John Cazale appeared in exactly five motion pictures before he died of cancer at 42. But the five films he made were among the best films of Hollywood's richest decade. If you could only appear in five movies, you could do a lot worse than The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. His entire filmography was nominated for the Academy Award.
But Cazale himself never was. He tended to play the quiet role, the supporting character, the guy on the edge of the frame, while the showy roles were the ones that got the awards. But perhaps the most cogent argument put forth by the new documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is that, in his quiet skill and sometimes scary intensity, Cazale elevated the actors around him, putting them on alert to do their best work. The stats certainly back it up: his co-stars in those five films received a collective total of 14 acting nominations. Cazale was, in the truest sense, a brilliant "supporting actor."
The documentary is directed by Richard Shepard (who wrote and directed the wonderful 2005 film The Matador and the not-quite-so-wonderful 2007 picture The Hunting Party), who manages to structure the film in a way that mirrors Cazale's life: it burns bright, briefly, and then it's over far too soon. Shepard uses inventive on-screen text and photos to fill in the biographical information (shades of The Kid Stays in the Picture), but mostly draws on analysis from actors and filmmakers, as well extensive clips from those five great films--allowing, in a sense, the work to speak for itself.
Several of Cazale's co-stars show up to pay tribute: Robert DeNiro, Richard Dreyfuss, John Savage, Carol Kane, Gene Hackman, and, most extensively, his good friend Al Pacino and his lover Meryl Streep. Playwright Israel Horovitz and directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet discuss the experience of working with him; contemporary film historian Mark Harris (if you haven't read his wonderful book Pictures at a Revolution, then you're reading the wrong thing right now) adds invaluable insight. And then there are the contemporary actors who idolize him, who pinpoint him as influence, supporting actors of weight and intensity like Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who form a kind of "Cult of Cazale."
The joy of the film comes from the joy that these friends, collaborators, and admirers glean from his work. When Lumet describes Cazale's greatness in the scene in The Godfather where Michael arrives in Vegas and dismisses Fredo's impromptu party, or when Dreyfuss describes how Cazale plays the aftershock of Don Vito's shooting, their passion and respect for the work is palpable. When several of the actors pinpoint tiny, peripheral moments in his Deer Hunter performance ("He does this thing..." they all begin), they all convey a sense of possibilities being opened up, of truly understanding the full breadth of great acting.
Shepard's film is imperfect; he stumbles badly at the beginning by falling back on that old warhorse, the "man on the street" interviews (there are savvier ways of putting across that most people don't know who Cazale is than standing out on a street with a photo and saying "Hey, do you know who this guy is?"), and the fact that Rush Hour hack Bret Ratner co-produces the film (and bully to him for that) is no excuse for him to be interviewed when no other contemporary directors are (and, for that matter, neither is Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino, though he's notoriously hard to get on-camera). But for most of its brief running time, the film is energetic and impassioned, with the kick of similar docs of the era like A Decade Under the Influence and Z Channel, and when his illness is revealed, it comes from as far out of nowhere in the film as it must have in his life. There's a quick turn into genuine emotion, most of it carried by Streep (she's candid, warm, and entirely sympathetic) and Cazale's brother Steve, as well as his many friends and admirers. That it makes that turn, and makes the actor's loss so poignant, is a real accomplishment. This is a sad, moving, beautiful little film.
When I Knew It Was You aired on HBO, it ran a mere 39 minutes, so I was ecstatic when I read, on the DVD packaging, that the running time is 103 minutes. "Oh goody!" I thought. "HBO ran a shortened version! Now I'll get to see the whole thing!" Yeah, not so much--it still runs 39 minutes, the elongated running time apparently encompassing the bonus features as well. It's a bit of a dirty trick.
The 1.78:1 image is mostly solid; new interviews are well-photographed, richly saturated with no digital artifacts of note. The quality of the clips varies--most look very good, though the snippets from Dog Day Afternoon are surprisingly messy (on the audio commentary, Shepard confesses that they ripped the clips from DVD and Blu-ray rather than going to the negatives).
Misleading packaging strikes again! According to the outer sleeve, the disc has "5.1 surround & stereo," but I'll be damned if there's a 5.1 option; there only are two audio tracks, the 2.0 stereo and audio commentary. That said, I'm not sure what the 5.1 would have added (aside from depth in the clips)--the 2.0 track more than does the job, nicely mixing the music cues and clips with clear interview audio.
English and French subtitles are also included.
Director Richard Shepard's Audio Commentary is a lot of fun. Shepard is a good talker, and adopts a very personal point of view for his track, explaining how he grew to love Cazale, as well as how he researched the actor and put the movie together. He also talks, thankfully, about some of the interview insights that didn't make the short cut. Also valuable are the Extended Interviews with Al Pacino (19:49) and Israel Horovitz (22:29)--basically, the raw footage from which the interviews in the film were cut, but here allowing Pacino and Horovitz (both of them intelligent and fascinating figures) to tell longer and more detailed stories about John.
Two rare short films are also included. "The American Way" (10:10 ) is a 1962 short, directed by Marvin Starkman and featuring a young Cazale. But the absurdist, dialogue-free short is more about montage than story, so we don't really get a chance to see what he can do. Starkman also directs "The Box" (9:47); Cazale doesn't appear, but served as director of photography and shows a smooth, professional hand on the other side of the camera.
Trailers for seven other Oscillosope Releases round out the package.
"I think I learned more about acting from John than anybody," Al Pacino says, in I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. "He made you better." This is perhaps the most valuable thesis of Richard Shepard's documentary, which seeks to give this too-often-forgotten actor the spotlight he so richly deserves. For film fans, it's a must-see.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.