James Caan in the Golden Age
My formative movie-going years, the early 1970s, coincided with what has come to be known as the Golden Age of American Film. Much has been written about the revolutionary filmmakers of that period, and the popularity of short, “ethnic” actors like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. It would be inaccurate, however, to say that Method guys dominated the screen in this period, as traditional movie-stars like Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds (and 60s holdovers Paul Newman and Steve McQueen) were still the biggest boxoffice draws of the day. And then were seriously good actors like James Caan and Gene Hackman, who looked like they who could kick some ass but also took challenging roles in interesting films. Three movies from the 70’s, coming on the heels of his breakthrough role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, are examples of Caan at his best.
Cinderella Liberty, directed by Mark Rydell (1973)
Caan plays John Baggs, a Navy lifer who meets barroom prostitute Maggie (Marsha Mason), while on forced shore leave in Seattle. The alcoholic Maggie lives with Doug, her illegitimate, mixed-race son in a ghetto apartment. Baggs, an inarticulate, confused, but decent man, is looking for something in life and willing to give family a try. Because this is a movie, the fact that the lonely, spiritually adrift Baggs falls in love with Maggie is not a surprise. That Baggs becomes whole through his growing sense of responsibility and affection for the boy certainly is. Director Mark Rydell (The Cowboys) goes for the naturalistic touch, perfect for the material. Add plain-spoken dialogue and inside-Navy touches (from writer Darryl The Last DetailPonicsan), frank scenes of sexuality, neon-drenched location cinematography by Vilmos Zigmond, as well as stellar turns from the talented and lovely Mason, Eli Wallach, Burt Young, Dabney Coleman, Bruno Kirby, and, most remarkably, Kirk Calloway as Doug. Caan shines in his role as the everyman Baggs. This is the kind of quiet, intelligent, adult, and unexpectedly moving film that you could readily find in that era but unfortunately is so rare today. There are missteps: awful Paul Williams “songs” and some looped, feel-good dialogue in the last scene, obviously tacked on by the studio brass. But this is a good one, and well worth your time. Check it out on cable if you come across it unedited (the Fox Movie Channel shows the R-rated version straight up). Cinderella Liberty is currently unavailable on DVD.
The Gambler, directed by Karel Reisz (1974)
The life of a degenerate gambler, directed by Karel Reisz from a script by James Toback. Caan plays Axel Freed and delivers the finest, most deeply affecting performance of his career. Freed is a lowlife, but it is to the filmmakers’ credit that you are also complicit in his actions. So when he asks for the hit on eighteen at a blackjack table, and says, “Gimme the three,” that is the card you are praying for. And when he listens to a basketball game over the radio, his mother’s life savings and his own life on the line, you too feel the slow twist of the knife as the opposing team makes their run. With Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Jacqueline Brookes, Vic Tayback, Stuart Margolin, and Burt Young as the friends, lovers, shylocks, and family members who are swallowed up in Axel’s wake. The ending, in which Freed takes the ultimate gamble and goes up against a knife wielding pimp (Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas), baffled some audience members and critics upon the film’s release, but is just right. In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, neither Karel Reisz nor this film are mentioned, perhaps the director does not fit neatly into Biskind’s rise-and-fall-of-the-young-rebel-auteur hypotheses. But make no mistake, this is one of the very best pictures of the 1970s.
The Killer Elite, directed by Sam Peckinpah (1975) Assassin-for-hire Mike Locken (Caan), working for an arm of the CIA, is betrayed and kneecapped by fellow agent and friend George Hanson (Robert Duvall), who then blows the scalp off the man they were hired to protect. The crippled Locken goes into extensive rehab, trains in the martial arts, and takes a job bodyguarding an Asian diplomat (Mako) who has been targeted by the now-rogue Hanson. Caan hires pals Mac (Burt Young) and Miller (Bo Hopkins) to assist in the job, but what’s really on his mind is revenge. The theme of rehab and resurrection is brought to the forefront of the film, not coincidental as director Peckinpah had become a pariah in Hollywood and was thought to be down for the count when he filmed Elite. Fans of The Wild Bunch will recognize the threads of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, violent redemption, and men who “came too late and stayed too long.” Caan injects humor into the proceedings, even as he maintains an air of cool, and displays the athleticism here that was a trademark of his early career. Check out Young’s business with his hat, and give a standing ovation to Hopkins’ Miller, “the patron saint of the manic depressives.” It all ends with a jaw-dropping action sequence (a masterful blend of image and sound, edited by Monte Hellman) filmed on the deck of a mothballed Liberty Ship in San Francisco’s harbor, involving ninjas, grease guns, swords, and Caan’s deft use of his cane. Some Bloody Sam aficionados don’t care for this film, but I think it works in a major way. Rest in Peace, Sam Peckinpah. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, directed by Je Gyu Kang (2004) Two brothers, the older and protective Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) and Jin-Seok (Won Bin), are recruited to fight for the South in the Korean War. Jin-Tae, in a deal he makes to save his younger brother, volunteers for suicide missions and becomes a hero, losing much of his humanity in the process. Eventually, the brothers end up on different sides of the conflict, and meet on the battlefield. This is an epic, tragic indictment of war and its toll on the human spirit. Don’t be put off by the foreign production or subtitling, as this is one of the finest films of its kind you will ever see. The final battle of Doo-Mil-Ryung, with brutal hand-to-hand combat, firepower, and air bombing, is hyper-visceral and astonishing. Yes, the storyline and acting can be melodramatic, inherent in the art of the culture, but you’ll lose yourself in the film, and you will be moved. A graphic, emotionally wrenching film. American Splendor
The life of everyday schlub/comic book artist Harvey Pekar, brilliantly written and directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. What the directors do with the material is genius.
Pickup on South Street
Three time loser Richard Widmark unwittingly pickpockets U.S. intelligence secrets earmarked for the Reds in this 1953 Cold War noir directed by Sam Fuller. Watch for Thelma Ritter’s shattering last scene and Fuller’s sock-in-the-jaw style. DVD re-release and restoration by Criterion.
Heist, written and directed by David Mamet.
Mamet pulls back on the stylized dialogue and comes up with a winner. A hard, solid crime film, with great performances by Gene Hackman (naturally), Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon, and stock-troupe regular Ricky Jay. More exciting and real than The Score and Oceans Eleven combined. The Seven Ups (1973)
When Phillip D’Antoni, the producer of Bullitt and The French Connection, stepped behind the camera to direct this film, his probable commercial intention was to shoot a movie wrapped around a car chase. But something happened between the marketing idea and the release: D’Antoni made a good crime picture. In the tradition of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Across 110th Street, and others, The Seven Ups can now be seen as a classic, all location, documentary-style look at the real, down-and-dirty New York of the early 1970s. The confusing plot involves an elite outfit of police, headed by Roy Scheider, who pursue cases that merit jolts of seven years and up, and a scheme by criminals to kidnap loan sharks and mob types for ransoms. When an undercover man in Scheider’s unit is killed, the cops seek vengeance.
Convoluted plotting aside, the movie works. The actors, police and lowlifes alike, look the part (any movie featuring Tony Lo Bianco and Joe Spinell is all right with me). The intricacies of working a case such as this are accurately detailed, and the dialogue and rhythms of speech are dead on. Loyalty, betrayal, and the tangled relationships between the law and the street are addressed in a realistic fashion. Don Ellis’s score, used sparingly but effectively, is non-traditional and often chaotic, reflecting the internal conflict and confusion of the characters. I saw The Seven Upstwice in theaters, and have watched it many times on VHS and now DVD. This is one of my favorite crime pictures from an era that produced many fine films.
But what about that car chase? There is no question that it is one of the most thrilling vehicular pursuits ever filmed. Still, some musclecar enthusiasts can’t get behind this one because of the cars involved. Scheider drives a Pontiac Ventura, the sister car to the Chevy Nova; the other car, driven by the late Bill Hickman (the driver of the black Charger in Buliltt and Gene Hackman’s stunt driver in The French Connection), is a long, heavy Bonneville. D’Antoni, no doubt, made a deal with GM’s Pontiac division, but that doesn’t negate the choice of cars. I can personally vouch for the Ventura, as I was lucky enough to drive one, a small-block, 350 V8, one summer long ago; mine was stock, but with a beefed-up suspension, the car becomes a smoker. As for the chase itself, it has the feel of unblocked danger. Watch the genuine look of fear on villain Richard Lynch’s acne-scarred face, riding and brandishing shotgun as Hickman coolly drives, and Scheider, pale as milk and trembling after the insane final crash. When Scheider steers the Ventura back onto the highway, its hood blown off by Lynch, and pins the accelerator, the V8 wound up to the max, the audience I saw this with in 1973 was out of control and on its feet. That’s the power of cinema.
Seven Men from Now, directed by Budd Boetticher
This 1956 western, helmed by legendary adventurer/director Budd Boetticher, has recently been restored and made available on DVD after a long absence from the screen. Produced by Batjac, John Wayne’s company, this Warner Brothers was the first of five collaborations between star Randolph Scott and Boetticher. I think it’s the best. Seven tells a simple story of an ex-lawman (Scott) who is after the men who killed his wife in a Wells Fargo holdup, and his relationship with a shady character (Lee Marvin) who is also on their trail. To make it interesting, Scott rides with a married couple, and develops a highly charged attraction to the wife, played by Gail Russell. There is no wasted screen time, as the story and backstory are handled with economy, typical of the B-pictures of the era (screenplay by Burt Kennedy). Scott is his stoic, dependable self; his horse is beautiful and he rides it well. Gail Russell’s face shows the fade of youth and dreams, understandable as she was battling the alcoholism that would kill her four years later. Lee Marvin, all sleepy-eyed menace and big-cat motion, stands out as Bill Masters, the quick-draw antagonist. Marvin’s name appears, for the first time in his career, single-card and above-the-title, and he seems to recognize the importance of the opportunity by grabbing the ring. In the film’s most memorable scene, inside a covered wagon on a rainy night, he intimates his intent of sexual conquest over Russell in front of her husband (Walter Reed) and Scott, his every word a lascivious suggestion. By the time the guns come out, you’ll be sorry to see him go. Boetticher uses the rocky landscape expertly in these battles to frame and trap the players, with the final showdown prefiguring Leone by eight years. Seven Men from Now was made, I would guess, for less than a million bucks. These movies flew under the radar screen of studio execs, who had their eyes on the bigger productions, and for the directors that freedom could be liberating. Put another way, this is an example of poverty giving birth to art. For more on this topic, seek out a book called Kings of the Bs, by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. And check out this gem of a film.