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Remembering James Caan and His Potent Mixture of Swagger and Delicacy

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Together with his thick neck and trapezoidal torso, Caan looked just like the athlete he plays, but little concerning the performance in “The Rain People” is clear. It’s a heavy role — Killer is the story’s sacrificial lamb — yet Caan, working with Coppola, imbues the part with a subtle, persuasive innocence that doesn’t patronize the character or sanctify his disability. As an actor, Caan actually could go big and externalize a personality’s inner workings (he does loads across the eyebrows), and Kilgannon has his outsize moments. Yet what makes the character work is the poignant impassiveness that conveys just how brutally life has hollowed him out.

Caan’s ability to convey delicacies of feeling wasn’t a singular gift, but, in his finest roles, it worked contrapuntally together with his swaggering physicality and the implied roughness telegraphed by his Bronx-and-Queens-cultivated accent. He seemed like a tricky, a delinquent, a nasty, potentially dangerous guy, even when his higher characters were sometimes more complicated. As Caan’s repute grew (he was a longtime favorite of this paper’s film critics) and a variety of roles opened as much as him, he played to and against type and expectation, becoming one in all the defining faces of Latest Hollywood.

It might come as a surprise just how big Caan was within the Seventies, particularly in case you’re really only acquainted with “The Godfather.” Two years after Coppola’s film blew up, in an essay on “The Last Detail” that consecrated Jack Nicholson as a significant star, The Times’s Vincent Canby also named Caan as one in all the era’s other young notables alongside Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Caan’s frequent co-star, Robert Duvall. There are different reasons Caan’s repute dimmed in the following a long time; for one thing, while Nicholson was solidifying his fame as a sailor in “The Last Detail,” Caan was repping the Navy in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973).

I like “Cinderella Liberty,” nevertheless it hasn’t been canonized like “The Last Detail,” written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby. But “Cinderella” deserves love, partly because Caan is terrific in it as a sailor who, during an unplanned leave, suddenly becomes involved with a good-time broad (an excellent Marsha Mason). They’re loose and funny and sexy, and together create a raw, unpredictable, memorable romance. Given how aggressively male-dominated so many Seventies classics were, it’s value remembering that Caan was good with women in additional ways than were hinted at in “The Godfather.”

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