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The Last Guy in the World You Wanna Fuck With

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James Caan and Michael Mann. It was a match made in heaven - or New York. 1981. Thief had just opened at Cinema One. Or Two. Maybe Three. One of those movie theaters on Third Avenue near Bloomingdales. The story was a familiar one - a jewel thief trying to make one last score - but the sensibility intensely of the moment.

I was fourteen and my brother was eleven. Adam was into Tangerine Dream, the cosmic electronic band that did the soundtrack. That band spoke the relentless, propulsive language of pubescent boys. I thought the movie sounded cool. Tuesday Weld. James Caan. Ladies Love Outlaws.

We were feral kids. No helicopter parents in those days; they were busy with, well, whatever. We had no money, and nobody was home to ask. But we had our childhood piggy banks, so we opened them, counted the change, and headed into the night.

At the theater, the woman behind the window didn't hassle us for inconveniencing her with our coins. It wasn't like that then. We'd counted right; to the penny, no more. Was it three dollars each? Something like that. 1981.

I miss those city streets at night. And now I miss James Caan, who died today at 82.

Born in 1940 to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, Caan grew up in Sunnyside, Queens. He played football at Michigan State and studied acting at Hofstra University, where one of his classmates was Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. I know some of you care about Brian's Song. OK. I saw it. I cried, I'm sure, but it's not what I remember. When I was up in California Gold Country starting my first book, I watched Misery with low expectations and found it surprisingly good, if frightening under the circumstances because it was about a writer with writer's block, being tortured. Caan showed a sensitive side but Kathy Bates stole the show.

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For me it was always Thief and The Godfather. In Godfather, Caan, even though he was Jewish, played Sonny, the eldest brother in the Corleone family, making the character far more attractive and less crude than Mario Puzo's version. He distilled Sonny to the impulsiveness that defined his character, and, per Aristotle ("character is action") impulsiveness became the arc of Sonny's story.

Remember, Sonny was the Joe Kennedy Jr. of the Corleone family, the scion destined to inherit but who died too young. I confess that Caan may have melded in my adolescent mind with this scene in the paperback edition of The Godfather passed around by girls in my ninth-grade class. "Read page 27" was written on the inside cover. (Or was it page 19?) So long ago.

"Now as she ran up the steps toward Sonny a tremendous flash of desire ran through her body. On the landing, Sonny pulled her down the hall into an empty bedroom. Her legs went weak as the door closed behind them..."

Ah, to be a teenager again! Anti-heroes were in vogue, and in those innocent days, for us, and for our country, they were indistinguishable from heroes.

Susan Zakin is editor of Journal of the Plague Years.


"That [diner scene] is the thing that I’m proudest of. I found out at the Actor’s Studio that they picked that scene and they give it to some of their advanced students to do. So, that’s kind of a big feather in my cap I think — and Tuesday’s. That’s why I’m glad I had Tuesday. She just reacted, which is what I like. What I like to do is really listen. Even the proposal is kind of weird, isn’t it? Like 'Come on. Come on. What’s going on in your life? You’re waiting for a bus that will never come.' " - James Caan on his role in Michael Mann's Thief, for the film's 40th anniversary in March 2021.

Original trailer. Dig the Tangerine Dream.

Extended Play: The Last Guy in the World You Wanna...

Short and to the point

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Sonny Boy ::: Randy Newman

Sonny’s Lettah ::: Linton Kwesi Johnson

The Godfather : Main Theme :::: Nino Rota

Dr Destructo ::: Tangerine Dream

Misery ::: The Beatles

Halls of Fear / The Godfather ::: Nino Rota

Sonny ::: Wilson Pickett

The Godfather Love Theme ::: Nino Rota