With his thick neck and trapezoidal torso, Caan looked like the athlete he plays, but little about the performance in “The Rain People” is obvious. It’s a heavy role — Killer is the story’s sacrificial lamb — yet Caan, working with Coppola, imbues the part with a subtle, persuasive innocence that doesn’t patronize the character or sanctify his disability. As an actor, Caan certainly could go big and externalize a character’s inner workings (he does a lot around the eyebrows), and Kilgannon has his outsize moments. Yet what makes the character work is the poignant impassiveness that conveys just how brutally life has hollowed him out.
Caan’s ability to convey delicacies of feeling wasn’t a singular gift, but, in his finest roles, it worked contrapuntally with his swaggering physicality and the implied roughness telegraphed by his Bronx-and-Queens-cultivated accent. He sounded like a tough, a delinquent, a bad, potentially dangerous guy, even if his better characters were sometimes more complicated. As Caan’s reputation grew (he was a longtime favorite of this paper’s film critics) and a range of roles opened up to him, he played to and against type and expectation, becoming one of the defining faces of New Hollywood.
It may come as a surprise just how big Caan was in the 1970s, particularly if you’re really only familiar with “The Godfather.” Two years after Coppola’s film blew up, in an essay on “The Last Detail” that consecrated Jack Nicholson as a major star, The Times’s Vincent Canby also named Caan as one of the era’s other young notables alongside Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Caan’s frequent co-star, Robert Duvall. There are different reasons Caan’s reputation dimmed in the ensuing decades; for one thing, while Nicholson was solidifying his fame as a sailor in “The Last Detail,” Caan was repping the Navy in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973).
I love “Cinderella Liberty,” but it hasn’t been canonized like “The Last Detail,” written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby. But “Cinderella” deserves love, partly because Caan is terrific in it as a sailor who, during an unplanned leave, suddenly becomes involved with a good-time broad (a glorious Marsha Mason). They’re loose and funny and sexy, and together create a raw, unpredictable, memorable romance. Given how aggressively male-dominated so many 1970s classics were, it’s worth remembering that Caan was good with women in more ways than were hinted at in “The Godfather.”