Dog Day Afternoon
Dog day aftertaste

by Eric Holm

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Much-advertised as the “weird bank heist that really happened,” DOG DAY AFTERNOON is Lumet and Warner’s social consciousness film of the year, a sympathetic portrayal of a gay bank robber, to show us Warner knows that not all homosexuals are caustic, effete sissies like the ones in THE BOYS IN THE BAND. The film entertains while offering assurance that we live in a scandalously tragicomic but nonetheless tolerably well managed country. “Miami Republicans Pick Nixon Agnew Team. CIA Fosters Food Riots in Chile. Gay Bankrobber and Partner Hold Hostages in Brooklyn Bank.” That’s the way it was, August 22, 1972, but by the time Warner Communications got to it, only the crimes of the gay bandito were still news. The rest was history, which we go to the movies to forget about.

It had live, on-the-spot radio and TV coverage. Thousands of people jammed the streets around the besieged bank as the two robbers holding the staff hostage inside haggled for safe passage to Algeria with their loot. Until the robbers were maneuvered into a slick, FBI-controlled showdown at Kennedy Airport, they and their hostages carried on a copious dialogue with families, friends and reporters via telephone. The New York Times gave the event a long, front page story with photographs (upstaging Nixon and Agnew’s predictable convention victory) and lengthy followup the next day.

Soon after the reporters arrived, one of the robbers gave them a story too good for the National Enquirer. John Wojtowicz announced that he was robbing the bank in order to finance a sex change operation for his second wife, Ernie Aron, a transsexual. Wojtowicz and Aron had married during the previous December in a much publicized, mock Roman Catholic ceremony. Later the marriage went bad. Now, demanding the cooperation of the police, Wojtowicz summoned Aron from the King’s County Hospital where the latter had been recovering from a suicide attempt the weekend before. Garbed in sad, flapping institutional pajamas, Aron was led through the crowd, perhaps to be exchanged for one of the hostages. Arthur Bell, a gay Village Voice reporter and activist who had also been summoned to the bank by Wojtowicz, later tried to capture the tone of the scene outside, a raucous mélange of gay and straight bravado:

“Obviously, the whole reverse macho trip was part of the street excitement. Homosexuals are supposed to be victims. And here’s a tough guy John Dillinger victor. Instead of demanding his Lady in Red, Littlejohn was asking for his transvestite in pajamas.” (Village Voice, August 31, 1972.) [l]

But Ernie Aron was dissuaded from joining Wojtowicz’ getaway attempt, which continued downhill into Lewisburg Penitentiary and superstardom by proxy for the handsome, would-be rescuer of Aron from an unwanted male body.A month after the original robbery, Life ran a rather tacky pictorial story (“The Boys in the Bank,” September 1972) whose authors remarked that Wojtowicz resembled Al Pacino. Before the year was out, Wojtowicz got an ambiguous letter from Warner which, he still believes, offered him 1% of the net from a projected film, BOYS IN THE BANK (Village Voice, November 10, 1975). [2]

The projected net from DOG DAY AFTERNOON is $40 million worldwide. It’s not hard to see why Warner would invest heavily in a caper movie about a gay bankrobber who looks like Al Pacino, given the trendiness of Al Pacino, of movies dealing (however superficially) with homosexuality and of caper movies in a time of widespread impoverishment. (Caper movies reflect a trend in the real world: bank robberies were up 50% in fiscal ‘75, according to the FBI. As the chief of their bank robbery division puts it, “If you want water, you go to the well. If you want money, you go to the bank.”)

In the process of transforming Wojtowicz’ story into a bankable movie, much has been lost. Though appealing in his own way, the warm, mercurial, doggedly nice guy Al Pacino portrays in DOG DAY is not as overtly gay nor as bristling with contradictions as his original, Wojtowicz, is reported to have been.

“John was pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive. Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement. The next day, the mattress was removed, and there was talk about removing Littlejohn from membership. In June 1971, he requested that the members allow him to use the Firehouse for his wedding to someone (who wasn't Ernie). A heated floor debate followed: is a homosexual marriage against the goals of gay liberation, or did the goals of gay liberation encompass all life styles?” (Village Voice, August 31, 1972).

Wojtowicz postponed the ceremony and then fell in love with Ernie Aron, whom he married that winter. When he and Ernie separated, Wojtowicz took up with a male lover who visited him at the bank door the afternoon of the robbery and exchanged good wishes, hugs and kisses with him in view of the crowd. Gay reporter Bell tried to get police permission to participate in the negotiations, at Wojtowicz’s request, and even managed to persuade Ernie Aron to accompany him but was turned down by the FBI. In short, the intricacies of Wojtowicz’s life as a gay are much simplified in the film.

Left out of the film entirely is any mention of Wojtowicz’ reported Mafia connections. Wojtowicz had decidedly fallen out of favor with the Gay Activist’s Alliance in Summer 1971 over his association with Mike Umbers, the Mafioso manager of Christopher’s End (a gay bar) and various callboy and porno operations. After a period when Christopher’s End was closed by a police raid, Umbers had announced the reopening of his bar with an ad promising “Weird Sex Now.” According to Bell, the GAA immediately organized a demonstration outside the bar against Mafia exploitation of gays. Wojtowicz attended the planning meeting but appeared at the demonstration carrying a sign supporting Umbers, meanwhile having passed along information about the organizers’ plans to the mobster.

After the bank robbery Bell investigated claims by Wojtowicz’ friends that Limbers and soldiers of the Gambino family (New York-based Mafiosi owning many gay bars, including the renowned Stonewall) had set Wojtowicz and Sal up for the job at the Chase Manhattan branch bank. (Carlo Gambino, the godfather, was under indictment at the time for conspiracy to rob a Chase armored truck). Bell’s investigations brought bomb threats to the Village Voice, produced one scared witness who talked at length to the FBI and occasioned a perfunctory police raid on Umber’s porn publishing plant. Bell participated in several GAA business meetings in which conservative and radical gays debated over whether Wojtowicz was a counterrevolutionary lumpen adventurer victimized by the mob or a proud gay superfly caught in an act of righteous expropriation, but the debate was inconclusive.

The concerns that make these questions seem important are foreign to DOG DAY AFTERNOON. Wojtowicz’ contradictions, which mirror those of an urban gay scene incessantly leeched over by cops and capitalists, both legal and illegal, are chopped out, as is his overt sexuality. This results in a film “worldly” in ambience, inviting comparison with BANK SHOT (20th C. Fox), COPS AND ROBBERS (UA) and a few other “crazy New York City” caper films.

Lumet/ Warner’s snappy but squeamish development of Sonny’s (Wojtowicz’ ) character undercuts the film’s cautious exploration of human sexuality. In the end we are left with a fairly conventional story about a tragicomic overreacher whose virtues and vices have disposed him to a destructive, passionate involvement with a transsexual and thence into a bungling attempt at bank robbery that drags everyone around him into a dangerous and muddled confederation from which only the killing of Sal can extricate them. Sonny’s paternalistic, sex-role gamey sexuality is revealed in the end to be nothing more than a bizarre tragic flaw. The character Al Pacino plays might be a likeable monster of good intentions who has left his pudgy, frantic wife and kids for a svelte model in need of plastic surgery and the thrust of the movie would be much the same: people are funny.

At the beginning of the film Sonny looks like a fairly ordinary, caper film adventurer, swaggering through deep shit toward the promised land of easy big money. As soon as he starts burning the bank records in the wastebasket, even the bank manager can see he’s too manic and rigid to make it across without sinking. His victims are urging him on as detective Sgt. Marretti announces over the phone, “I've got you by the balls,” a nice touch of dream logic that signals the assembling of an appalling horde of cops, media people, crowds, people from his past who are completely appalled by what he’s doing. Gradually, Sonny’s identity is, as it were, dragged wincing and blinking from the closet to add to his growing pile of problems.

Because we make our way into Sonny’s world through what we see of Al Pacino (a superstar somewhat typecast as Likeable Ethnic Mensch), the faces Pacino makes as the facets of Sonny’s identity emerge are ambiguous. On the one hand, they're realistic (each new encounter as bankrobber with people from his pre-caper past is emotionally demanding). On the other hand, since we are well into the movie before we learn much about Sonny, Pacino’s grimaces carry a somewhat surreal cargo. “Surprise, surprise, Sonny the Bankrobber, you're on Candid Camera Is Your Life, and you've just been transformed into a gigantic homosexual with an ex-wife and kids, a transsexual second wife who thinks you're crazy for robbing this bank, a possessive mother who still loves you to pieces, and last but not least, a psychopathic partner who finds it a bit unsettling that those reporters are telling people he’s one, too!

True, stereotypical expectations of how homosexuals are supposed to act are somewhat deflated when audiences are drawn into sympathetic identification with a supenmensch bankrobber who turns out to be gay. But building audience sympathy for a homosexual who looks and acts like Al Pacino only takes us so far in the context of a film whose overall vision of human society and sexuality is so conservative. The only hints of lust in the film are Sgt. Marretti’s blatant latent “I've got you by the balls” and Sonny’s sexist remark to Marretti later, after Marretti’s patently insincere offer of a light sentence if Sonny surrenders: “Kiss me. I like to be kissed when I'm gettin’ fucked.” And though Sonny’s exchange over the telephone with his lover Leon is movingly done, it reinforces the film’s image of homosexuals as touching crazies while further defining Sonny’s identity as a horribly confused, ultimately self-destructive burden, a pathology that exists only to intensify his systematic humiliation as the bungling of the bank job goes on. Sonny’s leitmotif—“I'm dyin’ here”—contrasts poignantly with Leon’s devastating response to it: “Thanks a lot and bon voyage.” (What else can Leon say to a man who once tucked him in by murmuring, “Go to sleep, Leon, so it won't hurt when I pull the trigger?”)

Women fare little better than gays in the film. Wife #l (Angela) fares the worst because, after all, she has driven her husband to buggery. Angela and the kids are the first characters we see in the movie, scurrying frenziedly through heavy street traffic, wild eyed images of urban wretchedness (cut) shot of garbage eating dog (cut) U.S. flag coming down outside the bank (symbolism as ham handed as the Elton John soundtrack). Angela probably has good reasons for not wanting to see Sonny off to Algeria, but when pressed she can only whine, “I can't get a babysitter.” The only strong woman in the film is Shirley Bell (played superbly by Penny Allen). The real Shirley Bell was a recently employed, part-time teller who figured prominently in negotiations between the cops and the robbers, as she does in the film. But in the film she is promoted to head teller, an enlightened queen bee looking after her “girls,” and the working class women who stand out are portrayed as neurotic twits or as lascivious, thrill-seeking hussies. Improbably, when Sonny asks the tellers how much they make, it is Mrs. Bell who answers, “Not very much.” Management speaks up for its “girls.”

Lumet/Warner’s conservatism colors the treatment of the street action in the film as well. The scenes of militancy are from Al Capp, not Eisenstein. They are choreographed as urban mob smartassedness, charming but easily rechannelled into greed or bloodlust. It is in that context that Sonny, with the support of the crowd, demands that the cops put down their guns in the name of Attica. (At the sound of chat word, Lumet/Warner’s Krazy Kops scuttle like roaches caught in the leaping camera angles and the glare of The Word. They appear disoriented, not so much by the unruliness of the crowd as by the magic of that word, Attica. Is this a first for Hollywood?) That Sonny is able to get the crowd rifting behind him about Attica is cut down later when he commences throwing them marked bills and gets a bunch of them arrested. What a manipulator!

The shades of Attica that flit across the screen are very dim. When Sonny shoots at the cops trying to break in at the back of the bank, it’s left unclear whether they're doing that on orders from their superiors or oat of their own bloodthirstiness. Marretti is continually having to restrain them from pointing their guns at Sonny. Lumet/Warner is not interested in showing us what David Rockefeller was doing while his bank was being occupied. Even the name of the bank is changed from Chase Manhattan to First National. (Maybe so there won't be as much heat from the Rockefeller family when that word comes booming from the screen?) Lumet/Warner’s treatment of the local cops gives a certain authority to Sonny’s wish that the feds arrive soon so they'll have a chance to get out without a bloodbath.

In the end, the judicious though grey forces of federal law and order set up the rescue of Sonny and the hostages from Sal, his partner in the robbery (who is low and bloody minded, like the cops). In a key scene the FBI agent tells Sonny privately, “You just sit tight. We'll take care of Sal.” By failing to confer with Sal about this development, Sonny asserts his solidarity with the hostages and with the FBI agents, in effect writing off the life of Sal (who wants to massacre and be killed rather than surrender) in order to save his own.

Exhausted, confused and pathetically vulnerable to the skillful manipulations of the FBI agents, Sonny and Sal, with their hostages, are driven to the airport by an agent, who cleverly “takes care of” Sal with a bullet in the brain while his boss disarms Sonny. Sonny watches, spread eagled, weeping, hearing his rights read as Sal’s corpse is wheeled away. Arriving and departing jets wail a monotonous lamentation behind him. The metallic airport-announcer’s voice squawks a few last words that let us know how systematically Sonny has been outmaneuvered and quarantined for his crimes: “Will Agent Sheldon please remain on the apron until all the hostages are inside the terminal?” The obligatory Dragnet sentences float down from the top of the screen: John Wojtowicz, twenty years in Lewisburg; Angela Wojtowicz, welfare; Ernie Aron, a subsequent sex-change operation. The turbines of mystified state power and heavy metal manhood sing on. Dum-da-dum-dum!


1. Wojtowicz, when among gay friends, used the nickname Littlejohn Basso (Basso was his mother’s maiden name). Bell unfortunately makes the common error of confusing pansies and transsexuals. Ernie Aron was a transsexual.

2. According to this article, Wojtowicz was later paid $7500 by Warner for his role in creating the storyline, etc.—at last report, he plans to contest. His first wife, Carmen, who is portrayed very cruelly in the film, received $50 from Warner and, the article claims, is suing Warner and various subsidiaries for $12 million, claiming invasion of civil rights, defamation and libel. The former Ernie Aron, now remarried after a sex change operation, is reported to have received “somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000” from Warner and, as Liz Eden (her new name), has agents working on various projects including a book deal, a nightclub act and a discotheque called “The Garden of Eden.”