Paul Malikkal


Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Paul Malikkal

It's interesting to compare Al Pacino's performance in Dog Day Afternoon as Sonny to his performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 2, released just one year before. I think the difference between the two performances comes down to how the two characters wield power. Michael has grown so accustomed to holding a position of power and is so respected, that he rarely feels the need to assert his dominance. Only on rare occasions does he feel the need to raise his voice or lash out in violence, retaining a subdued, assured exterior. But Pacino's performance reminds us that behind that exterior lies a ticking time bomb that could detonate at any moment.

To play Sonny, Pacino ditched the subdued exterior and unleashed a torrent of berserk energy, frenetic physicality, and crass, rapid-fire dialogue. Don't be fooled by the high-voltage performance, however, as even Sonny's brief moments of power are fleeting and largely illusory. Whereas Michael Corleone was like a seasoned pro behind the wheel, feeling little need to honk or accelerate to intimidate other drivers as he cruises along, this feels like Sonny's first drive. Inexperienced and reckless, he barrels down the road, speeding past those that block his way trying to get as far as he can before his beat-up car runs out of gas. Pacino reminds us that the truly powerful know they are powerful, while the powerless will cling onto whatever modicum of influence they have, and proudly wield it whenever possible.

A lesser actor may have held Sonny at arm's length, snickering at his botched heist as one laughs at a mouse navigating a maze, ignorant to the futility of its task. But the unexpected expressions of empathy that flash across Pacino's face reveal no such archness. His portrayal of the character is just as complex as his portrayal of Michael Corleone. The only difference is that Michael's compassion disguises his ruthlessness, whereas Sonny's ruthlessness disguises his compassion.

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