It’s all in the nuts. Everyone remembers James Caan’s Sonny in The Godfather as the Corelone family hotshot, the one whose end is as fiery as the temper on display when he breaks the cameras of FBI agents monitoring his sister’s wedding, or when he breaks the face of the mook beating his wife whom she married. But watch Caan in the short scene with Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen and Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone as they discuss whether the family should get into the heroin business. Sonny, in shirt sleeves and loose tie, sits on the family sofa and listens to the concierge’s argument for selling drugs. He has a handful of something – nuts, peanuts – and as he listens, he flips through the pieces of shell to find the remaining meat. As the Don responds, Caan sits down, brushes his palms up and down clean, steps onto the couch and waits for his father’s response. It’s like a kid who understands that the time has come to listen. And in the next scene, when he speaks against the grain during a meeting with the hoodlum who wants to get the family into the narcotics business, he receives, from his father, the kind of reprimand given to a wandering child, it doesn’t matter that he is a grown man. Sonny takes it without a word of protest and leaves, his resentment fighting him with his embarrassment.
Of all the cast of The Godfather films – Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, Cazale – Caan, who died today at 82, is considered perhaps the most conventional, not associated with the Method as these other actors are. And yet, there is an interiority in Caan’s work that makes looking at him an exercise in suspense.
It is often said that he played angry men. But by the time the explosion occurs in a Caan performance, the fuse has long been burning. Think about when The Godfather when he discovers his sister Connie (Talia Shire) beaten by her husband Carlo (Gianni Russo). Sonny wants to know where Carlo is and Connie is afraid to tell him because she knows Sonny is going to beat him. And Caan is doing something remarkable. He suppresses his anger, kisses Connie tenderly on the forehead, and tells her he just wants to talk to her. That’s all. Just speak. You see it’s crap. You know Carlo is a scarred man, and yet that moment of fake calm that Caan affects rips our guts out because we know that this settling down is going to lead to an even greater outburst of rage. And at the end of the next scene, when he looks down at Carlo who is bleeding, motionless and says: “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill you”, there is no exaggeration in the words. It is both one of the most violent and chilling moments in the film.
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Caan does something similar playing a Buffalo tire factory worker in the 1980s. Hide in plain sight, the only film he ever made. Caan isn’t playing a thief or a hitman or a mobster here. He’s a blue-collar man who plays by the rules, doesn’t understand the counter-cultural rebellion going on in the country (the film is set in the late 60s), and doesn’t understand why his government isn’t helping him. find his children when they disappear into witness protection with his wife and second husband. The role is perhaps the most direct good guy Caan has ever played. And yet, he’s the most restless average Joe you could imagine. Those tight curls on top of her head were an outward manifestation of her inner state. When his new stepmother isn’t quick enough to accept the charge for a collect call that will tell Caan where his kids are hiding, you feel the same surge of anger, then watch him choke while ‘he works. to get the information he needs
If Caan had been just a ball of fire on screen, he would have been monotonous to watch. What we find in Caan, what brings him closest to the Method approach of the actors with whom he has often worked, is his vigilance. He does not anticipate. He is quite a winner in his scenes with Jill Eikenberry as a schoolteacher whom he begins to court. Hide in plain sight. There’s a beautiful moment where she tells Caan she’s pregnant and he immediately proposes marriage. We feel that he is surprised but he does not hesitate to link his life to his. His realization that this is what he wants to do is right after he knows it’s the right thing to do.
And yet, his antennae are fully alert when trouble comes. When he and Tuesday Weld had an interview to adopt a child in 1981 Thief, and Caan realizes that the pompous social worker leading the investigation is about to find out he’s an ex-con, the defensiveness increases by the second. The scene is not designed to be particularly sympathetic towards the social worker, who is just doing her job. But in drama, equity is almost always negative. When Caan explains what it means to meet the system criterion: no more homeless children; potentially good parents eliminated because of a mistake: you are entirely on his side. He shames officials by linking his and Weld’s “undesirable” status to what he knows is the undesirable status of children who will never be adopted and it is Caan’s unreasonableness that seems to be the only recognizable human reaction. .
One of my favorite performances of Caan, in one of my favorite movies of all his movies, is in A Picture He Didn’t Like Much, 1975 by Sam Peckinpah The killer elite. Few others liked it either. In a famous essay, Pauline Kael argued that the film was Peckinpah’s metaphor for not losing his soul to the epicene and impersonal corporate world. Caan is an agent of a shadowy CIA-like enterprise created and left crippled by his partner (Robert Duvall). His status as an invalid suits the company just fine, as Caan is too individualistic to please them. The film is about his rehabilitation and revenge. It’s about what it means to choose to be a subject rather than an object in what Kael called “an involute, corkscrew view of a tight modern world.” The humanity here lies in the cynical squint in Caan’s eye; in its immediate rejection of anything that smacks of bullshit; in the playful way when, half stoned on tranquilizers, he uses his nurse’s stethoscope to sing her a ballad from the 1930s; in the unspoken respect he has for the skills of the team he assembles, Burt Young as the helmsman and the recently deceased Bo Svenson as the gunman no one will work with. (Caan pays Svenson one of the biggest silly compliments in movies when he tells him, “You’re not a psychopath, Miller. You’re the patron poet of manic-depressives.”) That’s one of those moments when presence is performance and when you have the impression of living the film through the skin of the protagonist.
James Caan was a headache. Although he caused a stir in The Godfather, he was too regular to continue playing goombah-hood roles. And yet, he was too intense to be casual on screen. You could never imagine him in a romantic comedy. But when it came to professing a bare need – as he does in a ten-minute knockout dinner scene with Tuesday Weld in Thieftwo actors, past masters in the art of being fully in the moment in front of the camera, having the possibility of playing without interruption, he delivered.
But tonight I’m thinking of a performance of youthful and unexpected lightness, in 1966 by Howard Hawks Eldorado as a young gunman – and lousy gunman – seeking revenge for the murder of the man who raised him. Caan, dapper in a black flat hat and black leather shirt, plays the lead role of the inexperienced youngster who gets in the way but gradually learns the skill and maturity of his elders, who here are John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. He even has to become his nickname, Mississippi, so given because his birth name, Alan Bourdillion Trahearne, is what one would expect of a bespectacled Easterner who just got off the coach. (The name amazes Wayne and Mitchum so much they can barely get it out.) It’s a charming performance and yet Caan is in some ways the film’s angel of death. Eldorado was, until Sam Peckinpah Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the main Western American elegy for old people and death. The film dwells on the physical infirmities and indignities of its two stars and through it all, often in black, young Caan straddles young Caan, reciting the poem his mentor taught him, Poe’s “El Dorado”, with the young knight-errant who encounters “a shadow of the pilgrim. Knight was too fanciful a description for Caan. He disregards his humor, his sexiness, his volatility. And those aren’t bad things to accomplished when it is time to go “into the valley of shadow”.
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