I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

So, says Fred Roos, “Francis and I were in New York, casting The Godfather. And we were stuck on the Fredo character.” Lucky for everyone on the planet, Roos and Coppola knew Richard Dreyfuss, who invited them to see Line, an off-Broadway show he was doing at the time. Looking back, Dreyfuss says he wanted them to see his young castmate, who appears here in a black and white photo, standing just behind Dreyfuss. Eyes are large and cheeks hollow, John Cazale takes your breath away.

This is the essential point of I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, that he was excellent in every way. Again and again, this point is made by interviewees in Richard Shepard’s loving look at the actor’s work, premiering this week on HBO. Cazale was intuitive and dedicated, unselfish and brilliant, dynamic and utterly subtle. His colleagues admired him, his friends adored him, and his brother Steve, who speaks for just a minute in this documentary, still chokes up remembering what it was like to lose him 32 years ago. “What mattered,” says Al Pacino, who worked with him in The Godfathers and Dog Day Afternoon, “was the plank and the passion,” the performance and the absolute connection with the audience.

But even as Cazale’s excellence is the documentary’s point, it’s also its problem. For no matter how many ways his friends and fans describe Cazale, his work does speak for itself, and better than words they might come up with. It’s surely inspiring to hear Gene Hackman extol his work in The Conversation (“He was highly concentrated and single-minded about what he had set himself to do”) or Pacino’s earnest platitudes (“He became whoever it was he was playing… He taught me about asking questions and not having to answer them”). And it’s moving when Meryl Streep, his devoted girlfriend when he died, remembers details of life with him as an artist (“Directors used to call him ’20 Questions'”) and partner (“He took his time with stuff, and sometimes drove people nuts. It took him a really long time to leave the house”).

It’s even enlightening, if you don’t know Cazale’s background, to learn a (very) little bit about his childhood and schooling, the fact that he had a “strong, overbearing father” who may have influenced his capacity to know and reveal the pain or darkness his characters felt. Occasionally the film dresses up such interludes with animated timelines or photos that turn into antic composites of moving parts, as if they’ve popped out of a Brett Morgen documentary. Such tricks are distracting more than illuminating in this film, which is otherwise focused on the artist’s craft and talent.

To this end, the most effective stories about Cazale’s brilliance are brief and accompanied by I Knew It Was You‘s strongest element — Cazale on film. Though he made just five before he died of lung cancer at age 42, every moment selected here is extraordinary. Coppola begins by describing the scene in which Fredo, near at the end of Godfather Part II, reveals to Michael how his pain at being “stepped over” in the Corleone family. “The way Cazale used the chair,” the filmmaker says, “He used it to express what was the point in a way I had never anticipated.” The film cuts to the scene, and it’s true: though Michael is standing, strong and cruel and mesmerizing, Fredo, however undone, is completely compelling.

Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, and Philip Seymour Hoffman describe a series of incredible Cazale scenes and characters, and as they speak, you’re increasingly aware how he has influenced each. Their allusions suggest something about their own craft — or at least how hard they’ve thought about Cazale’s acting. Rockwell tends to enthuse broadly (“He plays these characters that you shouldn’t like”) and Hoffman lapses into bland observation (“He was just brilliant in these five films, we’re talking about terrifically brilliant, in every one”).

Happily, Buscemi is all about details. Plainly a close viewer of all Cazale’s work, he points to small gestures or phrasings, glances and bits of business. In Dog Day Afternoon, Buscemi notes, even Sal’s receding hairline reveals something dire and vulnerable (“He’s so funny looking”). In The Deer Hunter‘s wedding scene, so large and stage-setting, Buscemi points out, Cazale offers a series of small, fully embodied moments: he almost steps on the bride’s gown, and as he stands beside a bridesmaid, he makes a set of small, crucial, affecting gestures. “He looks down at himself,” narrates Buscemi as you watch the 30-second clip, “then he kind of looks at her and he raises his eyebrow, and then he checks to see if his zipper’s open. It’s such a brilliant little moment.” It is. And it’s exactly what Cazale did so effectively and so consistently.

RATING 6 / 10