British correspondent Steve Saragossi pays tribute to one of the unsung superstars of the 1970s.
The Seventies cinema was many things, the decade of the blockbuster, the disaster movie, the conspiracy thriller, and it was also the decade of the Superstar - with a capital “S”. Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson – you couldn’t pick up a movie magazine without seeing that word prefixed before their names.
The word guaranteed a lot of things, certainly a green light on any film they signed their names to, as well as generally assured big box office. One thing it didn’t automatically mean was believability in a given role, a certain honesty that penetrated from screen to audience, and an acting style that easily accommodated drama, comedy, sci fi, westerns, musicals, blockbusters and stark intense character studies. One Superstar however, did manage this, and his name is James Caan.
Baptism under fire: an early role opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks' El Dorado
Its easy today to pigeonhole Caan as a reliable character actor at home in dramas (“The Yards”, “Misery”, and TV series “Las Vegas”), but during a short period between 1972 and 1982, Caan was a genuine superstar and the go-to guy for roles that demanded more than simply essaying a role.
The breakthrough: Caan's Oscar-nominated performance in The Godfather
There’s an apocryphal story attributed to Al Pacino where he is supposed to have said, after “The Godfather” was released, that “They came to see Brando, but they came out remembering me.” The quote is doubtful, although the fact may be true, but it could also apply to Caan. As a breakthrough role, this is a dictionary definition. Although he’d been in movies for almost 10 years already, notably in Walter Grauman’s rather vicious “Lady in a Cage” (1964), Howard Hawk’s “Red Line 7000” (1965) and “El Dorado” (1967), and Robert Altman’s “Countdown” ( 1968), and had tackled smaller dramas such as “TR Baskin” (1971), “Rabbit Run” (1970), and Coppola’s own “The Rain People” (1968), and winning an Emmy nomination in the genuinely heartbreaking TV film “Brian’s Song” (1971), it was his role as the volcanic Sonny Corleone that propelled him into his 70’s superstardom. And rightly so. Testosterone on legs, Sonny is both the Corleone’s energetic muscle, and ultimately its Achilles heel. Caan brings a genuine sense of unpredictability to the film. Whereas Vito, Michael and to an extent Tom Hagan, are all ruthless, they go about their business coolly, methodically, with their eye on the long game. Sonny however acts first and thinks afterward, and consequently, when he is on screen there is a sense of immediacy, and genuine danger.
“The Godfather” is undoubtedly one of the greatest post-war Hollywood films, and is populated with career defining roles and memorable performances. Its brilliance shines in every department, but, to be brutally honest, who would not agree that when Sonny meets his end at the tollbooth, a little energy leaves the film? The film thereafter, whilst still magnificent, is bereft of the wild, unpredictable menace that Caan brought to the table.
In Richard Rush’s 70’s Keystone Cops homage “Freebie and the Bean” (1974) Caan plays Freebie like a Sonny Corleone with a badge. Bouncing beautifully off Alan Arkin’s (slightly) more conservative Bean, the two are the prototypical buddy-cop duo. Their anarchy, humour, hand-in-front-of-the-mouth violence toward others, misogyny (on Freebie’s, if not Bean’s part), bring into stark relief just how original the genre was in 1974, and how far the idea had been homogenised by the time Gibson and Glover turned up in Lethal Weapon. When contrasted with Caan and Arkin in Freebie, one becomes aware of how woefully disappointing these movies actually were.
Balls to the wall: Norman Jewison's macho fest Rollerball
In Norman Jewison’s superbly prescient satire on big corporations’ control of the masses “Rollerball” (1975), never for one minute did we think that Caan, as Jonathan E, wasn’t right there amongst the skaters and bikes, inches from hideous injury. In fact, according to Jewison, he had trouble keeping Caan out of trouble; he was perfect casting, the wide-shouldered jock, the ex-rodeo rider who could also act. He brought an immediacy to the role that actually transcended the script’s intentions - which were to highlight the absurd lengths we, the public, could be manipulated to the will of corporate omniscience. Instead, Caan brought that emotional blood-lust and hero-worship out in a large percentage of the public who flocked to see it. The fury and unfettered machismo in Caan on the track were startling, and its remarkable to observe his contrasting scenes off-track, where he underplays, and is almost subservient to all but his peers. Its here that we see that Caan has the role nailed, he is after all, the typical Jewison protagonist, the individual pawn who can be manipulated only so far, before he pushes back at the “man”… The Little Engine that Could.
As part of the huge ensemble cast of Sir Richard Attenborough’s adaptation of the events surrounding the debacle at Arnhem during World II in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), Caan again impresses as a sergeant dragging his critically injured compatriot across enemy lines to the nearest mobile army medic. Amongst of cast of serious heavyweights, again it’s Caan who stands out not as a star simply doing a “turn”, but rather an actor brilliantly immersing himself in a role. When he aims his gun at Arthur Hill, demanding that he check out his buddy, whom Hill thinks is dead, there’s a moment when we forget we’re watching a PG-rated Attenborough directed movie. We’re in completely dangerous territory, and wonder if Caan is actually going to pull the trigger. This not a pampered star, turning up for an overpaid cameo, this is the real deal, and once again, a huge movie is lifted, made personal, and we are drawn in.
In Sam Peckinpah’s 1975 “The Killer Elite”, Caan plays Mike Locken, head of a CIA dirty missions team who, in the film’s opening act, partnered with Robert Duvall, plays Locken as a blue collar worker who enjoys a ribald relationship with Duvall’s Hansen (can anyone laugh quite like Duvall in the STD test result gag scene in the car?). He works hard, plays hard, is generally liked and laid back. However, once he’s betrayed and almost assassinated, Locken turns from outgoing good ‘ol boy to internalised rage personified. Caan, like Steve McQueen before him, is able to convey a lot with his body language, and that skill is never more evident than in the last two acts. His painful recuperation and gradual narrowing of his aim in life to a single goal - revenge - is played out with minimal dialogue and grim determination.
But overtly macho roles weren’t the only parts Caan tackled in this halcyon period. He ably played impresario Billy Rose opposite Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady” (1975), hoofing and singing very credibly. He took on a Neil Simon script in “Chapter Two” (1982), with varying success (the film was a rather uneasy mix of typical Neil Simon humour and rather stark drama), and whimsical comedy in “Kiss Me Goodbye” (1982). There were misfires of course, “Gone With the West” (1975) was a complete turkey, and is all but expunged from his CV, and “Comes a Horseman” (1979), Alan J Pakula’s post-war western was a little too low key to work.
The work he turned down in this decade is eye-watering. He was probably not quite right to play the lead in “Kramer Vs Kramer” (1978), but I for one would like to have paid to see what he would have done as Randall P. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).
His most enduring and impressive roles were undoubtedly Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler” (1974); his only directorial outing “Hide in Plain Sight” (1981) and Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1982). Taken along with “The Godfather”, these films perfectly display Caan’s versatility and immense skill as an actor.
Caan’s essay of Axel Freed in “The Gambler” was one his best roles. His portrayal of a man with a double life – a university lecturer by day and a professional gambler by night – was almost uncomfortable in its honesty. He hates gambling, he hates the people he has to mix with, but he is totally addicted. We witness a man consumed with self loathing, so powerful is the single mindedness of his obsession that he drags every person within his orbit into his journey of an existential man striving to become free. Every inch of Freed’s journey is charted in Caan’s anguished performance.
Likewise, in “Hide in Plain Sight”, the quiet but growing indignation he brought to his role of the father desperate to be reunited with his children who have vanished into the ether - his wife now being with an ex-felon in the Witness Protection Program - is powerful and completely believable. It’s a shame that Caan has not been tempted to direct again, as his work behind the camera is extremely assured.
Stealing every scene in Thief
“Thief”, another highpoint in Caan’s caree,r also ironically marked the end of his run at the top of the A-list. In his role as career criminal Frank, Caan displays a stunning range of emotions from tenderness to the most ruthless aggression imaginable. He is the core of this fine film, bringing heart, but never mawkishness, to Mann’s typically bleak urban landscapes.
Caan’s appeal lays in his easy likeability, his strong physical presence, the ability to be tough on screen rather than act tough, to be able to tackle almost any genre with strong credibility. Most of all, he has that rare star quality, the simple ability to be the focus of your attention when he’s on screen. That he is still working today, in many and varied roles, not simply resting on past glory, and making a movie every two or three years is something we should all applaud. James Caan is a working icon, a genuine star who relishes the work, one of the few remaining 70’s superstars whose work continues to impress, remaining vital and pertinent.