Michael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers. For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan. The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief. While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.
James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life. In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life. Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.
I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream. This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago. One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style. Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling. When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies. The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann. He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul. Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few. There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.
This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through. It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his. He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here. Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family. He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up. Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject. Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man. Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety. Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie. This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her. Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human. Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience. However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.
Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness. Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels. There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller. Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.
There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me. For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator. He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more. The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away. This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude. Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank. So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.
Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago. All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role. This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time. This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists. None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified. We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill. The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score. Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising. However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others. Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.
There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars. Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront. And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms. This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film. He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies. He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.
Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude. He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes. Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments. This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass. How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed. The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose. From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love. And overall, their score is innovative and captivating. It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.
Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling. Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie. It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter. Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook. No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story. With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie. If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann. It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.