Because the story Lumet tells is so genuinely involving, the moviegoer is quickly able to engage with Sonny and Sal and, eventually, with several of the persons they are holding hostage. Even those characters whose personalities are revealed only briefly or obliquely are presented in such an effective way that they are able to touch the viewer. Sal, for instance, while always quiet and withdrawn, is given enough complexity so that the moviegoer is able to feel for him. It is Sonny, however, upon whom the film focuses. Fortunately, he is among the most intriguing characters I have encountered in any movie.
Over the course of Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet introduces the viewer to a number of persons in Sonny's life, his frustrated wife, his indulgent mother, his harsh father, and his male lover. He reveals in various scenes how these individuals have been affected by Sonny's behavior and how he is affected by them. By doing so, the director prevents the character from collapsing into an insubstantial shadow, from remaining some empty automaton performing whatever functions are required to drive the movie's plot. While Sonny is certainly never transformed into a hero, as the viewer is always aware that the character is a deeply angry man who is more than capable of hurting others, he is, nevertheless, exposed as a complex, flawed, and truly fascinating individual. In fact, Sonny comes across not as a monster, but as an ordinary, imperfect person not wholly unlike the viewer himself. Consequently, even though the moviegoer may be horrified by Sonny's actions, he is still likely to find himself filled with a nearly overwhelming sense of fearful anxiety about the man's fate.
As successful as the director is in bringing out his characters' humanity, the film's actors demonstrate just as much talent as he does. In fact, the players' performances are, almost without exception, truly enthralling. Pacino and Cazale, in particular, deserve real credit for their work. I cannot begin to commend them sufficiently. Each lends such a sense of veracity to his character that the viewer is quickly made to engage with those persons and involve himself in their lives. Admittedly, a number of the supporting actors do not show the same skill as do the leads, and a few do give somewhat overdone performances, but none of them really detracts from the movie's quality.
While I cannot say that Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece, it is a well made, thrilling film that is well worth seeing.
Review by Keith Allen
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