Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Paul Walker-led Furious 7 still doing gangbusters business, we look back at other final films from actors who died too young.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The storied, five-for-five feature-film career of John Cazale—The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter—was a special case of an actor being in the right place at exactly the right time. Cazale could explode when he needed to; in Godfather: Part II, against a calm backdrop of snow and rippling lake water, he memorably releases a heap of pent-up rage (“I’m smart, and I want respect!”) at little brother Al Pacino. But he was in his element when enriching the fringes of a movie without making too much noise. In The Conversation, he quietly steals a section of the movie’s lengthy, post-convention set-piece simply by using a chalkboard to walk a several-drinks-deep rival bugger through Harry Caul’s master plan.
This gift for generating a viewer’s interest in the edges of a frame was an ideal match for some of New Hollywood’s trademark characteristics: long lenses, sprawling casts, naturalistic and overlapping audio. Cazale’s directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, in particular) were interested in putting livable environments on the screen. While Cimino’s Deer Hunter might not seem like the most generous send-off for Cazale—his character, Stan, doesn’t go to Vietnam, which leaves the actor offscreen for large chunks of the movie’s middle act—the overflowing, Altman-esque swarm of the Pennsylvania-set sequences showcases Cazale at his most characteristic. Within the crowd of the movie’s celebrated wedding sequence—galloping dancers, falling-down drunks, hoisted-into-the-air bodies—Cazale fits like a glove.
A set-in-stone American classic that tracks the impact of the Vietnam War on three small-town, Russian-American steel workers (Robert De Niro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken), The Deer Hunter has taken some well-warranted flack for its representational issues, metaphorical heavy-handedness, and punishing miserablism. But Cimino—gifted at constructing cinematic communities, as also evidenced by his rightfully reclaimed Heaven’s Gate—is smart enough to leave room for his actors to complicate and critique this rusty, macho, Rolling-Rock-powered milieu. At first glance, the decision to make the one-scene father of Linda (Meryl Streep) an abusive drunk feels gratuitous, but it becomes tragically clear that a character like Cazale’s Stan—a cad who slaps his wedding date and throws around the word “faggot”—could very well find himself in those forlorn shoes down the line.
Availability: The Deer Hunter is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.