When James Caan died several days ago, social media memorialized him as Sonny in The Godfather. The NYT reminded us that he had first shown up in the TV tearjerker, Brian’s Song, long before Sonny beat the crap out of his sister’s faithless husband in a scene of righteous violence. Other movies followed but I can’t remember seeing any of them, except for the one that made him unforgettable, the one that nobody mentioned, not even the Times. For me James Caan will forever be Marvin, the aging grifter in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

I was living in Bangkok when a local magazine did a feature on Matt Dillon arriving in Phnom Penh with a film crew and a small budget. There were a few photos of him juxtaposed against that city’s dilapidated but still graceful colonial buildings, riding in a cyclo, and standing behind a camera. Unimpressed, I hoped the film had a budget large enough to make an impact on Phnom Penh’s struggling economy and that the movie didn’t insult Cambodia. I didn’t think about it again until several years later when I was living in Seattle, desperately homesick for SE Asia. When I saw it in a video rental shop, I grabbed it, as I had Brokedown Palace, Two Brothers, Indochine, The Lover–any movie that would give me the feeling of a languid tropical afternoon with its fierce unending sunlight.

City of Ghosts did much better than that. Beginning with jangled moments in Bangkok, it caught the blurred first impressions of that place bred by the city’s kinetic speed. It captured what could well be the mantra of the region’s Western expat men, drawled with enough irony to keep its truth from being absurd, “I am not what I was, nor shall I ever be again.” In Phnom Penh it found the undercurrent of menace that lay beneath the irresistible charm of this place at the turn of the last century. It took a cyclo driver out of the realm of stereotype and made him the movie’s hero. It showed the US-bestowed killing fields that continue to maim and murder with buried war souvenirs–unexploded ordnance and land mines. 

And it gave James Caan a role that he seemed born to play–Marvin the con artist who found a new frontier of opportunity in Cambodia. He’s a guy who’s eager to impose garish vulgarity on crumbling colonial splendor just so long as he comes out with suitcases of cash, a man without a conscience but with a love of life that’s positively incandescent. Whether he’s trying to master the grace of Cambodia’s traditional dance steps while dressed in a sarong or singing karaoke in what has to be lip-synched flawless Khmer, Marvin exudes careless, infectious joy and inexhaustible optimism. He’s the embodiment of capitalism, at its worst and at its tawdry best.

There’s an unexpected wealth of good acting in City of Ghosts. The cyclo driver isn’t the only character who goes beyond stereotype into a marvelous surprise. Even the founder of the Phnom Penh Post shows up in Gerard Depardieu’s sleazy bar, looking elegant, imperturbable, and amused. 

Like the time-worn expat in Bangkok, Phnom Penh now is “not what it was, nor shall it ever be again.” But enough truth from its recent past is preserved in a low-budget movie made by a B-list pretty boy–with much of its charm coming from James Caan. I watched him a few nights after he died, as he once again rollicked his way through his portrayal of a gleeful buccaneer, fearless, predatory, and somehow lovable. Rest well, Marvin.