Thief is a sadly overlooked and underrated feature from the superb Michael Mann. Released in 1981, it quickly came and went at cinemas. A sad fate for such a fantastic crime caper. Even at the beginning of his career, Michael Mann shows his natural talent for matching the right actors to his source material, creating a rich and throbbing atmosphere, and utilising excellent direction to create a very successful package.
Thief is not like many crime capers. Why this one has such resonance is because it's inhabited by people you really feel you'd meet in real life. And James Caan is the emotional centre. Caan has never been better, and this must rank as the best performance of his career (Misery is second).
Thief introduces Caan's character, Frank, in a truly superb opening scene. A robbery, rich in intensity and atmosphere. Frank is an expert safecracker pulling off a diamond heist. Its a great opener. We watch Frank crack open a safe, and what surprises is how realistic it looks. It all appears as a carefully planned operation. It takes us through the paces of an actual robbery. We see Frank use an acetylene torch and acts like he actually knows how to use one. Its helped no end by the throbbing musical score by Tangerine Dream.
What separates Michael Mann's crime thrillers from your standard run of the mill cops and robbers show is he knows how to sketch plausible characters. And Frank is one of Mann's most well defined and truest.
Frank may be a thief, but he is a real person. And one of the most touching aspects of his character is his desire to live a normal life. He's a good thief, and fronts his criminal dealings with legit businesses like a car dealership and a bar. But burning within him is an urge to kiss off this life and start a new one.
We learn about this desire in one of Thief's most memorable moments. A ten minute scene where he opens up to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a waitress, in a diner. Mann crafts some thoughtful and haunting dialogue in this film, and especially in this scene it really resonates. Mann is known for his talky thrillers, and in this one scene Mann allows the camera to just stay fixed on these people, and let them share confidences.
Frank may hide behind a cynical front. Its whats allowed him to survive in this game. But his cynicism hides a more vulnerable side. Frank has spent time in prison, and while he was there, he befriended Okla (Willie Nelson), a fellow thief. Okla took Frank under his wing and the two men became lifelong friends. They both made a vow that once they got out, they would turn their lives around. Frank shows Jessie a collage of a home, a family and a job. Incongruous images that Frank somehow believes he can make a reality. He shares all of this with Jessie, hoping that she will be a part of that dream.
Although Frank wants to quit his life of crime, he understands he may have to dabble in it to leave it behind. He believes he's found his chance when Leo (expertly played by Robert Prosky), a Mafia kingpin hires his services for a diamond heist. Leo seems a genial, friendly, even paternal boss. And as an added bonus, he helps Frank to achieve his ambitions. He provides him with a nice house, an adopted child since Jessie can't conceive, and Frank's status as an ex-con prohibits him from acquiring one legally, as well as a job. What more could he ask?
But there are complications. The police are monitoring Frank's movements. His phone is bugged. Its as if the whole world suddenly knows who he is. But he persists with the job. And it comes off without a hitch. Then payday comes. And the beginning of Frank's new life. Only it doesn't happen.
Leo makes it clear he has no intention of letting Frank go. He's a valuable commodity. He's a part of the family business now. And family members don't walk out. Leo's made sure of that. He provided Frank with his wonderful new life. He can take it away just as easily. And if it means Jessie and their son have to die in the process, so be it.
Robert Prosky is a total revelation in this scene. Every film I've seen him in he's played kind, warm grandfatherly types. And for the first half of Thief, that's the way he seems. But when Frank wants to leave, Prosky carefully modulates his performance. Mann shoots the scene from Frank's POV, with Leo towering over him, in an upside-down angle. The warm smile is gone. Replaced by a cold, steely-eyed implacability. Its at this point you realise what a monster Leo really is.
The ending is quite a powderkeg of conflicting emotions and lost hopes and dreams. Frank has to effectively cut himself off from all ties to life. He sends Jessie and their son packing under the false pretence of not wanting them around anymore. Truthfully Frank has to get them as far away from him (and Leo) as possible.
Frank burns his bridges in the end, and it all culminates in a grand final showdown between he and Leo. A last desperate bid to gain his freedom. Its quite a sad ending really. Especially because we wanted everything to work out for Frank. But Mann pulls no punches. That's what keeps him ahead of the game compared to most filmmakers.
Thief is a truly excellent film. Compelling, saddening and very exciting. James Caan has every right to be proud of this film. It's a minor masterpiece, and just the beginning of Michael Mann's auspicious and excellent output.
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