John Cazale only appeared in half a dozen films, but what films! The Godfather Parts I and II (which are really just one long film, and best seen that way) The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter – he excels in all of them. These, together with a posthumous appearance in The Godfather Part III – for which he has issued a grovelling apology from beyond the grave – mark the sum total of his screen work. Cazale was dying when he made The Deer Hunter. Meryl Streep, his real-life partner, nurtured him through the shoot. She didn’t really want to do the film, she said, because she rightly felt her character to be nothing more than “a vague, stock girlfriend”, but she wanted to be close to Cazale in his final months (he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer). The studio considered him a liability and wanted him taken off the picture, but Streep and Michael Cimino, the writer/director, stood by him. No Cazale, no movie, they said. So all his scenes were shot first.
I saw the poster for The Deer Hunter on a London Underground platform, around 1978 or ‘79. I must have been in London for the day, up from Bristol for a concert. What was it about, I wondered, this X-certificate film with Robert De Niro in beard and hunting jacket? I asked my aunt and uncle if they knew. They in turn asked a family friend, “Big” Dave, so-called to distinguish him from my uncle, “Little” Dave. Big Dave made a few enquiries (to whom, or how, I have no idea – this was long before the Internet) and got back to me with all the information I needed: The Deer Hunter was a “Vietnam movie”. That was good enough – it was immediately on my “Must See” list.
Big Dave had a ground-floor room in his house in Clifton which was full, from floor to ceiling, of pulp paperbacks: James Dickey’s novel of Deliverance (even leaner and tighter than the film); Theodore Olsen’s Arrow in the Sun (better known as Soldier Blue); Fielding’s Tom Jones; De Sade’s Justine… My cousin Marc and I were childhood friends with Dave’s stepson Joe, and I relished the chance to rifle the bookshelves during sleepovers, to dip into these semi-pornographic paperbacks. Gradually, the lure of Dave’s record collection took over, and we would play our way through Deep Purple In Rock, AC/DC’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, A Farewell To Kings by Rush, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Judas Priest. Dave has a lot to answer for. He didn’t get on with Joe, but at least he tried. One Christmas, perhaps the Christmas of ’79, Joe got a real Vietnam War US Army ration pack, which came in a large cardboard box, and included numerous sachets of dried food, green cans of beef casserole, creamed soup and blancmange-type desserts, a carton of Kool menthol cigarettes. Marc and I were jealous as hell. The war had only ended four years earlier but this package seemed like a time capsule, a relic of another age (the sixties!) The three of us smoked a couple of Kools each before deciding that menthol cigarettes weren’t for us and that in future we’d stick to marijuana.
Did John Cazale smoke? I guess so. How much of what he brings to his roles is his cancer, his impending mortality? As what point did he know he was dying? His performance in The Deer Hunter is no better than his performance in Dog Day Afternoon or The Godfathers – all are superlative. He is never likeable. You don’t feel sorry for him, even when Al Pacino gives the order to have him shot in The Godfather Part II. You feel sorry for Al Pacino, that things have come to this, that you would even consider having your own brother killed. Would I have my own brother killed? I don’t think so. Not even if I ran a vast crime syndicate. There must be some reason, you think to yourself. I mean, Freddy (the Cazale character in The Godfather, the feeble middle brother, who lacks the sex appeal of the older, dead Sonny or the brains of the youngest, Michael) has betrayed the family. Then, in Dog Day Afternoon, which is based on a true story, Al Pacino holds up a bank to get the money for his boyfriend’s sex change operation, and Cazale (Pacino’s real-life friend) plays the hapless sidekick, whom the FBI kill at the end. He is always getting killed. Except in The Deer Hunter, where it is Christopher Walken who dies, by his own hand, in a tragic game of Russian roulette. His body is brought home from ‘Nam by De Niro, and his friends and family bury him in the grim Pennsylvanian steel town he comes from. It’s cold and grey and industrial. Cazale lingers by the grave. He is the last to walk away, in a poignant scene, shot before the Vietnam sequences, before Cazale himself died, never to see the completed film.