Directed by: Michael Mann.
Written by: Michael Mann based on the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer.
Starring: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido), John Santucci (Urizzi), Gavin MacFadyen (Boreksco).
Some directors take their time finding their voice – spending a few films making what will look like rough drafts of their later, better films the first (and second) times out. Martin Scorsese was like that. And then there are filmmakers like Michael Mann – who with his debut film Thief made what is perhaps the purest representation of what we consider a “Michael Mann” film to be. From the first frames of Thief, there is no doubt who is behind the camera. The film opens with a near wordless heist – as Frank (James Caan) and his crew, break into a safe, ignore or discard everything, except for the diamonds – which they take and are out of there quickly. These guys are pros – know what they are looking for, and where to get it. It will be only be during the course of the movie that we’ll get to know Frank as a person at all – his troubled history as a child raised by the system, how a 2 year stint in prison as a 19 year old for stealing $40 became a 12 year stretch, when he had to defend himself against a potential gang rape, and ended up with a manslaughter charge. How his marriage has fallen apart – because she didn’t knew what he did for a living, buying his lie about selling cars (ok, he does have a car lot, but it’s a front more than anything). His relationship mentor and friend Okla (Willie Nelson), still on the inside. Or his new relationship with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a waitress he meets, and in a brilliant, lengthy sequence in a diner, lays out his life for her to see – no secrets, no lies, and she agrees to be with him from then on. Like all Mann films, Thief doesn’t really stop to make time for this exposition – but just crams it all in on the fly. Every scene is packed with detail – so much so, that you are surprised by just how much he crams into one movie.
Early in the film, Frank makes a mistake that will eventually come back to haunt him – we know at the time it’s a mistake, and Frank is pretty sure it is as well, but he cannot help himself. When he gives the diamonds from that first heist to his regular fence – who ends up dead before giving Frank his money – Frank goes to the people he knows has it. They give him the money no problem – but the boss, Leo (Robert Prosky) wants Frank to come and work for him. He knows how good Frank is – and he convinces Frank that by coming to work for him, he’ll be able to take down bigger scores, with less risk. Frank doesn’t like it – he likes working for himself – but when Leo starts throwing around some insane numbers, Frank cannot say no. He’ll do one deal, it will make them all millionaires, then he will retire with Jessie – and their newly adopted son (one that Leo gets for him when more “official” channels do not work out).
Mann has often made movies about characters are caught up in a system that is larger than they are – most of the time, they don’t even realize it. In films like Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004), Public Enemies (2009) and even his latest, Blackhat (2015) he often has two characters – on opposite sides, in a constant struggle with each other’s, even though in reality they are both cogs in the same machine. Thief is a little bit different as Frank doesn’t have the same kind of antagonist as the other man characters do – Leo is really the only supporting character who leaves much of a lasting impression, but even he is kind of one note. Frank likes to think of himself as free – but he really isn’t. And even if he operates outside the law, outside the system so to speak, he is still very much a part of it, as he discovers there is a class system even among thieves. Leo doesn’t want a partner – he doesn’t even want an employee – he wants someone he can control, make money off of their hard work, while he takes little risk, and sits at home in his fancy house – with a wife who seemingly hates him (there is a great moment, late in the film, near the climax where Frank comes to Leo’s house with a gun, a woman, presumably Leo’s wife, sees Frank, barely reacts, and then goes back to watching TV). Frank is very much a part of the capitalist system – even if it is a system that has mainly rejected him – and he it.
The film is built around two heist sequences – the opening one, and the one near the end – the one they spend most of the movie planning, and is one of the only robberies in movie history that actually goes according to plan. Mann doesn’t use much, if any dialogue, in these two sequences – but unlike Jules Dassin in Riffifi (an obvious influence) – he does use music – in this case the techno score by Tangerine Dream, which while not my favorite piece of music, works well here – as Frank is using technology to pull off his heists, and it fits with the music. Much of the visuals of the film are dark – literally, black skies, black waters, black Chicago streets that envelope the characters, giving them no way out. The film, in many ways, is the missing link that connects the gritty, nihilistic crime films of the 1970s, with the more gloss and glamour of the 1980s crime films – something Mann himself would become known for (albeit on TV, with Miami Vice).
There are two moments in the films where Frank sits completely silently for a few minutes – and seems utterly content with himself, and his life. The first is at a Chinese restaurant, with Jessie and their new son – who they hadn’t even named yet. They decide on a name, David (great choice!) and call the waiter back over to tell him – and then Frank simply sits there, and looks off into space. He gets a similar look late in the film – as his cohorts are loading the loot from the unbreakable safe that he just broke. The job done, he sits there – utterly contented. Those two moments have haunted me since seeing Thief. What is Frank thinking in those moments? Does he know that everything is about to come crashing down around him, so he’s taking a moment to savor a job well down? Thief is perhaps not Mann’s best film – and it certainly isn’t his most ambitious. But it’s one that takes his lead character seriously – and all the other stuff in the movie, as brilliant as it is, basically boils down to a character study. It’s a great performance by Caan – perhaps the best in any Mann film, because while Frank is certainly a cog in the machine, as many Mann characters are, he remains – first and foremost – a person, who Mann takes seriously. This is why Thief is a masterwork – when of the greatest debut films of all time.