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From the DVD Shelf: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.

The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.

I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act.  We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power.  We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives.  The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted.  Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!

The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam.  We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam.  Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers.  The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history.  He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.

Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale.  He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan).  Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing.  He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication.  Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.

Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard.  The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.

Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked.  The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated.  And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name.  (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)

The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films.  A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert … [continued]