Press "Enter" to skip to content

James Caan: the hard-working star who mixed the rough with the smooth

The actor has left behind a long, acclaimed career in film, from crime roles in The Godfather and Thief to a fan favourite turn in Rob Reiner’s Misery

James Caan had a Hollywood career spanning 60 years, his muscular physique and open, expressive, handsome face making him eminently castable in any and every kind of drama, though not exactly as a romantic lead. It was his destiny to be associated with one great role: Santino “Sonny” Corleone, eldest son and putative heir of mob chieftain Vito Corleone in Coppola’s classic movies The Godfather and The Godfather Part II – Sonny is the raging hothead, the uneducated loudmouth, the undisciplined id of the mobster mind, without his father’s strategic wisdom or his brother’s watchful presence, the Corleone who hysterically demands all-out war against the family’s gangster enemies when they move against Vito but with no real idea how this is to be planned or executed. But Sonny is certainly a good soldier without the duplicitous weakness of his other brother Fredo. Caan is caught between the two brilliant performances of Brando as his ageing, ailing father and Al Pacino as his younger brother Michael who initially wants nothing to do with the family business. Compared with these two, Caan’s is the less hypnotically seductive character, and yet it is Caan’s brawn, Caan’s sweat, Caan’s directness (which is not the same as unsubtlety) and his grandstanding machismo which sets off these performances and is a vital part of the mob ambience. In his uncredited cameo at the very end of The Godfather Part II, he is unforgettable in his rage at Michael joining the army, almost punching him at the dinner table for his disloyalty to the family and – a brilliant touch – contemptuously grabbing the hand that Fredo had offered him in congratulation and wrenching it away.

James Caan’s Sonny epitomised all the boorishness, all the unthinking male entitlement of the mob family, especially in the legendary wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather, in which he is sneaking away from his wife and children to have sex with a bridesmaid: he is predatory, uncaring, furtive and somehow also utterly forthright, entirely at ease with the male world which finally is to kill him: ambushed and shot at a highway toll booth: a warrior’s death, perhaps, a macho death of the sort Sonny might have imagined for himself if he were not so unimaginative. Continue reading...

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: