James Caan died on Wednesday evening and since then many, many tributes have been paid. ‘A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend,’ Al Pacino declared in a statement. ‘I’m gonna miss him.’ Michael Mann, who directed Caan in the 1981 neo-noir heist thriller Thief, said: ‘I loved him and I loved working with him.’

Caan’s career spanned decades and he worked with many heavyweight directors over the years including Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. I first saw him in movies like Freebie and the Bean and Rollerball in cinemas as a youngster and later loved his performances in Misery, Bottle Rocket and The Yards to name three very different films almost randomly. Of course, he’ll always be best remembered as the combustible Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but I thought I’d examine one of his less well-known films as my own tribute.

1969 was the year of Apollo 11, Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and Manson Family slayings. Not surprisingly, big budget Hollywood movies like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon were looking distinctly old hat and struggling at the box-office. 1969 was also the year of Medium Cool and Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider. And The Rain People, the last film made by Francis Ford Coppola before he directed The Godfather.

Secretly pregnant and disenchanted with her marriage, Natalie Ravenna, a Long Island housewife, wakes early and showers as her husband Vinnie sleeps on. She gets dressed and leaves a note for him saying that she still loves him and not to worry. And, in a recurring feature of the film, we see a brief flashback, this time to their marriage day, a joyful gathering if ever there was one. Coppola does like a wedding.

Natalie isn’t sure she’s ready to be a mother. She isn’t sure of very much other than she wants to think things out. Alone. She decides to head off in her car with no real destination in mind other than to head west.

The weather? It’s raining, of course.

Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, she picks up a hitch-hiker called Jimmy, who tells her: ‘You can call me Killer.’ Hitching was far more common back then, but even so, what kind of guy would introduce himself as Killer to a lone female? There’s something different about Killer or James Kilgannon to give him the name on his birth certificate.

Natalie has an ulterior motive in giving him the lift. She’s looking to ‘make it’ with someone, some uncomplicated sex and Killer looks like a potential candidate.

In an anonymous motel room, she instructs him to take off his shirt. He complies, and she ogles his sportsman’s physique. They play a game of Simon Says – a 1967 bubblegum hit if you’re wondering – and Killer plays as if he’s a child. She learns that he’s an ex-footballer player, who has suffered a traumatic head injury on the field of play that has left him with severely reduced intellectual abilities.

With no family or friends to look after him, Killer complicates matters for Natalie. Instead of uncomplicated sex, the pregnant woman now finds herself acting as a de facto mother to a very large childlike man. He quickly grows emotionally dependent on her and Natalie realises how badly he will take it if she walks out on him – and knows he’ll have far less ability to cope with her desertion than her husband.

In Nebraska, she arranges for him to work at a roadside pet farm where birds are kept in grotesquely overcrowded conditions. She desperately attempts to kid herself on that he can be happy there, but complications soon arise as she drives onwards alone.

Another man enters her life in the shape of Gordon, a highway patrolman played by Robert Duvall. He books her for speeding but then asks her out for a coffee. He might not be a great catch, but she does like his uniform and, unlike Killer, he is obviously interested in sleeping with her. She agrees to meet up for a date that night.

Gordon’s wife and young son have died in a housefire, leaving him to raise a daughter as a single father. Rosalie (Marya Zimmet) is a handful, a girl who behaves like an adult. The opposite of Killer, in fact.

Not that much happens in The Rain People, although there is a lot of drama packed into its final ten minutes. If The Godfather could be described as operatic, then this intriguing character-driven is minimalist.

The pace is very slow in places but it feels real, and there’s never any sense that Coppola is trying to manipulate viewers – unlike the vast majority of preachy American studio movies being produced today. Natalie is far from one-dimensional. She does help Killer and she also says some truly horrible things to him. Caan’s great in a part that’s the polar opposite of the swaggering Sonny Corleone, and it remained a favourite role for the actor throughout his life.

James Caan: March 26, 1940 – July 6, 2022