Michael Mann made Heat, his best known and most successful film, in mid 1990s, but he is still likely to enter world cinema history books as quintessentially 1980s director. This will happen thanks to his trend-setting TV show Miami Vice which established neon lights, synthesiser-based soundtracks and refined fashion styles as embodiment of everything what was “cool” about the decade. Mann very effectively used those elements in a strong contrast with grittiness and realism of his crime thrillers, and this approach could be seen in Mann’s 1981 feature film debut Thief.
Protagonist, played by James Caan, is Frank, Chicago safe cracker and former convict who has spent most of his adult life behind the bars. Four years after getting released, Frank enjoys benefits of education given by master thief and his prison mentor John “Okla” Bertinneau (played by Willie Nelson) which allowed him to build career of an expert thief specialised in cash and diamonds. He has earned enough money to drive expensive cars, wear fashionable clothes and even run used car dealership as a front for his illegal operations, but he still dreams of a “normal” life of a legitimate businessman and family man with wife and children. The latter might be provided by Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld), beautiful cashier with whom he is so infatuated that he confesses his sad criminal history on their first date. Problems for Frank arise when shady dealings of his fence Joe Gags (played by Hal Frank) bring attention of influential mobster Leo (played by Robert Prosky) who, deeply impressed with Frank’s expertise and professionalism, wants to recruit him to take part in spectacular and difficult bank heist in California. Frank wants to stay independent but, lured by the promised financial reward that could allow him to retire and against his better judgment, agrees and start meticulous preparations. Things start to go wrong when it becomes obvious that he is under surveillance of corrupt police detectives who don’t know what his next job is, but they still want percentage of his earnings.
The film is based on the novel by John Seybold a.k.a. Frank Hohimer, professional jewel thief who was serving prison sentence during the production. Main technical adviser for the film was John Santucci, recently paroled jewel thief who, semi-ironically, appeared in the film in the role of corrupt policeman (and who would later have memorable role of Pauli Taglia in Mann’s TV series Crime Story). Even more ironically, Dennis Farina, Chicago police detective who arrested Santucci in real life and who would later star in Crime Story, has his film acting debut in the role of Leo’s henchman. With this level of authenticity, it isn’t surprising that Mann, known for his perfectionism, strived to make Thief as realistic as possible, sometimes at the expense of pace. This could be observed in heist scenes, which show Frank’s work as slow, physically challenging and sometimes tedious, as well in scenes showing preparations for such jobs, that include discussion about metal compositions of the safes and various ways in which professional burglars can defeat high-tech alarm systems.
The main asset of the film is undoubtedly James Caan, one of the greatest stars of New Hollywood with many great and memorable roles in his filmography. Caan later said that he considered the role of Frank the most challenging but also the best in his entire life. This could be explained by the complexity and contradictions of the character. He is at the same time consummate and level-headed professional, yet at the same very emotionally (and sometimes violently) reacts when other people wrong him. He almost coerces Jessie into relationship, yet he is compassionate towards her and later genuinely laments the death of his friends. Caan worked very hard on this role and went even that far to develop specific speech patterns and vocabulary in order to play person that was left for years out of society and desperately tries to fit back in.
Caan’s acting was well-matched by the rest of the cast. Robert Prosky, who began his acting career very late, shines in the role of old mobster who tries to present himself as fatherly figure to his minions while ruling his criminal empire as ruthless killer. Tuesday Weld is also very good in his role, although Mann’s script makes her too conveniently associated to the world of crime by making her former girlfriend of international drug smuggler.
Final ingredients for the success of the film could be found in cinematography of Donald Thorin which excels in the night scenes, using a lot of neon, as well as green and blue colour, making the world inhabited by protagonists cold despite BMWs, Armani’s suits and luxurious mob mansions. This atmosphere is further enhanced by electronic music soundtrack created by German band Tangerine Dream, which successfully bridges realism and emphasis on style. Although some critics might find the final western-style showdown as too much of a concession to emerging macho conventions of 1980s Hollywood, Thief is very well-made film that clearly sets the path for Mann and and other great film makers of the decade.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
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