I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

| November 5, 2010

The new documentary film, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, adopts its genius title from maybe the most powerful and subtextually disturbing scenes from The Godfather Part Two. In this scene Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, his eyes hollow and inhuman, stalks through a ballroom in Havana, Cuba. Coming across his ostracized older brother Fredo, (played by Cazale), Michael’s hands lunge forward and grab his brother firmly around the head. “I knew it was you Fredo; you broke my heart.” Michael says in a half moan half snarl, after ferociously kissing Fredo. “You broke my heart!” Fredo wrestles free of his younger brother’s grip before slumping away and disappearing broken into the crowd. However, the viewer knows that this familial conflict has not yet been settled. Michael has just delivered the kiss of death.

Richard Shepard’s documentary is a lean, sparse retrospective on Cazale’s tragically short cinematic career and life. The structure of the film basically provides a brief glimpse into the five major films, (The Godfather, The Godfather Part Two, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and finally The Deer Hunter), that Cazale made an appearance in before his death from bone cancer in 1978. These are inter-spaced with interviews featuring a plethora of cinematic actor and director heavyweights whose collaborations with Cazale produced some of the most influential and beloved films from the 1970‘s.
The efficacy of the film comes from how it is able to not only illuminate Cazale’s remarkable talent, but also the personal and professional impact that he had on other actors with more notoriety. Most of the interviewees, (including big shots like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Gene Hackman), are well chosen, relevant due to their work with John, and extremely heartfelt in their responses. However, the director also provides time for the inclusion of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Sam, (I was in Galaxy Quest), Rockwell. Their contributions never transcend the level of simple fan worship.

My most significant issue with the film was that it left me wanted more. For a film claiming to be a “rediscovering” of a specific talent and man there is not enough material that really differentiates from what you could find through an internet search on Cazale in about five seconds. In fact, one of the most valuable segments of the DVD lies in an extended interview with Al Pacino, that is found in the DVD bonus features. Through this interview Pacino, who, aside from Meryl Streep, probably had the most significant relationship with John out of all the interviewees, fully and candidly articulates his thoughts about John’s talent, who he was as a man, and revelatory information regarding their experiences working on certain projects together. This interview is also the most emotionally involving, especially during a segment where Pacino finds himself momentarily incapacitated by grief.

A central topic that the film attempts to address is the possible reason for why Cazale never received the level of attention, or became the recipient of the sheer number of accolades as some of his cinematic peers. While never fully establishing an answer, the documentary maintains a pervasively negative stance towards Cazale’s continuing relative anonymity to the average movie-goer. However, upon watching the film I was consumed by a different feeling towards this very issue. There have been many actors who rose to world-wide predominance in the 1970’s but long ago began to descend into shameful self-parody. For John Cazale, while his cinematic career was sadly brief, he left a profound legacy as the quintessential supporting male actor. His work in each 70‘s classic is sharp, moving, and inimitable. Similar to Michael Corleone’s reaction in the Godfather, when he finally learns that his brother has been behind everything, viewers might not have always known Cazale’s name as they watched each one of his films. However, his presence and undeniable contribution to each film was always felt.

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
Filed in: Film, Video and DVD

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