Thursday, July 7, 2022

James Caan (1940 - 2022)

I have more fond movie-watching memories of James Caan than I can confidently recount. As a kid I thought Rollerball was a genuinely superlative picture—a sentiment that embarrasses me less now than it would have in my twenties, seeing as how Rollerball kinda-sorta **is** a superlative picture. Maybe not in exactly the way I thought it was at the time, but only because there was no chance that a six-year-old was ever going to get the real point of that movie. It’s a remarkable performance in an improbably tricky role, and Caan hits every single note. And the most remarkable thing is that, in the context of Caan’s filmography, there was nothing remarkable about any of that. 

From Freebie and the Bean to a Bridge Too Far, from Bottle Rocket to Dogville to The Way of the Gun, everything James Caan came anywhere near was made instantly and enduringly better in the process. To say that he will be missed is like saying that we’d miss the sun if it exploded: It’s not so much untrue as it is a fatally insufficient sentiment. We won’t miss him because it’s impossible to miss a force so implacably indispensable as Caan. He just won’t be there. 

But the story I want to tell on this occasion is one I learned from watching a years-later interview about the making of Michael Mann’s scandalously underrated crime-noir from 1981, *Thief*, also starring Tuesday Weld. If you’ve seen the movie then you know that it opens with a long-take scene of Caan’s character, alone in the dark, confidently and professionally breaking into an enormous safe. You would also remember that Caan has an impressive array of tools, the star of which is a huge and frankly heavy looking drill. You would know, or at least it would come as no surprise, that they shot the scene practically.  

What you may not know is that Mann—with that special and unforced aplomb of geniuses diagnosing genius—decided not to train Caan or employ anyone else to do so. Caan would have to figure out how to crack a safe while he was quite literally on the job. 

“So, they laid all these tools out," as Caan explained for the interview, “and Michael came over and he said, ‘Okay, Jimmy: Get into the safe.’ And I said ‘What?’ and he smiled at me and said, ‘Get into the fucking safe, Jimmy,’ and then he walked away.”

If the story ended there it would be a perfect example of the kind of story that I love exhausting people with regarding how movies are made. But here’s the thing: James Caan got into the safe. He stared for a long moment at the tools, surveyed the situation, then shrugged and picked up the drill. It was clearly a one-take proposition and, knowing this, Caan kept his wits and his coolly professional character, and figured out on the spot how to get into the fucking safe.  

No one but James Caan could have done this. Nobody could have gotten into that safe in one take. Most career criminals couldn’t have gotten into that safe at all if they had all night and nobody watching. 

That’s the kind of guy he was, the kind of actor. A man for whom the need to stay in character and get the shot and be enthrallingly believable and entertaining in the process were more important than the literal and objective fact that he didn’t actually know what he was doing. James Caan didn’t care about that particular fact, and once he didn’t care about it, it ceased to exist. And so it would continue to be. For decades longer, playing role after role with easy realism and a rarely noticed range, James Caan methodically broke into the safe of our suspended disbelief and our permanent affection. He did it quietly, and professionally, using only the tools that had been set in front of him to work with. 

And he got away with it.

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