Some filmmakers take years to hone their style and aesthetic tastes. Others announce their vision right out of the gate. Such is the case with Thief, which instantly established Michael Mann’s unique, unmistakable viewpoint on the world and which features one of James Caan’s best roles as a professional thief who yearns to establish a legitimate domestic life with a wife and child, but who instinctively gets pulled back into the world of crime.
Thief (1981) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: James Caan, James Belushi, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky
By Alan Bacchus
The opening scene is riveting, establishing Frank (Caan) as a crackerjack jewel thief breaking into his next score and going through the elaborate procedure of cracking the safe. Frank’s use of heavy steel drills and welding equipment feels more like a tool and dye operation than the whimsical fun of say, a Jules Dassin picture, or other heist romps of the ‘70s, like The Brink’s Job or Dollars. This is part of Mann’s modus operandi for most of his career, depicting criminals as working class men albeit on the fringe of legitimate society.
After the heist, Frank connects with a new source, Leo (Prosky), who offers him a chance at more scores and more money. Frank’s instinct is to decline, preferring to work on his own. It’s a noble stance to take, but after reconnecting with his girlfriend, Jessie (Weld), with whom he wants to start a new life, including marriage and kids. With these prospects staring at him and with little money in his pockets he needs the scores and decides to go against his judgement.
Much of the second half of the film is prep for the big score, a diamond heist in an ultra-secure high-rise building. From the casing of the joint to purchasing the supplies and hiring the team, Mann makes the details of the preparation for the job as important as the actual theft.
Of course, as one would expect, there’s a double-cross threatening both Frank and his new family, which forces him to make some tough but pragmatic decisions about his family and his career in order to escape the web of criminal deceit he’s caught in.
Mann managed to create a resolute stone cold attitude to his world not present in other crime pictures before it – not even Sydney Lumet, William Friedkin or Don Siegel achieved this kind of realism. And combined with the precise but textured cinematography – glowing street lamps reflecting off rain-soaked Chicago streets would be a hallmark of Mann's later work too – it became a style Mann could call his own. Other than his rigorous attention to detail, the other thematic hallmark established in this picture is Mann’s characterization of thieves as identifiable men with many of the same domestic problems as the audience. One of the best scenes in the film is a long dialogue between Caan and Weld, lovers and life partners who are trying to figure out how to make their relationship work.
There’s also the electronic magnificence of the Tangerine Dream score, some of which dates the picture badly, but most of which sizzles with a feeling and tone unlike most other pictures of its kind. The synthesized sounds are diametrically opposed to all other styles of movie up until that (very short) period in Hollywood. Now with films like Tron: Legacy, Drive and Contagion, the electronic score might just make a comeback. But I don’t think any modern film would attempt to recreate the extremity of Tangerine Dream’s unorthodox sounds here.
Like any auteur’s work it’s fun to connect the themes, plotting, visualizations and tone of Thief to Mann’s other work, such as Heat, Manhunter and Miami Vice. The connections to Heat are the most direct. In fact, the narrative structure and building of characters in Thief seems like a trial work for the more expansive, epic and ambitious work of Heat.
As mentioned, as much as Thief was a showcase for the new American voice of Michael Mann, so it was for James Caan, who never really fulfilled the promise of The Godfather. Sure, Sonny Corleone was an iconic character that was impossible to forget, but look no further than Thief to find arguably Caan’s best work.
Thief is available on Blu-RFay from the Criterion Collection