John Cazale did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Salvatore "Sal" Naturile.
Cazale plays Sal the man who goes along with Sonny (Al Pacion) with his bank robbing and than later hostage taking venture. I praised Durning for his performance which did a great deal with almost nothing, Cazale might seem like he given more, but I actually think that might just be part of what makes this such a good performance. Sal despite being in the bank the entire time with Sonny is actually frequently in the background and Cazale needs to make his impression sometimes quite quickly and in rather short spread out scenes. A great deal of what he does in his creation of Sal of a character which is something special considering and its no surprise that he was able to win over Sidney Lumet for the part despite the fact that Sal was only 18 in the real story.
Where Pacino's Sonny is all about his overwhelming expressive emotions that leads him to be a nervous flamboyant fellow, Cazale downplays Sal considerably creating a great dynamic with Pacino just as he done with Pacino in The Godfather Part II. This is a very unique performance and he portrays him as a man who, unlike Sonny, can keep his emotions in check although he may share many of the same emotions but instead bottles it up. Cazale is great though because of the fashion in which he shows Sal's emotions. Cazale has a great intensity in his performance that expresses the way Sal's difficultly in dealing with the stress of the situation in almost the opposite fashion that Sonny takes in dealing with it.
Cazale makes Sal like a volcano in that he is always simmering and you never know if he might burst. Where it is pretty clear pretty quickly Sonny has no actual intentions to kill anyone Cazale leaves the possibility in Sal. It is quite effective how he portrays the potential violence in Sal because he internalizes so much yet realizes it magnificently in that strained unpredictability in his face. Cazale is particularly great when he asks Sonny about the legitimacy of Sonny's threat to kill people, and then states that he is ready to massacre the hostages. The blunt fashion in which Cazale says this truly chilling and shows that Sal potentially burst out into violence in any second. Cazale is brilliant in creating just that right unnerving quality there making it so we never quite know what Sal is capable of.
Cazale doesn't leave Sal as just a possible killer though and suggests, even though we never learn anything about him directly, that Sal like Sonny also comes from a very disjointed and troubled life of his own. Cazale makes him into a lonely figure who is withdrawn and detached from everyone else to at least some degree, and he suggests perhaps Sal did have his own reason for going for Sonny, but it is just something he is going to keep to himself. Cazale, as with all of his performances, is just so genuine in his portrayal of his character. Sal is a man who clearly does not know where he is going, or really where he is and Cazale makes such a compelling character simply within playing this sort of character in as honest fashion.
Although Sal can be taken as the less sympathetic of the two, as he is the one willing to kill, Cazale still manages to create a great deal of sympathy for Sal. He allows the sympathy to come naturally by that honesty I mentioned before. He creates such a sad portrait of Sal who really is lost. One moment in particular stand out one being when Sal is asked by Sonny where he would like to fly out of the country and Sal responds "Wyoming" (an ad lib by Cazale). It would be quite funny if it were not so sad as Cazale so genuinely portrays Sal as a man out of his element. He just is so earnest that it is heartbreaking like Sal is upset that the news reported him as a homosexual, or the brilliant scene where he scolds the bank tellers for smoking. Sal line “the body's the temple of the Lord” is so tragic because Cazale shows that Sal absolutely does believe this. Although it might seem a contradiction with his willingness to kill Cazale makes all feel part of the lost soul that is Sal.
Like Durning's Moretti, Cazale's Sal could have easily been someone you just forgot about especially in light of Pacino's tremendous performance. Cazale though never allows himself to be forgotten by creating such intricate and complex portrait despite the limitations of his character. He is believable in every aspect of the character and his intense internal style is perfectly done here. He is able to be both the man way over his head who has no idea what really to do with himself, as well as the chilling potential killer. He balances these aspects flawlessly making Sal the perfect variable in the film as we never know exactly how to feel about nor do we know exactly what way he is going to go. Cazale succeeds in making us feel sorry for him while we fear him adding just another layer of complexity to this film.