In the stunningly well-shot opening scene to Michael Mann’s directorial debut, Thief, Frank (James Caan) and his partners (among them James Beluhi) in crime (among them James Belushi) crack open an impressive safe using high end, powerful tools like gear heads when they handle wrenches and such when toying with cars. This is what Frank does for a living, stealing money and jewels with the help of massive tools. Such utilities are required for the high stakes, extremely dangerous heists his team performs, but then again, the higher the risks the greater the bounty. Shortly thereafter it becomes known that Frank fancies a pretty waitress at a local diner, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) with whom he would like to start a serious relationship, something she accepts after some considerable convincing on Frank’s part. However much he may want to start living like an ordinary citizen, the thrill of a premium job sucks him back into the game one more time, this time at the behest of one Leo (Robert Provsky), a man that seemingly has all at his disposal to perform any heist imaginable. Little does Frank know that he is getting in over his head.
Thief has often been heralded as an early Mann masterpiece and a preview of things to come from the director, both in terms of his stylistic and thematic interests that would earn him the enviable title of auteur in the years that followed. Albeit not without some flaws, it is true that much of what the Chicagoan is known for today is very much present in this 1981 effort. In fact, watching it with good familiarity with many of his later films is quite an eye-opening experience. Although one striking comparable element is absent, is it hard not to think of Heat, Mann’s 1995 endeavour often cited has his greatest film. Frank in Thief is similar to Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat. Both operate outside the law and have attained tremendous economic success after earlier failures that landed them in the slammer for extended periods of time. Both are steadfast in the precision with which they perform their cavalier acts and with respect to their own codes of conduct. They give themselves rules to follow, rules not to be bent or broken under any circumstances, even if it means forsaking emotional pleasure and security.
However, whereas Neil sports a somewhat calm demeanour for the most part, Frank is still a bit of a firecracker, willing to show some burning rage when pushed to the limit by others, either for their sheer annoyance, incompetence or uncooperativeness. There are a number of scenes in Thief in which Frank arrives achingly close to erupting at the wrong place and at the wrong time, such as when he pays an intense visit to the set-up man that handled their most recent excursion for riches. Frank understands that the fellow has tried double-crossing him, much to his ire. Despite that the meeting occurs in broad daylight and at the target’s office building where secretaries and assistants are out and about, performing their menial tasks, Frank takes out his pistol, wields it right in front of the traitors face and seems more than willing to blow his brains out. This turns out to be little more than a snippet of what eventually becomes Frank’s undoing of sorts, at least as far as his chance at happiness with a loved one is concerned. Try as he might to go straight, there is an inconsolably aggressive angle to his general personality that never ceases to rear its ugly head at the slightest sign of trouble. In large part because of this, Frank can never be anything but alone.
Of the two more arresting qualities viewers enjoy in whilst experiencing Thief, one is undoubtedly Caan’s unabashedly intense performance. For someone that feels compelled to resist the pursuit of happiness when he smells jeopardy, the aforementioned aggressiveness is extremely present at times. Nearly everything Frank does or says is carried with a feverish intensity, bitterness even. In one of the picture’s key scenes, he and Jessie share coffee at a diner during which time Jessie manages to pry some of Frank history out of him. It is a revelatory moment, not only for what the audience gets to learn about the protagonist, particularly his hardships in prison, but how it makes the audience wonder what Frank might have been like before. It is extremely difficult to imagine a less tough version of Frank than the one depicted on screen.
The second standout element to Michael Mann’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking is the applied aesthetic style. There is a bevy of iconic moments that resonate for the sheer artistry of the composition even though the physical elements depicted are not what one would traditionally associate with beauty. Mann’s eye for discovering arresting visuals in unorthodox ways is on full display here. A back alley in the drenching rain requires skill and keen attention to lighting detail in order to make beautiful, but Mann is more than up to the task. What’s more, this is one of the shots to open the film, announcing to cinephiles everywhere that a new talent has arrived on the scene, one not to be overlooked. The attention paid to how the heavy-duty machinery is employed to break open into safes is just given just as much care, as is the shower of sparks produced by the contact between a flaring pole and the iron of a safe. The director adores paying attention to such details and his films reap the benefits, Thief being no exception.
For all its strengths, the film is not a perfect debut. While it is admirable that Mann wants to dedicate some time to exploring Frank’s multifaceted life, many of the domestic scenes lack the gusto of those dedicated to the preparation or execution of heists. Thief is not epic in the sense that it offers the same scope as do major blockbusters, but it feels as though Mann tries to make Frank’s life feel as epic as possible by providing more scope on screen than it actually needs. Whereas the exhilaration of the protagonist’s profession comes across effortlessly, the details of his relationship with Jessie, diner scene notwithstanding, hint that Mann inserts them out of a sense of obligation.
Minor quibbles aside, there is little doubt that Thief remains one of the directors’ more accomplished and assured projects. It serves as an indicator of the material that speaks to him, material he would borrow from a few more times in the following decades and boasts a raw, subtly layered performance from the iconic James Caan. Whether it represents Mann’s best work or not, it certainly is neo-noir done right.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly Friday Noir column.