I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale Review

Richard Shepard's rather brief documentary portrait I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale begins with the claim that its subject is hardly known at all today. This theory is shown to be confirmed by walking around New York City - a bastion of stupidity as much as it is one of brilliance - and asking a handful of people if they can name the actor standing alongside Pacino and Brando and Caan in a cast photo from The Godfather. No one shown can. Point taken but it hardly proves anything. John Cazale was a supporting actor in just five films, all made in the 1970s. The fact that all five were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with three winning, is probably a combination of luck, circumstance, talent and taste. Cazale was never a movie star per se, and I have to wonder how hard it would have been to walk around New York City and find enough people who couldn't name the actor who played Fredo Corleone even in the mid-1970s.

Shepard, who's directed a handful of fictional features including a little gem a few years ago called The Matador, means well, there's little question of that. His intention seems to be to give John Cazale a fresh spotlight over thirty years after his untimely death from lung cancer. The main hesitations I have, beyond the, perhaps necessary, shortness of the piece, concern who Shepard's intended audience is and what he's trying to prove. I've always been under the (false?) impression that Cazale is regarded as a god of the American New Wave, someone whose contributions were vital to the period of filmmaking often hailed as the strongest ever in American cinema. People who know their movies are deeply familiar with Cazale. And even slightly more casual fans must have seen the five pictures he did and, in turn, marveled at the brilliant and varied performances he gave. I suppose it's a little beyond me to think that Cazale really needs to be "rediscovered" by anyone who'd bother caring in the first place.

Assuming those people do exist, Shepard's documentary is certainly an acceptable primer or refresher, whichever the case may be. Its quite impressive list of interview subjects makes the film stand easily as the definitive account thus far of Cazale's life and career. Maybe it doesn't dig quite deep enough or really allow for the necessary attention deserving of a figure like Cazale, but it's a nice surface-level portrait that occasionally surprises enough to reveal something you might not have already known. Whether Shepard's interviewees are those who directed (Coppola, Lumet), collaborated with (Pacino, Hackman, DeNiro, Streep) or simply admire (Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman) the man of the hour, everyone comes across as, first and foremost, fans of John Cazale. Probably most illuminating are the comments from Pacino, who was in three pictures and three plays with Cazale, and Streep, who was deeply in love with him and also a fellow cast member of The Deer Hunter. The comments by others about his relationship with Streep are perhaps more touching than those from the actress herself, who maintains a fairly polished and laudatory distance from especially personal aspects. Just hearing from so many who knew the actor personally and can share details like his penchant for not getting in a hurry is enormously rewarding to experience.

Generous video clips from his quintet of film roles support the praise. It doesn't seem too presumptuous to think that most anyone who'd take the time to view this documentary - and it aired previously on HBO in the U.S - would already be well-acquainted with Cazale's genius, but in the event that Shepard's film does give viewers more reason to watch these movies either for the first time or with a new interest in Cazale then it's certainly proven its worth. Seeing what he did with Fredo or his performance as Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, which contains one of my favorite brief exchanges (the "Wyoming" moment) in all of film, can be revelatory. The documentary nicely sells Cazale as the major figure he was and, really, still is or at least should be.

It could be more in depth, though, and there's a legitimate tendency to view this as simply a very good DVD supplement instead of something deserving of its own release. Then there's the Brett Ratner problem. Ratner, director of such cinematic fare as Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Rush Hour 3, is the first name you see as I Knew It Was You starts up and he's also listed as one of the producers. His onscreen contribution doesn't end there. Amidst interviews with almost every living person you'd like to hear from about John Cazale (save for the reclusive Michael Cimino), there's Ratner adding his two cents. He's a clear choice when picking out which interviewee least belongs. Director Richard Shepard basically credits Ratner in his commentary for getting the film financed and obtaining permission for the clips from Cazale's movies to be used. But while this wins Ratner some deserved good guy points, it doesn't make his presence any more endearing. There's something to be said for keeping a low profile in a situation like this.

The Disc

I Knew It Was You comes to R0 DVD from Oscilloscope Laboratories. It's quite the attractive release, housed in a cardboard digipak made of recycled material and no plastic. The dual-layered disc is NTSC. One small point worth making is that Oscilloscope lists the "disc runtime" on the back as 103 mins., and that seems a bit less forthcoming than acknowledging that the documentary lasts just 40 minutes. However, the retail price, at a shade under $20, is absolutely fair.

Interviews make up a big portion of the documentary and those all look excellent in the 1.78:1, progressively transferred image. They're all newly filmed for this portrait so there's little reason as to why they wouldn't be in great shape. Only the early, man-on-the-street part of Shepard walking around with the picture from The Godfather looks less than crisp. Footage from Cazale's films and shorts does vary, and Shepard admits in his commentary to having ripped the movie scenes directly from the Blu-ray and DVD releases, but the transitions are never jarring. This should have been a relatively painless transfer, and there's nothing here to cause concern.

The two-channel English stereo audio is consistent and fluid throughout the documentary. It does a good job of maintaining volume and clarity while using various sources. On the other hand, the extended Pacino interview in the extra features has little balance in volume, though, in the film's defense, I would imagine this replicates well what it would be like to actually speak with Pacino. Optional subtitles, white in color, are provided on the feature in both English and French. The back of the packaging actually promises a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio option that isn't anywhere to be found on the disc.

The supplements are real stand-outs and could easily push those unsure about a purchase into the buy column. The extended interview (19:49) with Al Pacino allows the actor to basically rhapsodize further on Cazale. He becomes emotional at one point and it's an almost infectious recognition that we lost Cazale far too young. There's also more (22:20) with the playwright Israel Horovitz, who worked with Cazale on around ten plays. His extended interview builds up to Horovitz's complete reading of the exquisite obituary he wrote for The Village Voice after Cazale passed away. (A bit of trivia: Horovitz's son Adam is a member of the Beastie Boys alongside Oscilloscope's driving force Adam Yauch.)

"The American Way" (10:09) is a delirious and wacky short film directed by Marvin Starkman that co-stars Cazale (plus Bill Graham!). It skewers the traditional American institutions of baseball, mom and apple pie, with a bearded Cazale trying to blow each of them up like an early version of The Muppet Show's Crazy Harry. What a treat to be able to see this here.

Cazale photographed Starkman's short film "The Box" (9:47), which stars Michael Lombard as a man whose new remote-controlled television doesn't work quite as he'd expected. It was shot in 1965, in a single November night, but is dated 1969 here while "The American Way," done in '61, is dated 1962.

Shepard adds a commentary track that explains several of the questions and concerns I had with the picture (Ratner's involvement, the short length, the absence of Cimino). It's a bit strange trying to listen to Shepard speak as the collection of interviews and clips plays but his comments prove worthwhile and full enough to merit more than just what a shorter interview would have allowed. It's a recommended listen.

A short essay by Mark Harris is printed on the inside flap of the inner part of the digipak.

Trailers for a variety of Oscilloscope releases are also viewable from the disc.

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