There’s a lot more in common than you’d think between this weekend’s comedy heist movie 30 Minutes or Less and the ever-popular 1975 anti-heist heist movie Dog Day Afternoon. Both off them star actors coming off of genuinely great turns in genuinely great movies, both are about heists gone wrong (do they ever go right in movies?), and both spring from true events. Yeah. You heard me.
On August 22nd, 1972, John Stanley Wojtowicz walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn aiming to rob the place. It didn’t go so well. The heist meltdown lasted 14 hours and turned Wojtowicz into a media superstar. His motives for robbing the bank were so full of ’70s love it’s hard to swallow when turned into fiction: Wojtowicz robbed the bank to pay for sex reassignment surgery for his boyfriend Ernest Aron. You can almost feel the disco sweat on the whole situation.
That motive is part of why the movie was a hit, but it wasn’t why the real life Wojtowicz won over the public. Even the tellers involved in the robbery ended up on his side as he faced his mounting dilemma and continual screw-ups with humor, charm, and a working man charisma. Wojtowicz, whose canny clumsiness Al Pacino captures wonderfully in the movie, used his failures to get his victims, the media, and much of New York on his side.
Sidney Lumet turned the article about the Wojtowicz robbery, written by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, into the seminal ’70s film Dog Day Afternoon. I say seminal because Dog Day Afternoon came out the same year as Jaws, and Hollywood had yet to decide that the way to box office fortune is the four-quadrant action movie. Before the commercial impact crater that was Jaws made itself known, the model for money making in Hollywood was still The Godfather movies.
Can you imagine that? For three brief years, “blockbuster” meant elliptical storytelling, social unrest, muted color pallets, the upset of social norms, lack of resolution, and using epic storytelling as a tool for understanding the contemporary world. That’s what the studios wanted to make because that’s what made them the most money.
Sidney Lumet, hardly a wild revolutionary, struck storytelling gold with Wojtowitcz and his endearing face-plant of a bank robbery. Simultaneously populist and edgy, blue collar and deviant, Wojtowitcz contained within him all the ingredients of a ’70s blockbuster.
For Al Pacino, this was a great way to break out of the box The Godfather movies and Serpico might have put him in. He was the perfect son of the Greatest Generation parents, the one who tried to do everything the way it used to be done, and was crushed under the weight of the decaying American dream. He could have easily played that role into his dotage, but with Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino managed to be both everyman and ponce, as if in the ’70s we knew that everyone wore something kinky under their workshirt and blue jeans.
Dog Day Afternoon sits at the pinnacle of a wonderful era for American movies, when blockbusters needed to be socially conscious as well as wildly entertaining. Lumet’s anti-heist movie is certainly entertaining, at turns side-splittingly funny and heart-wrenchingly sad. I laughed, I cried, I learned not to ever try to rob a bank.
And as for 30 Minutes or Less? It’s difficult to parse the various depositions and news reports, but the true story may have gone something like this: in 2003, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells conspired with others to rob a bank. Part of his conspirators’ plan was to outfit Wells with a fake bomb-laden vest and send him in to do the deed. Only later did Wells realize that the bombs were all real and try to get out of the whole awful scene, which only lead to —
No. I won’t tell you. It’s much better if you try to figure out the real story on your own. But I will say that both the movie and the real story are worth your time. The folks who made 30 Minutes or Less claim that the Brian Wells incident was not an inspiration for the movie, but they’re lying. There. I said it. They’re lying. Or maybe I’m lying. I’ll leave it to you to decide. Either way it makes for some wild compare and contrast.
The lesson I learned today: don’t rob banks, love is love, and it’s better to order a pizza than wear even a fake bomb-vest. Here endeth the lesson.