Dog Day Afternoon is rightly loved for the dynamite lead performance by Al Pacino: brash, brave, and full of brio, his Sonny Wortzik is one of the iconic characters of ‘70s cinema. But John Cazale’s Sal Naturile, Sonny’s partner, is no less memorable, if only because he’s one of the most staid bank robbers ever depicted onscreen. As the film alternates between armrest-gripping moments of tension [Are they going to use those guns?] and equally tense comedy, it’s at its most fun—and makes its case—right in the middle of its run time, when both characters have a chance to shine.
Let’s start with the pizza delivery. Sonny is maneuvering his way to a position of power over the police force, goaded by a crowd of curious, then fully supportive, bystanders who have collected at the scene. He places an order for pizzas, drinks, and aspirin, cautious but beginning to catch on to exactly how much sway he holds at this point.
Even the officer in charge is playing it straight: “I’m not conning you. Why the hell would I want to do that, for chrissakes?” he pleads, probably too aware of the irony.
Having also negotiated their means of escape, Sonny reenters the bank to break the news to Sal: the police can’t get a helicopter, but there’ll be a big limousine bus to take them to the airport. His manner with Sal is surprisingly tender, and this unspoken warmth between the two is key to the film’s potency. It’s far less of an action-thriller than it is a human drama, making its characters, not the heist, the reason to watch.
Sonny then goes back outside to pay for the delivery, and this is when he really begins to warm to the crowds. He makes a show of giving money to the delivery guy, even though everything’s already paid for, and then he throws wads of cash in the air, riding on his charisma as a man of the people, a fuck-them-all love warrior at peace with his own contradictions and a sympathetic counterargument to the coldness of the police at the scene.
Pleased, though somewhat bewildered, by the crowd’s money-manic cheers, Sonny heads back inside to give his hostages food, drink, and medicine. It’s several hours into the job, and by now their relationship is amicable. Even the con-men’s guns lose their menace and become mere props for a game. While the bank manager takes a nap and teller Jenny [Carol Kane] checks in on her daughter [“She’ll be okay”], Sonny patiently teaches Miriam a military parade move.
And just as patiently—Dog Day Afternoon is all about hectic things taking their time—the camera moves into the little conference room, where Sal is resting with the other tellers. Teller Sylvia asks for a cigarette in defiance of her usual abstinence, and Sal takes issue: “You don’t smoke?”
No, she doesn’t, but the current situation is an exception. The next moments flesh out Sal into three dimensions: he becomes not just Sonny’s sidekick, but also a devout Catholic, a principled nonsmoker, and an inward-looking philosopher. Reluctantly, he admits to Sylvia that he doesn’t smoke because he doesn’t “want the cancer,” but also because “the body is the temple of the Lord.” Sal’s embarrassment in repeating that last statement—and it’s obviously something he’s heard since he was a child—rivals Pacino-as-Sonny’s bravado in terms of character development. In a single gesture, he turns a bank-robbing sociopath into an endearing, empathetic soul who’s just as afraid of dying.
The whole collage of a scene acts as an elegant précis for the film itself. It’s almost always our humanity—that web of arbitrary affiliations, romantic entanglements, and social bonds—and not the allure of corruption itself that motivates us to make corrupt choices. With Dog Day Afternoon, director Sidney Lumet makes a persuasive case for identifying with the perpetrators and not the victims [the police? the bank staff?] in one of the most humanistic heist movies ever made.