to a string of really great punchlines from a struggling Norwich DJ, fraught with middle age and charmingly obtuse personality.
On the other side of the Dog Day Afternoon spectrum, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren took the singular subject of John Wojtowicz and fleshed him out into a dynamic, larger-than-life feature-length documentary The Dog. Over a decade ago, the two documentary filmmakers were watching Dog Day Afternoon and a lightbulb lit up over their heads. They tracked down the real-life inspiration of Sonny Wotzik and began filming in 2002, interviewing John and those who knew him along with researching the sexually liberated, downtown New York scene from the '60s onwards.
Though Wojtowitz' story story was told in the Dog Day Afternoon documentary Based on a True Story and a he participated in a short reenacting his infamous crime called The Third Memory, no one had explored his rather extraordinary life as a sort of "fucked up Forrest Gump," from growing up the son of Polish and Italian immigrants in Brooklyn to serving in Vietnam to being a peripheral member of the Gay Liberation movement to becoming national news to prison to "rehabilitation" to prison again to haunting the Greenwich Village scene (one of his usual haunts being Julius' on Tenth and Waverly, New York's oldest gay bar). In The Dog, Berg and Keruadren were able to string together a portrait out of a seemingly random though very jam-packed life (including 3 "wives," 2 children and 2 stints in jail).
Almost taking Vincent Canby writing, "The movie -- to its credit, I think -- makes no attempt to analyze Sonny" in his New York Times review as a challenge, Berg and Keruadren went through Wojtowicz's life and brought forth a narrative about a man who would not live by society's rules. From his wooing his only female wife Carmen Bifulco to his dying day, Wojtowicz remained the same stubborn, passionate, horny, shit-talking Brooklynite. Though he had sex with both men and women, Wojtowicz always considered it in love in his old school way and called his serious partners his "wives," whichever gender they happened to be or want to be. The film follows his story without judgment and offers an overall look at his life that Wojtowicz didn't live long enough to string together for himself; one of fearing, wanting and ultimately fading. With a brother put in an institution and his own jail time, Wojtowicz understood that the system could strip you of your rights and basic humanity in a moment, so you'd better make the most of it while you could. Through it all, that's what makes John Wojtowicz one of the most intriguing figures this year in cinema.
Alan Partridge and The Dog utilize Dog Day Afternoon for different means, but both succeed magnificently well in their ends, albeit in very different ways. While one takes the plot of Dog Day Afternoon to garner laughs at the expense of its tried true comedic lead, the other takes the real-life basis of that film and gives a voice to a larger-than-life character who would have been lost to the wayside of film and local New York trivia.
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.