The flip side of his filmography
The B-Sides is a series from Feature Presentation highlighting the underseen, underrated, and underappreciated gems of a filmography, genre, or theme.
I think it’s kinda lame to take the death of celebrities really hard and personally, especially if they’re up there in years, but I still end up doing it from time to time.
When James Caan passed away last week at the age of 82, it was a storm cloud that followed me for a few days. I would consider him one of my favorite actors. He had this ability to be the tough guy, the cool guy — while also being passionate and open and sensitive. You can find that duality in just about all of his performances.
Not only is that a difficult thing to balance, but he also did it in the ’70s and ’80s, when the tide was changing for portraits of tough guys in cinema. The John Waynes of one side and the Jimmy Stewarts of the other side were giving way to the likes of Pacino, Hackman, and Jimmy Caan — who I might argue did it better than anybody else.
Yes, you can point to those qualities in his excellent performances in The Godfather, Thief, Rollerball, Freebie and the Bean — even later in his career in Bottle Rocket and family-friendly films like Elf, but we all know those movies already. Let’s look at some of the b-sides, where he brings that signature charisma just the same.
Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)
Two hoplessly out of their class con-men attempt to pull off the largest bank heist of the l9th century — by gaining the enmity of the most famous bank robber in the world and the affection of a crusading newspaperwoman.
B-side movies aren’t perfect, but sometimes you just want to watch a movie for the cast, and Harry and Walter gives some great performances from Jimmy, Elliott Gould, Michael Caine, and Diane Keaton.
Is the movie great? No. But does it feature a bumbling Gould and a mumbling Caan with a little dash of Keaton and Caine? It sure does.
This is one of the few Jimmy performances that’s just straight comedy (you’ll see another on this list) and it’s a shame because he was excellent at shaking his public persona and going against type. He was a real goofball in real life and that energy comes across in this rare treat.
He’s also doing it side-by-side with Gould and they make a great pair (they must have remained friends for many years — Jimmy would let him use his video store account) and they really ping-pong off of each other in a special way.
The movie might not knock you out, but that’s not what you’re here for — you’re here for deep-cut Caan and this delivers. It’s a shame that Twilight Time Blu-rays go out of print because this one gives some love to a movie that Jimmy’s fans should see.
Comes a Horseman (1978)
Ella Connors is a single woman who gets pressured to sell her failing cattle farm to her corrupt ex-suitor, Jacob Ewing. She asks for help from her neighbor, Frank Athearn. As Ella and Frank fight back through stampedes, jealousy, betrayal, and sabotage… they eventually find love.
Cowboys are tough guys, right? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin.
Well, that’s what Jimmy did so well — subverting expectations. Bring authenticity to tropes. Make stock standard characters into real people.
And this is no regular western. Taking place in the wake of WWII and featuring a female protagonist (Jane Fonda), Comes a Horseman isn’t about a lawless wild west. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s about how the law is crafted in a way to support the big fat capitalist and screw the little guy.
Jimmy and Jane are filmed against the stunning landscapes of Colorado and Arizona and since they are a couple of lookers themselves, it really is a gorgeous picture. Slow, methodical, yes. But patient and powerful. The love story doesn’t even appear until the end of the film — the movie requires your full attention.
Think Lonely Are the Brave or Brokeback Mountain for similarly thoughtful, mid-century set westerns.
An excellent contrast to the previous feature on this list.
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
On her deathbed, a mother makes her son promise never to get married, which scars him with psychological blocks to a commitment with his girlfriend. They finally decide to tie the knot in Vegas, but a wealthy gambler arranges for the man to lose $65K in a poker game and offers to clear the debt for a weekend with his fiancée.
Once again, what a cast: Jimmy, Nicolas Cage, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It feels like this movie was made for me.
Unfortunately, just like Harry and Walter, it’s probably more of a for-the-cast watch than anything, as this Vegas-set comedy spends a lot of time outside of Vegas and a lot of time not being funny.
I remember loving this film growing up, watching it on my mom’s free Pizza Hut giveaway DVD. I still own that disc, so I decided to throw it in over the weekend (a double feature with the bulletproof Rollerball) because I wanted a little late-career Caan and I was sure it would hold up.
Maybe it didn’t, but it did deliver on its promises of a radiant Sarah Jessica Parker, an unleashed Nic Cage, and another great Jimmy performance. He plays an aging gangster who misses one thing about his old life: his late wife. He can have all of the money, the goons, the cars, the clothes, the planes, but he just misses his girl.
That kind of character is so Jimmy. Hard on the outside, so very loveable on the inside.
I found him extremely loveable and I think you will too when you watch these performances. I will miss him.
End of tweet.
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