John Cazale, 1935-1978

In the course of little more than a week, purely by chance, I have watched four films featuring John Cazale: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and The Deer Hunter.

Cazale’s filmography consists of only five features: the four mentioned above and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. It’s a remarkable list – incontrovertibly five of the greatest films of the 1970s – and it makes Cazale unique among actors in having had every film he acted in nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon

Striking in his physical appearance – the high forehead, haunted sunken eyes, angular nose – his presence on screen is often unassuming, but always magnetic. He was frequently cast as naïve loser characters – in the Godfather films as Fredo, the slow-witted Corleone brother, in Dog Day Afternoon as Sal, the bank robber whose concern that the media should not portray him as gay provides some light relief to the overlying tension, and finally in The Deer Hunter as the lovably downtrodden Stan, who never has any of his own kit for the friends’ hunting trips. The scenes where he overcomes his reserve and speaks out against those he feels have done him wrong – Al Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather Part II and Robert De Niro’s Mike in The Deer Hunter – magnificently exploit the innate vulnerability of his appearance.

Director Michael Cimino arranged the filming schedule of The Deer Hunter specially so Cazale’s scenes could be filmed first, in the knowledge that Cazale was suffering from the advanced stages of terminal cancer. Cazale completed his scenes but died before filming was completed. Meryl Streep, his partner at the time, was more pleased to land a role in the film because it meant she was able to nurse him on set than because of any artistic consideration.

Cazale’s name belongs alongside those more glamorous stars who died before their time – James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, River Phoenix – and his legend and reputation have surely been enhanced by his tragically early death. His recorded legacy, though, is arguably the greatest of all. I must dig out Dog Day Afternoon, which I haven’t seen for years.

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14 Responses to “John Cazale, 1935-1978”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    I have seen all five of those films (the 70s were my years, after all!) and although I am no great fan of “The Deerhunter” (the other four are wonderful, though!), John Cazale was superb in everything he appeared in.

  2. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Incidentally – “argumentativeoldgit” is none other than me – Himadri. I have registered here, but haven’t got round to putting up my first post yet.

    • Gareth Says:

      Very glad you’ve registered a blog. I will be interested to see what develops.

      Though reluctant to dwell on negative points, I’d be interested to hear your objections to The Deer Hunter. I found parts of it enormously impressive, but it seems to have less universal acclaim – or at least more dissenters – than the others. I think its length may be problematic. I tend to think less is more where films are concerned. I watched Bad Day at Black Rock last night and am sure one of its strengths is that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. In fact there are many very long films I love, and I accept the sprawlingness of the Godfather films as part of their greatness, but The Deer Hunter feels ever so slightly baggy in comparison. In addition to that, there’s the racist aspect, which I confess I didn’t consider much when watching the film but can comprehend.

  3. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    It’s not the length that bothers me – my favourite films include Fanny & Alexander, and the first two Godfather films. (That’s not to underrate the third Godfather film: it does make a nice coaster.) But the pacing was all wrong in “The Deerhunter”. Take for instance the scene where de Niro returns from Vietnam, and there’s a party going on in his honour, and he feels alienated and doesn’t attend. (I may have got the details wrong – I haven’t seen the film since it first came out!) Any director worth his salt could have depicted the character’s alienation within a few seconds, but here, we get interminably long shots of de Niro pacing his room. You don’t need to take so long to depict something so very simple. This is typical of the film. What’s depicted is simple, but prolonged for no apparentreason.

    The tableau of the wedding at the beginning was obviously influenced by the big wedding tableaux at he start of the first two Godfather films, but in those films, these tableaux were used to depict a complex set of characters, a complex set of relationships between the characters, and to establish in detail a particular milieu. What exactly is achieved in the big wedding scene here? Are the characters sufficiently complex to justify such length? No they aren’t: this is length purely for its own sake, seemingly out of some mistaken iidea tat length in itself confers a sense of gravitas.

    There are also many individual moments that were so unsubtle as to be embarrassing. The married couple drinks out of a cup together, and we’re told that if they can drink without spilling, that would be good luck. We then cut to an extreme close-up of a drop spilling. This sort of thing I find embarrassing – it has all the subtlety of a poke in the eye. (And also, the sudden cut from a medium shot to an extreme close-up and then back again does jar.)

    The different strands of the narrative did not seem to fit. What is the significance of the deerhunting? Why is the film called the “deerhunter” in the first place? What is the significance of Russian roulette? I guess it’s some sort of symbolism, and if it is, once again, it’s about as unsubtle as that cut to the drop of wine falling on the wedding dress.

    Unlike the Godfather films, the characters were very simple, and they barely develop: when a film is as long as this, one expects something more in terms of character development. To present such simple characters, and such a simple storyline, did not require such inordinate length.

  4. Evie Says:

    A friend recommended Dog Day Afternoon a while back, and it’s on my rental list, but I might give it a more urgent rating…have never been sure it’s my kind of film. And am ashamed to say I have never seen any of the Godfather films either (anything that even hints at the Mafia generally bores me to tears, but I should watch at least the first one, as it is so highly acclaimed). In fact the only film of his I have seen is The Deer Hunter – which I really liked…but a long time ago, and don’t remember too much detail.

    I started watching The Conversation and gave up – more to do with me than the film. I am such a lightweight these days.

    I have had a WordPress blog set up for ages, but haven’t actually written anything beyond a brief introduction. My life is in disarray, really, and by the time I have written as much (and with as much – er – depth) as I have here, I am exhausted!

    But thanks for this, G – you have inspired me to broaden my film-watching habits a little. :0)

  5. Evie Says:

    I wrote something, but it’s disappeared. Or perhaps it’s being moderated. If it is still not here tomorrow, I will try and post again! Not that it was very worthwhile.

    • Evie Says:

      Oh, it’s appeared – I obviously wasn’t logged in when I wrote it and it thinks I am someone else. As you can see, hardly worth the wait! Sorry, will stop wasting space on your blog.

    • Gareth Says:

      Enormously worthwhile, I assure you! Not sure why you should have been put in moderation, though. I will reply to posts tomorrow, I hope, but am currently in the middle of The Innocents, which may merit a post of its own.

  6. Mike A Says:

    Dog Day Afternoon is an odd film – unsettling, difficult to place, slightly “wrong”-feeling, nonetheless utterly memorable.

    I like The Deer Hunter, though haven’t seen it for many years. Of course I associate it most strongly with Stanley Myers’ haunting Cavatina. But who can forget the Russian roulette scene, or that hideous broken leg, or the awkward homecoming?

    I realise I’m in a tiny minority, but I can never understand the fuss about the Godfather movies. I think I just can’t relate to mafiosi in any way, and am not interested in their power struggles. I was similarly nonplussed by Goodfellas, which everyone seems to rave about.

    I don’t think I’ve seen “The Conversation”, and I ought to as I do like Gene Hackman (this must be from round about his “Popeye Doyle” era, yes?).

    • Evie Says:

      Yes, I remember the Russian roulette, of course, and the scenes with Meryl Streep (I am a girlie after all, more likely to relate to the scenes with women in, especially when I was younger!).

      Glad to hear it’s not just me that is uninterested in mafioso stuff, but The Godfather is such a canonic film that I feel I ought to watch it. Plus, Al Pacino is one of my favourite screen actors – though Scent of a Woman is more my kind of film!

      But Dog Day Afternoon and The Conversation (which I did actually rent, and the opening section was good, but I just wasn’t in the right mood – I was hankering for an Ealing comedy or some such at the time!) are certainly also on the TBW list.

  7. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Although the Godfather films are set in the world of the Mafia, they’re not *about* the Mafia as such – just as, say, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is not really a film about psychiatric hospitals, and “Kes” is not really a film about training kestrels. The Mafia is the setting for this particular drama, but the drama that unfolds in those first two films is a complex one, and, I think, very human: at the centre of it is a man who loses what he most values (his family) by the very act of trying to defend it. It is also very rare for a film in that it shows a character changing and developing over time.

    “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Conversation” are both very fine. But as I say, the 70s were my era.

  8. Gareth Says:

    Old Git, your criticisms of The Deer Hunter are very astute, especially considering how long it is since you’ve seen the film. I wonder if time would alter your perception or not. Comparing the wedding scenes in The Godfather and The Deer Hunter is telling – the first is engrossing and full of exposition; the second grows quickly tiresome. I think it’s one of the film’s weakest points, though. The scenes where de Niro returns home I certainly didn’t feel were unduly long, and I thought the depiction of his alienation was perfectly judged.

    Before its cinematic release The Deer Hunter existed in two separate versions, one of them shorter than the other. There is a story, whether apocryphal or not I don’t know, that Michael Cimino encouraged projectionists to interrupt screenings of the shorter version in the hope that it would help the longer one gain favour from test audiences. I’m sure his preference for the longer cut arose from a belief that it was closer to his artistic vision than from a confusion of quantity with quality, but the director may not always be the best person to make such a judgement.

    You can add me to the ranks of people not remotely interested in the operations of the Mafia, but as Himadri says, that’s only superficially what the film’s about. I watched The Godfather at the cinema a few years ago and, though impressed, didn’t really get it. This time, I did. I can’t remember when I was so gripped by a film as I have been by the first two Godfathers. They look as fresh as they did nearly 40 years ago. Francis Ford Coppola’s output from this period really does contain some consummate examples of filmmaking. The Conversation is a quite brilliant and thoughtful study of surveillance and voyeurism. And then there’s Apocalypse Now

    • Mike A Says:

      Apocalypse now is a fine film indeed. I haven’t attempted the Godfather movies since my early 20s (nearly 20 years ago!), but I do recall finding it very hard to sympathise with anyone. Thugs are thugs, and those that live by the sword tend to die by it.

      I do generally like Coppola’s output, even some of the quirkier ones like ‘One from the Heart’. As a twenty-something I loved ‘Rumblefish’, and I recall enjoying ‘The Cotton Club’.

      I agree with Himadri about that very cheesy spilling the wine bit in Deer Hunter – definitely one of the few ‘groan out loud’ moments in an otherwise decent movie.

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