Released in March of 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief is one of the great debut feature films, a fully-formed work that shows a young(ish) director firmly in command of the themes and aesthetic proclivities that would reverberate throughout a now almost 50-year career. Having found some success in network television writing for shows like Starsky & Hutch and Vega$, and directing the well-regarded TV docudrama The Jericho Mile, Mann turned his attention to adapting the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, written by real-life jewel thief John Seybold (under the pen name Frank Hohimer). A fastidious, even obsessive researcher, armed with an education from the London Film School and with an interest in documentary filmmaking — the director and a friend filmed the aftermath of the May ‘68 riots in Paris — Mann combines in Thief his fascination with true tales of cops and robbers with a slick, neon-soaked neo-noir vibe. F.X. Feeney has called Mann a “synthesist,” occupying a space between realism on the one hand and ostentatious visual flair on the other. It’s a fascinating tension, even a contradiction, that animates all of Mann’s work, existing somewhere between the mythopoeic and a hardscrabble authenticity; or, what Ignatiy Vishnevetsky aptly describes as “balancing abstraction, archetype, and technical realism.”
James Caan plays Frank, an ex-con who’s now a high-end burglar. It’s a great performance, with Caan’s gruff, taciturn demeanor and stiff, halting gait a great match for Mann’s unsentimental approach to the genre. Frank and his crew, including a young Jim Belushi, steal diamonds, while also dealing with dodgy fences and corrupt cops that want a piece of their action. Frank has some legitimate business as well, a car dealership and a bar (Chicago’s own The Green Mill) that act as fronts for laundering the money from their robberies. He seems to have it all figured out — except he’s desperate for a family.
It’s no fresh insight to observe that Mann is preoccupied with professional men going about their work with single-minded determination; you can draw a straight line from Caan’s Frank to Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley in Heat, men who live outside the parameters of normal society and ultimately pay the price for it. Looming large over Mann’s work (and presented in a gestational form in Thief) is McCauley’s famous mantra, “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner”; of course, the tragedy of Heat is that McCauley doesn’t heed his own rule. Likewise, the primary narrative thrust of Thief concerns Frank’s attempts to build an approximation of a “normal life” — or, “ballgames and barbecues” in Mann speak — before burning it all down in an apocalyptic finale, signaling a fiery rebuke of normalcy: walking away when he feels the heat. Their professionalism is, then, both a source of pride and the cause of their emotional isolation — in Heat, McCauley says “I am alone, I am not lonely,” a dubious semantic distinction that the director proceeds to disprove in film after film. Mann had compiled copious amounts of first-hand knowledge about the carceral state while prepping The Jericho Mile, spending weeks in Folsom Prison. This specific insight would go on to inform not only Frank and the robbers of Heat, but also Johnny Depp’s incarnation of John Dillinger in Public Enemies and Chris Hemsworth’s hacker in Blackhat, men whose world has been irrevocably altered by life spent behind bars.
When he’s not planning and executing jobs, which Mann details with exacting precision, Frank dreams of having a wife and kids. That he goes about it like one of his robberies, or a contentious business transaction, speaks to his damaged psyche post-incarceration. Caan’s imposing physicality masks a neurotic need for love. His relationships with Tuesday Weld’s Jessie (romantic) and Willie Nelson’s Okla (paternal) are child-like imitations of the real thing. When Frank is approached by Leo (a never more-menacing Robert Prosky) and offered a place in his crime syndicate, opening up the possibility of bigger and better scores and all the fringe benefits of having friends in high places, he knows he should decline. But he is persuaded by the promise of familial trappings, including the illicit procurement of a baby after an attempted adoption goes south. It’s a distorted perversion of the nuclear family, built on a flimsy foundation. The tragedy is that Frank is destined, or cursed, to be alone. Bristling under the thumb of Leo, Frank is determined to be his own man again. And so, it all comes crumbling down as Frank sets about dismantling everything he’s worked for. He abandons his wife and child, realizing that Leo can use them against him, and proceeds to firebomb his own businesses before invading Leo’s home in a well-appointed suburb and gunning down the whole crew.
While the film takes place in both Chicago and L.A., it’s clear which city Mann has been studying and absorbing for years. L.A. would get its turn in Heat and again in Collateral, but Thief is a Chicago movie through and through. Mann’s documentarian eye pops up time and again, as he and cinematographer Donald Thorin take in rusted-out steel beams and bulky rivets, glass and concrete and all the textures of urban decay in the “city that works.” (This is before State Street pulled its own version of Times Square and got cleaned up for tourists and high-end retailers.) Mann films Chicago like a latticework of expressionistic vanishing points, from the catacomb-like quality of Lower Wacker Dr. to the intricate fire escapes that litter the alleys of downtown. The elevated train tracks on Wabash create parallel lines down Jewelers Row, receding into the murky dark background and lit by streetlights and neon signs reflecting off of the polished hoods of sleek sedans. Mann has always been a poet of the nocturnal, sculpting shadows out of the darkness and turning negative space into something expansive. He’s our great chronicler of isolation, too, finding an existential ennui even in a bustling metropolis. Frank ends his journey walking off into the night, enveloped in darkness like a phantasm evaporating back into the ether. Mann never loses sight of his men’s tragic nature — Frank is ultimately triumphant over his enemies, even while still finding himself left with nothing.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.