Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ya, Part 1

James Caan. Does the man really need an introduction? How many times have how many of us seen him in The Godfather, Sonny, getting ripped apart by machine gun fire at that Long Island Causeway toll booth, a scene that, supposedly, was staged by director Francis Ford Coppola to be reminiscent of the final death scene of Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in the film Bonnie and Clyde.

Ah, Sonny. "The most impulsive and violent of [Godfather] Vito's children and, before Michael's rise to power, the most involved in his father's criminal operations," said IMDB.

Sonny was always my favorite character in the Corleone family saga, followed by Don Vito, followed by Don Michael. Scenes that will remain unblemished, playing ceaselessly on movie screens in my Memory Palace , include Sonny literally banging Lucy Mancini against the door at his sister's wedding; smashing a camera and spitting on the ground in front of the FBI agents sniffing around outside the Corleone's Long Island compound; biting his fist upon learning over the telephone of his sister's beating at the hands of her husband, Carlo Rizzi, one of the stupidest characters ever to populate a mafia movie; beating this brother-in-law under the spurting fountain created by a knocked-over fire hydrant.

There are many other scenes blooming in my mind as I write, but the mowing down at the toll booth obviously made the strongest impression on me, and a host of others, I would expect. Frances bejeweled it with all the ruby-red blood he could as Sonny, bullets splattering his pin-striped suit, blood falling out of his mouth, finally climbed out of the car, on the side facing the still-firing machine gunners, doing a little dance caused by the bullets flying through flesh, muscles, bone, viscera, screaming in agony before crashing to the ground, to be kicked in the face by one of the gunmen, a bit of overkill if you ask me, but perhaps it had a significance better divined by Sicilians. (My maternal grandmother's relatives are from Calabria, the point of Italy nearest Sicily, across the Strait of Messina, separated by about 2 miles of water. I am 2 miles away from being part Sicilian.)

Despite popular folklore, Caan only played a mobster a few times in films, and a couple of times on television. Aside from The Godfather he got mobbed up for Mickey Blue Eyes, a surprisingly good film that I liked a lot. Caan is the nice tough guy, who is almost bashful upon first meeting his to-be son-in-law, played by Hugh Grant; but he also knows that, to best carry a dead body, you have to "hitch up under the arm pits."

Sadly, Caan has not made the greatest career decisions. Compare his oeuvre to those of DeNiro and Pacino (also Godfather alumnus). He played the lead in The Gambler, which won some acclaim, I have seen it and didn't find it particularly interesting.

Then there is Misery, which was a major turn for Caan, who was excellent as the brooding author, captured and tortured by his number-one fan.

In another turn, he played the villain in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser. A great popcorn flick, but I'd expect something more substantial from a Jimmy Caan.

Then there was Thief. After The Godfather, I would say his next best film -- which arrived about eight years later via the stylish hand of Michael Mann. Caan does not portray a Mafioso, he does play a professional thief who could have been in the mob but resisted it for his independence; therein is what drives the plot of the film.



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