Pauline Kael on “Dog Day Afternoon” (from “When The Lights Go Down”):
In “Dog Day Afternoon,” we don’t want any explanation of how it is that Sonny (Al Pacino) lives in both heterosexual and homosexual marriages. We accept the idea because we dont really believe in patterns of behavior anymore–only in behavior. Sonny, who is trapped in the middle of robbing a bank, with a crowd gathering in the street outside, is a working-class man who got into this mess by trying to raise money for Leon (Chris Sarandon) to have a sex-change operation, ye the audience doesn’t laugh. The most touching element in the film is Sonny’s inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed. Though he is half-crazed by his situation, he is trying to do the right thing by everybody–his wife and children, the suicidal Leon, the hostages in the bank. In the sequence in which Sonny dictates his will, we can see that inside this ludicrous bungling robber there’s a complicatedly unhappy man, operating out of a sense of noblesse oblige.
The structure of “Dog Day Afternoon” loosens in the last three-quarters of an hour, but that was the part I particularly cared for. This picture is one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City because the director, Sidney Lumet, and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, having established that Sonny’s grandstanding gets the street crowd on his side against the cops, and that even the tellers are on his side, let us move into the dark, confused areas of Sonny’s frustrations and don’t explain everything to us. They trust us to feel without our being told how to feel. They prepare us for a confrontation scene between Sonny and Leon, and it never comes, but even that is all right, because of the way that Pacino and Sarandon handle their contact by telephone; Sonny’s anxiety and Leon’s distress are so pure that there’s no appeal for sympathy–no star kitsch to separate us from the nakedness of the feelings on the screen.