20 August 2010

Every Dog Has His Day and So Does Every Sociopath

He was a big man there for a little while. Real big. Got his 15 minutes of fame and then some. His name was John Wotjowicz and he was a nobody. Until he robbed a bank. It was August 22, 1972 and in a span of a few hours the 27 year old loser had the full attention of the local media. Wotjowicz was not just on TV, he was live. Though this was a Brooklyn story, it ultimately gained national attention.

John and his partner Salvatore Naturile had come to be surrounded in the bank by hundreds of law enforcement officers. Thus the robbery became a hostage situation with the two holding eight bank employees and demanding a jet to the country of their choosing.

TV cameras were soon on the scene and Wotjowicz played to the camera. He was not a hero but he was a celebrity. It was reality TV years ahead of its time and without the artifice of a made up situation. It even offered what was by that day's standards a bizarre subplot. It turned out that Jim was married to a man (it simply wasn't done then at all) and part of his motivation for the bank heist was so that he could pay for his beloved's sex change operation. But of course that's not all, for Jim who also had a female wife and with her two young children. It was a story that wrote itself.

Wotjowicz drew a live crowd along with TV viewers and he knew how to work a room, so to speak. He could often be seen cavorting about outside discussing terms with the cops and FBI while Sal kept an eye on the hostages. Wotjowicz played to crowd and they loved it. This man was a classic sociopath.

But after 14 hours the drama ended at the airport with Naturile dead and Wotjowicz in handcuffs. So it goes.

Wotjowicz might have faded into obscurity but for the Sidney Lumet directed drama Dog Day Afternoon released three years after the actual events. Al Pacino played him with John's name changed to Sonny Wortzik. His story was now eternal, forever on film. And as the film has become a classic, never to be forgotten.

Part of the allure of the Dog Day is Pacino's performance, which remains one of the greatest ever in cinema. Premiere Magazine rated it as the fourth best of all time. As far as such things can be measured, they got it about right.

Pacino gave his character equal portions of charm, charisma, pathos, sensitivity, rage, insanity and most of all verve. It is an exciting performance for how daring it is. I still remember seeing it for the first time and being stunned by how compelling a persona he'd made of this man and how grounded in truth it all felt. It is nothing less than an extension of Brando's turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

In the entire film there are two shots fired and not a hint of a car chase or explosion. Instead we are presented a great deal of dialogue and it is so real and yet lively and thoroughly engrossing and entertaining.

The "real Sonny" not only entertained the crowds outside but his hostages as well. They were enthralled by this "character." It was not the Stockholm Syndrome nor even in this case the Brooklyn Syndrome. It was just being around a guy who had a special light glowing feverishly out of him. Never mind that he was somewhat bonkers.

Pacino is not the only actor to distinguish himself in the film. Charles Durning is wonderful as the chief negotiator and John Cazale played Sal. Every film Cazale appeared in before his premature death was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It can't just be a coincidence.

Dog Day Afternoon did not try to re-create the events depicted verbatim. Indeed much of the dialogue was improvised, per Lumet's desires. That decision enabled the actors to truly inhabit their characters and faithfully render the feeling of that day and the bizarre man in the middle of it. And for all that improvisation the movie does not stray very far from "the way it really was."

That it was to be a bank robbery like no other is evident early in the film. Sonny's gun is disguised in large long box with a ribbon on it. When the robbery is to commence he attempts to boldly whip the rifle out. Like many small things in life, it does not come off perfectly. The box stubbornly hangs on and Sonny has to whip it away. Then there is the matter of the third accomplice to the robbery. He gets a "bad vibe" about the whole thing and quickly begs off. He and Sonny argue a bit over the car keys before he splits.

It is a film remarkably free of cliches. It is more the type of film to be imitated. Such as the scene when Sonny famously gets onlookers to chant "Attica, Attica, Attica!" Sonny has fashioned himself into a local hero. Like the bandits of old who later became folk heroes. When his bisexuality becomes known, the gay community comes out to root on one of their own.

Dog Day Afternoon features one of the greatest sequences I've ever seen in a film. It comes about half way through the drama. Sonny suspects that the police are trying to break into the back of the bank. To discourage them he fires a shot into a transom. All hell breaks loose. We see it in quick cuts. From the cops running, to Sonny running, to Sal, to the hostages, to command central, back and forth we get quick glimpses of what each major player and group in the drama is doing in reaction to this single gun shot. It lasts not quite 40 seconds of screen time. In that short time we see and even feel a whirlwind of reactions and actions. Amazing stuff. Just like the story itself.

Footnote: Some years ago my darling wife, Kathryn, was living in Santa Barbara (we had not yet met). An acquaintance had organized a visit into Lompoc prison as part of a program he was involved in. There was to be a group session between a few civilians and some of the inmates. Kathryn went along. Among the group of prisoners was John Wotjowicz. He bore no resemblance to Pacino pasty faced, reddish brown hair and not nearly as handsome. She remembers him as a charismatic man (typical of sociopaths) who went to great lengths to impress everyone.

Wotjowicz was able to see some profit from the film (it is no longer legal to so profit from a criminal endeavor) and thus paid for his lover's sex change operation. She died of AIDS at the age of 41 in 1987. That same year John was released from prison having served 25 years. He died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.

1 comment:

Tudor Queen said...

I've loved this movie since I first saw it in the theater. You really capture what makes it special - perhaps even unique.

In addition to the other performances you highlight, I'd like to mention Chris Sarandon as the neurasthenic Leon, and James Broderick as the icy FBI man, Sheldon.