James Caan, 1940-2022
Plus: A baseball classic, assigned!
When I started thinking about James Caan after hearing of his passing, what came to mind, oddly, were his shoulders.
Their size, obviously—the man was built like an inverted trapezoid; he was as broad as Atlas—but also how he moved with them. Where most people rotate their body at the hips, it was like he, somehow, turned from the shoulders, revolving from the top half on down.
If you’re looking for it while watching The Godfather or Brian’s Song, you’ll see it, but the effect became more pronounced the older he got. Most obviously in The Way of the Gun, in which Caan played a broken-down bagman with enough gas left in the tank to outsmart a couple of young hustlers trying to take his boss for a big score. I think it had something to do with the costuming—he was frequently in a polo stretched across the tableau of those shoulders, which only emphasized their broadness and subconsciously made us realize that this was a tough guy, even if he was moving a bit slowly and stiffly—but whatever the reason, the whole movie feels like a tribute to his striking physicality.
That physicality was a signature, of course. The hothead Santino could afford to be a hothead because he was big enough to back up his rage in a fistfight. But size doesn’t do you much good when you’re stuck in the Causeway, does it? Just leaves you a bigger target for the tommy guns you didn’t foresee because you’re a bad don.
As good as he was in these pictures and as good as these pictures are, James Caan’s defining film and defining performance has to be as Frank in Thief. It is to my mind the central Michael Mann film and Caan is the ne plus ultra of Mann’s brooding alphas, the loner whose excellence renders him not only self-sufficient but also wary of working with others. It’s hard to imagine anyone else reading lines like “If I wanna meet people, I’ll go to a fuckin’ country club” or “I am self-employed. I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos. I am Joe, the boss of my own body”; Caan’s staccato rhythm, his strident emphasis is crucial to making these lines believable.
There’s something almost adolescent about Frank, as if he’s a grown man with those broad-ass shoulders stuffed into his silk shirts and $800 suits wielding teenage rebellion like a weapon. I’ve always adored the final moments of the picture, when he decides he’d literally rather blow up his life and burn down his own car lot than have to deal with the egos or stop being the boss of his own body. In that moment he’s Howard Roark, as adolescent a hero as has ever been made: pure, uncompromising, unable to go on with a life that he cannot control entirely.
Again: it’s adolescent. But who among us doesn’t wish we could live a life free of compromises, one in which we do what we want, when we want, and with whom we want? Then again, that sort of life usually leaves you bleeding out in front of a tollbooth.
Maybe it’s better to end things as a broken-down bagman.
Can I rant about two stories for a second? The first is this completely unsurprising revelation that customers who “bought” StudioCanal movies via Sony’s PlayStation store are losing access to them next month. The second is that a trio of U.S. senators are trying to force tech companies to adopt universal chargers for devices.
Here’s the thing: the United States Senate really has no business telling tech companies which chargers they should use for their devices. It is absolutely the sort of useless busybodying that will end up having some idiotic unintended consequence like forcing an outmoded standard on us 10 years from now because every company is afraid of changing things and falling afoul of some moron bureaucrat in some coven of offices in some corner of D.C. We’re converging on a standard anyway and besides, cables cost like $3 to replace if you know how to search on Amazon.
But the United States Senate absolutely has a role to play in making copyright work for the digital age. Copyright is literally mentioned in the Constitution, it’s one of the few things the Congress was absolutely supposed to weigh in on. If the Senate is really worried about protecting the rights of consumers, one thing they need to do is codify something saying that if you “buy” a digital file you’ll have access to it in perpetuity as long as the company you “bought” it from exists. Otherwise, these companies should not be allowed to tell people that they are “buying” the movie or TV show or album in question. Get rid of the “licensing” dodge at the heart of so many of these disputes and do something to actually help customers.
Thor: Love and Thunder isn’t very good, but Thor: Ragnarok also wasn’t very good and that movie was hailed by critics as a masterpiece. No idea what’s different this time around. Critics probably just can’t handle Natalie Portman’s Lady Thor, smdh.
If you want to go see a movie about a superhero this weekend, check out Elvis instead; Alyssa, Peter, and I loved it. And make sure to check out our special members-only bonus episode on rowdy movie theater experiences.
Always love chatting with Frank Pallotta about the state of the movie biz. Summer box office is solid, but how are theaters going to survive the fall doldrums?
Assigned Viewing: Bull Durham (Prime Video)
I worry that I’m jinxing this by saying it aloud. But, next week on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood we have a very special guest scheduled: Ron Shelton, the writer/director of Bull Durham, as well as Tin Cup, White Men Can’t Jump, Play It to the Bone, and a host of other movies. (I’m hoping to get a question in about Dark Blue, but we’ll see if we have time.)
Anyway, Bull Durham doesn’t really need any introduction by me: it’s considered one of the best sports movies of all time for a reason. Ron is coming on to talk about the making of that film and his new book, The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit. Check the book and the movie out before the episode drops on Thursday!
I am so happy you identified the signature James Caan movie as Thief, which in retrospect is an earlier, more intriguing version of Heat. Thank you for a thoughtful tribute to the actor
James Caan will always be Brian Piccolo to me.
Totally agree about copyright law. If I can’t keep a movie/show/song it’s only a rental.
I absolutely love Bull Durham. And baseball. And the now defunct Fort Worth Cats.