James Caan's Favorite James Caan Movie Is The Right Choice

When the news broke about the death of James Caan, everyone's mind raced towards their favorite picture of his. For some, it was the abject terror of "Misery." For others, it was Wes Anderson's feature directorial debut, "Bottle Rocket." Quite a view went for their nostalgic attachment to "Elf," which brings them back to James Caan every single year. Oh, yeah, and he was in a little movie called "The Godfather." Perhaps you've heard of it.

Whether it was a comedy, drama, crime thriller, science-fiction sports movie, or even opposite Barbra Streisand in a musical, the Bronx-born actor always brought a singular presence that blended the dangerous and the vulnerable. He was a leading man with character actor instincts, which allowed him to thrive in the 1970s New Hollywood. His film career goes all the way back to the mid-1960s, giving us nearly 60 years of wonderful work to pour over and enjoy.

As for the question of the actor's favorite film he was in, you would probably assume it was "The Godfather." After all, it is one of the best films ever made, and many people would put it at the very top. Plus, Caan's character, Sonny Corleone, is such a rich character that leaves a lot of room for him to play around. For James Caan, though, another picture is the one he held closest to his heart. That would be a neo-noir heist movie he made with a brand new, up-and-coming director making his first theatrical feature. The director's name is Michael Mann, and the movie is "Thief."

'One of my fondest memories'

Why actors prefer certain films of theirs is very different than why audiences like us do, because their relationship to a certain project gets completely wrapped up in the experience of making it. While "The Godfather" may be the more celebrated movie, James Caan was a supporting player still on the upswing of his career. By the time "Thief" came along, he was a big star with a lot of power. This was a project he could spearhead and actually make happen. Talking with Bright Lights, Caan described why "Thief" was probably his favorite movie in his filmography:

"[A]t the time I was a big shot, and whatever I wanted to do, they did. I said I wanted to do this. Jerry Bruckheimer and my brother produced -– and if you knew my brother, that's hysterical. Those two guys producing it. And Michael -– this little Napoleonic workaholic. This guy was nuts. But I liked it, that film, and that character. It's one of my fondest memories."

This movie, written by a guy who really only had a television movie ("The Jericho Mile") as his calling card at that time, got made thanks to James Caan. The true test of stardom is getting a movie produced based on your name alone, and this was Caan at the peak of his powers. Not only did he get the film made, he basically helped foster a talented filmmaker in Michael Mann who would go on to be one of the most beloved of the last 40 years. Although, Caan wasn't the biggest fan as Mann's career went along, saying, "I liked him then. I don't like him after that. His work –- he got too important to himself." But Caan had excellent taste, because "Thief" happens to be a crime thriller masterclass.

Understandable even without the experience of making it

Even though "Thief" was Michael Mann's first theatrical film as a director, he arrives fully formed. It features all of the trademarks of his work, namely it being about a career criminal desperate for human connection but ultimately can only find solace in the work. It may not dig as deep into the characters' psychologies as "Heat" or "Collateral" does, but what it lacks there it more than makes up for in stripped-down, incredibly stylish pulp genre thrills. James Caan as Frank, the safecracker who wants out of the business after one last job, could not be more magnetic, capturing a man who keeps getting drawn back into a world of pain and trouble that has followed him his whole life.

The other two major features of "Thief" are its cinematography and score. This was Donald E. Thorin's first time working as a director of photography after years in the camera department. Right out of the gate, he mastered using colored neon and tungsten lighting which gives the whole movie this hazy, vibrant look that every neo-noir has been chasing ever since. The same can be said for the outstanding electronic score by Tangerine Dream, the artificiality of which helps create a completely uneasy feeling in your stomach.

Do I think "Thief" is a better movie than "The Godfather?" No, but as a James Caan — above the title — movie, it is rather difficult to choose anything else. For a performer who so expertly knew how to play someone incredibly assured but frighteningly raw, "Thief" represents that combination perfectly. It is one of those movies where you cannot imagine anyone else in the leading role besides James Caan, and luckily, we will never have to.