Saturday, September 8, 2012


THIEF             A-                   
USA  (122 mi)  1981  d:  Michael Mann

I am the last guy in the world that you wanna fuck with.     —Frank (James Caan) 

After some brief work in television, this is Michael Mann’s first feature film, and the only film *not* shot on ‘Scope throughout his career, but it’s one of his most eye-popping films, with a dialogue-free opening where the everpresent rain and the synthesized musical score in an urban environment may make some think of Blade Runner (1982), which was still a year away.  Instead this is a crime thriller set on the streets of Chicago, the director’s hometown, introducing many local actors who would go on to have prominent careers, while showing in all its glory the essence of Lower Wacker Drive, once an underground, subterranean world of decaying cement pillars, an actual road directly underneath another road called Wacker Drive that runs on ground level, that was a haven for the derelicts and the homeless, given a clean sheen from the rain, making it almost look clean and respectable instead of the filthy rat trap it actually was, years later cleaned up by the city, sending all the homeless and riff raff away to other less protected grounds.  The grime of this notorious roadway rubs off on the film’s subject matter, suggesting crime is a dirty business.  James Caan, forever remembered as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone in THE GODFATHER (1972), plays Frank, an upscale jewel thief who uses the most sophisticated technological equipment as his means of entry, outsmarting the cops on all fronts, usually making a bundle while getting away clean.  Like most Mann films, this is a gorgeous looking neo-noir film, shot by Donald E. Thorin, making excellent use of onsite locations, using first class film composition throughout, plenty of night shots, and sensational editing.  Adapting a story written by an actual thief, the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer, pen name for John Seybold, who actually specialized in home invasions and was ironically serving time in prison while this film was in production.  Mann changed the focus to a jewel thief, using actual thieves as professional consultants for the film, along with their tools and equipment.  The burglary tools were provided by John Santucci, in reality a recently paroled thief who plays the rousting corrupt cop Sgt. Urizzi, the guy continually tailing Frank, where the tools of the trade are prominently featured in the film, usually in extended wordless sequences, much like Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955), where the professionalism of the planning and the meticulous detail of carrying out near impossible crimes simply holds the audience breathless. 

Much of this film feels like racing against time, as it opens wordlessly at a blistering pace right in the middle of a robbery in progress, with pulsating synthesizer music by Tangerine Dream that is locked in synch with their movements, where Frank is carefully working his way around a bank safe’s supposedly impenetrable lock mechanism, using heavy duty drill equipment (which the actors were trained to use) to search for a secretly concealed safety catch, where once inside he helps himself to a free-for-all of safety deposit boxes filled with stored diamonds.  The lookout in the car parked in the alley is honed in on the police radio, where both remain in close contact through a wire, as the jewels are dropped with the lookout who drives off while the thieves walk away on foot through a rain-soaked alley, quickly stripping off their work overalls until they appear as normal as can be.  After a job well done, we can see Frank kick back in a quintessential Michael Mann shot that appears again in MANHUNTER (1986), HEAT (1995) and THE INSIDER (1999). With his back to the camera, Frank looks out at the lake in a kind of Zen inner calm, where he has some degree of inner peace and personal fulfillment. Frank’s cover is running a car sales operation, though much of the time is spent in what looks like stripping down stolen cars into something he can sell on his lot, making it look like a respectable business.  A consummate professional, a man proud of what he does, knowing he’s the best there is, he is also someone looking ahead to where he never has to worry about looking over his shoulder again.  Respectability means family and stability, something he’s never had in his life, through privately this is his all-consuming desire.  We only learn this in a lengthy conversation he has with Tuesday Weld as Jessie, one of the stronger female protagonists in any Mann film, terrific as a woman who’s been around the block once or twice, but the woman Frank wants to hold onto, even though she doesn’t know it yet.  When Frank whisks her out of a bar (where Mighty Joe Young is playing), literally kidnapping her against her will, stuffing her into his car until they arrive at an all night diner where Frank’s near ten minute monologue is the centerpiece of the film, as he literally pours out his life story.  This may be James Caan’s proudest moment as an actor, as despite confessing his criminal history to a woman who’s dead set against his ideas, having had trouble with a drug trafficker in the past, but the guy is mesmerizing in convincing her that he has no time left in his life to bullshit or play games, that after spending a decade in prison he has to make up for lost time if he wants his piece of the American Dream, eventually persuading her (and the audience) that they are intrinsically linked together romantically, just a drop dead memorable cinematic moment, as the guy couldn’t be more genuinely straightforward, a complete game changing moment, as otherwise he’s a professional swindler, not the most trustworthy character.  Who’d believe him?—yet he’s convincing.   

While everything to this point is among Mann’s best ever, using an odd mix of humor, male machismo, believable characters, and well-written, beautifully constructed scenes, where the dazzling pace of the film matches the accumulated interest in the storyline, which is astonishing in itself, where Frank is the kind of guy who meticulously reconstructs his lost or broken life piece by piece, where he constructs a marriage, a home, and a family exactly as he prepares for and approaches the most difficult aspects of his heists, one step at a time, where much of this film bears witness to his focus on the small details in order to be successful.  But things take a turn for the worse with the introduction of Chicago crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), a reassuring father figure who’s always promising some idealized fantasy perfection, telling people their worries are over, that if they work with him, he’ll take care of everything.  Despite his better judgment, Frank is tempted by this Faustian offer that sounds too good to be true, as the lure of such a lucrative heist could solve all his problems, where he could pull one last big score and finally retire into respectability.  Frank has always run his own show, used his own guys, never had to answer to a “boss,” and he insists on keeping things that way.  But as soon as they agree to work together, his house is bugged and the cops are all over Frank because they know something big is in the air, as what are these guys doing, supposedly each other’s competition, suddenly chumming around?  Nonetheless, Frank’s advance work, including his pal Barry (Jim Belushi), the crack expert at breaking security, begins to bear fruit, where after plenty of doubts about whether it was even possible, they began to understand how to pull it off.  It’s here the film re-focuses on incorporating documentary detail, where the process of the crime takes center stage, where the audience is treated to the spray of sparks from a blowtorch and hand-rigged welding equipment, using some super-heated lance with a white hot tip to literally melt a safe open, where fire and smoke turn a bank vault into an iron smelt, with Frank and his crew consumed by the heat and smoke in the confined, claustrophobic space, where his grimy face afterwards looks like he spent the day in a steel mill.  Despite the apparent success of the operation, Leo and Frank don’t see eye to eye, as Leo sees a budding future together while Frank wants out.  These are not the kind of guys who accept no for an answer, but Caan and Prosky are excellent holding their ground in a spellbinding chess game of battling wits which could easily blow up in their faces at any time.  “You are making big profits from my work, my sweat, my risk, but that is OK because I elected to make that deal. Now the deal is over, and it’s pay-up time.”  Indeed—while some of this appears again in a later Mann film, HEAT (1995), which has a similar lengthy coffee shop sequence (with adversaries Robert De Niro and Al Pacino), the writing is terrific throughout, maintaining fresh interest and energy, keeping the suspense taut, using a remarkable score, where it all comes to a head with a convoluted 1980’s style action finish, given a highly stylistic flourish of double crosses and bullets, where the apocalyptic final shot bears a similarity to the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).   


  1. That diner discussion between Caan and Weld is one of the most romantic, moving, and devastatingly well-acted scenes in all of American film. The later scenes involving adoption are also terrific. I saw "Thief" during its initial theatrical run. I knew it was a film that would stay with me, and it has.

  2. Yeah, that scene comes out of nowhere, as Caan is largely a hood up to that point with little to no conscience to speak of, whose sense of forward thinking is utterly brilliant. One of the best uses of Chicago locations in *any* film, where the wordless, documentary aspect of the crimes themselves is a startling maneuver, as Mann breaks it down into tiny details, where in the crime business, those details are of paramount importance. Also, interesting use of real life criminals as cops and cops as criminals in that film.