Judge Adam Arseneau likes to give the Kiss of Death.
"I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart."
John Cazale, a lanky, awkward and twitchy man with a receding hairline, was only in five films before his untimely death, a relatively unknown actor in the pantheon of Hollywood. But boy, if you had to be in just five films, you'd be hard-pressed to pick better ones: Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and The Conversation; Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon; and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter—five of the most iconic and influential films ever made.
Comprised of interviews from filmmakers, actors, and friends, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale paints a portrait of a relatively unknown actor whose career was cut short by an early death from cancer. Some big names step up to sing his praise here: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep (to whom Cazale was engaged in the Seventies), Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Buscemi, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, and others.
Cazale is best remembered for his iconic roles in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, but to the actors and directors who knew him, he was admired for his prodigious talent, one the public at large never got a chance to fully appreciate. I Knew It Was You is less a documentary than a glowing love letter to a single man from the friends that knew him best. The praise is glowing and flows easily from giants of Hollywood. Coppola, Pacino, De Niro, Streep; all speak of Cazale with a tone that borders on reverence. The people interviewed who admire him, but did not know him, are oddly simpatico as quirky-yet-critically-acclaimed outsider actors: Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, to name a few.
In his films, Cazale strikes a strange figure, scrawny and vulnerable, memorable and yet forgettable, the image of physical frailty and sympathy in The Godfather films, swinging to dangerous neurosis in Dog Day Afternoon. I Knew It Was You juxtaposes glowing praise and cinematic clips, painting a vibrant picture of a venerable actor, but a surprisingly opaque picture of the individual. We get little sense of the man or his history; the film is a little skimpy on details and dates, glossing over much of Cazale's life before Hollywood. I Knew It Was You works best—as it did for me—as a primer on Cazale and his body of work, short as it was.
I think my favorite scene in the film is of a hapless man on a street with a photograph of The Godfather, of Michael, Sonny, and Fredo. Every single random passerby immediately identifies the brothers and remembers the nebbish older brother Fredo, but not a single person can identify the actor. And yet, his contemporaries swear to his brilliance, his extraordinary talent. I finished watching this documentary, and I couldn't help it. I broke out my copy of The Godfather and watched the film in a way I've never watched it before—really paying attention to Fredo. Sure enough, they're right: Cazale really is a fantastically nuanced actor, so much so you barely notice him. That's his skill. He makes everyone else around him into superstars.
A straightforward DVD presentation, I Knew It Was You looks handsome on DVD. Colors and black levels are strong, detail is sharp and the film is free of problematic issues. The 5.1 surround presentation is mostly overkill; the film is primary dialogue-driven from the center channel. Most of the film is comprised of interview material, and it looks great.
The biggest downside is the relative brevity of the feature; it's barely 40 minutes in length. Some strong supplemental material helps ease this pain, thankfully—a full-length commentary track with director Richard Shepard, extended interviews with Al Pacino and Israel Horowitz, and two short films featuring Cazale: "The American Way" (1962) and "The Box" (1969).
I Knew It Was You is a strange film, so narrow in its focus, so unapologetic and one-sided in its praise, but it is a good film, a warming and uplifting film, one that makes you revisit beloved classic films with a new appreciation. John Cazale was an actor's actor, a man fondly remembered and appreciated by his contemporaries. Had he not died so young, what would Cazale's career be like? After all, the guy was in five films, and those films collectively earned over forty Oscar nominations. Talk about a contender.
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