James Caan obituary: The Godfather and Thief star with a real feeling for the underworld

Caan, who has died aged 82, made it look natural in starring roles that often echoed his own life experiences.

The Gambler (1974)

Jimmy Caan got a raw deal. As Sonny in The Godfather (1972), he was the one Corleone who resembled a gangster from life, instead of an actor cultivating sense memory. He knew actual mobsters learned their strut and talk from 1930s pictures. And in that romanticised family pledged to cunning and secrecy, Jimmy knew to be as dumb and impetuous as real gangsters like to be. How did he know that? Maybe it was just being Jimmy. After all, he thought it was a hoot when he got voted ‘Italian of the Year’, as if the world couldn’t tell he was Jewish.

Caan with John Cazale, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972)

The raw deal began when Coppola and the picture elected to remove Sonny around the halfway point. Sure, he got that magnificent death at the causeway tollbooth – a routine kids played out for decades – but his exuberance and his fucking around were gone. It’s later that you wonder how the picture might have been if Sonny had lived to tease and torment the monastic mastermind in Michael. There you are: you can’t have it all. And Jimmy could tell kids how it felt to be shredded like taffeta in a hail of bullets.

But he got a raw deal in most obituaries when he died at 82. The salutes mentioned the one film he directed, Hide in Plain Sight (1980), but it felt as if no one had seen that sorrowful picture, about a man who loses his ex-wife and kids when they are spirited away by the FBI because she is remarried to a guy who needs the witness-protection programme. It’s not a great film; it’s too slow; but its desperation got at the anguish in Jimmy.

Worse than that, some obits said only that he had played an obsessive in Thief (1981), and passed on without honouring the film’s existential bleakness. That character is as calm as Sonny was overbearing. The man has digested hopelessness in prison, but learned the mix of courage and nihilism that can take down big robberies as if they were independent films he was making. He is a devout loner caught in deep attachments: with an old friend (Willie Nelson), and then with a woman he resolves to marry, half wary that he may have to desert her if he has to hide in plain sight.

Caan with Tuesday Weld in the café scene from Thief (1981)

The woman is Tuesday Weld, and the two of them have a long scene in a diner at night, talking and not talking, that is one of the best moments in American noir. The marriage of their characters was more than touching, for in Hollywood’s board game Weld was another raw-deal pro, seldom recognised for her grown-up brilliance. Caan never did another scene with so much emotion tamped down by being on a perilous brink. This was Michael Mann’s debut, and it cut through Caan’s flourish and got to the knife edge of his lost cause.

The business tried to promote him as a romantic lead – with Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty (1973); with Streisand in Funny Lady (1975); and with Geneviève Bujold in Another Man, Another Chance (1977), a strange western made by Claude Lelouch. But those relationships never caught what he and Weld had had in that diner.

There are other Caan pictures worth remembering: he was Axel Freed, the university lecturer who is a gambling maniac in The Gambler (1974), directed by Karel Reisz, but more the expression of its screenwriter James Toback. This was another film where Caan found the confidence to do as little as possible as ‘an actor’. He was the victimised novelist in Misery (1990), flat on his back as Kathy Bates walked off with the picture. He barged everyone off the rink in the frenzied Rollerball (1975). He was an ageing parody of Sonny in Honeymoon in Vegas (1992). He did The Killer Elite (1975) for Sam Peckinpah, but seemed to know the picture was empty male boasting.

Caan playing a corrupt boss in James Gray’s The Yards (2000)

His filmography had given up the ghost in dealing with life. He would be married and divorced four times. He was addicted to cocaine for a while and seemed stricken by efforts to retain his looks, the way some people go impassive from plastic surgery. He was into martial arts and rodeo riding. He was also closer to the underworld than anyone else on The Godfather. He looked weary, or like someone who had lost faith in his own career. That sadness shows through in his corrupt boss in James Gray’s The Yards (2000).

Still, nothing would care to tangle with his fury in Thief as he eliminates his contacts with life and the ideal of being a happy man. I can’t say he was a profound actor, but some profound actors end up looking studious or self-regarding. James Caan could be something else – a profound presence, valiant but psychopathic. As time passes, that seems to understand us better than heavy acting.

  • James Caan, 26 March 1940 to 6 July 2022
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