I Knew It Was You

I don’t get HBO.

I mean, I get HBO – great concept – but I’m not a subscriber. I did, years ago, when I got everything, but as the cable company bill kept skyrocketing little by little things dropped off, until I was down to the skeletal, but still expensive, basic package. At the time I wasn’t missing much, since the home viewing market had transcended from VHS to DVD and the quality of the televisions got better. So by the time HBO started to really craft its signature programs like The Sopranos, I was so weaned off of pay cable that I still resisted. Only the advent of DVD recorders and the new market for TV on DVD box sets saved me, but shows like The Sopranos and The Wire were meant to be watched in six-hour gulps. I never would have survived the week in-between episodes.

I certainly can afford HBO now, but for some strange reason, I just haven’t bothered. Maybe it’s because basic cable channels like FX, AMC and USA have followed their lead and stolen their thunder? But the consequence is the same. Occasionally I still miss good programming, and I’ve conditioned myself to wait for the inevitable DVD, which likely will have bonus features and other amenities that would make it more than worthwhile.

And that’s my long-winded story about how I came across I Knew It Was You, the documentary about the great 70’s actor John Cazale. The title, of course, refers to the classic scene in The Godfather Part II between Al Pacino’s character and Cazale’s damaged brother Fredo. Of all the great moments in the first two films – and there were many – the last scenes between Michael and Fredo are the most haunting.

Pacino played Michael tight-lipped, private, superior. Cazale was palpable, he oozed defeat.

Cazale was only in five films, but every one was nominated for Best Picture; three of them took home the prize. He shared the screen with legends Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando as well as a Who’s Who of his generation in Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and James Caan. He was never the lead, but The Conversation and The Deer Hunter and Dog Day Afternoon and both Godfathers would have been weaker without his presence.

I was captivated by the subject and by the film, but it had two major drawbacks. I didn’t really learn much about John Cazale, as the narration and the interviews basically echoed each other – an actor’s actor, found the heart of his characters, made his fellow actors better, always played true to the moment. I already knew that, having seen all of his films numerous times. Still, it was enjoyable to watch his co-stars as well as other craftsmen like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell and Steve Buscemi vouch for his impact as well as his directors Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola.

The other shortcoming – literally – was the forty minute length.  Again, I was honed in on every minute, so the quality was there. But even if they couldn’t have acquired rights to longer clips of the films, certainly there were more actors who could have been involved, or reflections from major critics who analyzed his work. As stated, I didn’t see this on HBO, but since there are no commercials other than their own promos…they couldn’t even hit an hour?

There are bonus features including extended interviews with Pacino and director Israel Horowitz (Cazale acted in several of his theatrical productions) as well as a commentary and two short film projects from the 60’s, so it’s not as if this DVD isn’t a good value. Despite my comments above, I’m thrilled to own it and will watch it again. But I guess when all is said and done, what I really wanted was more John Cazale…and maybe that’s the whole point of this portrait.

He was the perfect actor; he had no public persona that would  cloud your impression of the character he put on the screen. As good an actor as George Clooney or Morgan Freeman or Clint Eastwood are, when they first appear in a film, a little voice in your head says “there he is“. But when John Cazale entered a scene, you saw Fredo or Sal or Stan. John disappeared.

Cazale died in 1978 at the age of 42. For his friends and colleagues, there is a wealth of great personal experience and memories. For me, who never met him, there are but five timeless films…and now, this tribute.

No fish today, Fredo.

John Cazale Wiki page

Cazale on IMDB.

Oscilloscope Films

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