Let’s Talk About James Caan’s Most Underrated Performance

Tommy switches up his tactics when he gets Betsy to himself. He has to; Betsy’s savvier than Jack. She might come off as a ditz, but, as Bergman showed us in the first act, she’s a well-read elementary school teacher who can spot a clumsy con coming down Broadway. Her first instinct is spot-on: the poker game was rigged. This forces Tommy, who values Betsy solely for her striking resemblance to his dead wife, to gin up an emotional appeal. 

I love this movie, but there’s nowhere near enough on the page to justify Betsy’s change of heart. This shortchanges Parker, and leaves the fate of the film in Caan’s hands. If he can’t convince us that Tommy is slick enough to earn Betsy’s sympathies to the extent that she’ll run off to Hawaii, the film is dead.

Caan doesn’t just get us to buy into Tommy’s powers of persuasion, he gets us to like the bastard. Bergman does Caan a huge favor during the Hawaii segment by not turning the promised arrival of Tommy’s son into a screwball comedy bit. When the kid turns up with his wife and baby, shock of shocks, they’re normal people! The kicker arrives when Tommy woos Betsy on a boat ride. “If I were a medieval knight, I would’ve jostled for you.” She corrects him. “Jousted.” She’s charmed by his sudden guilelessness, and so are we. Maybe this guy is a well-meaning, lovestruck loon. And maybe she’s better off with him than a momma’s boy whose hands go clammy at the thought of marriage.

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