In 1981, a 37-year-old Michael Mann made a self-assured and auspicious debut with Thief, a spectacular crime film loaded with enough confidence and swagger to knock the wind out of anyone watching it for the first time. No one had made anything like this since Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. Now that I’ve mentioned Le Samourai, I think it could’ve been a hugely influential film for Mann while making this. There are some striking similarities between the two films. Both feature an audacious criminal who makes no apologies for the profession he is involved in and both films have a distinctive look that sets them apart from the other films of their genre. The film instantly catapulted Michael Mann to fame and now is known as one of the major directors in Hollywood responsible for elevating the crime genre.
Thief opens with Frank (played by James Caan) in the middle of a diamond heist. After the heist, Frank hands over the diamonds to his fence Joe Gags, who is later found murdered. Frank learns from his friend Barry (played by Jim Belushi) that Joe was murdered by some vicious men connected to a Chicago mob boss Leo (played by Robert Prosky). A tense confrontation between Frank and one of the plating company executives leads the former to a meeting with Leo, who may have an irresistible proposal for him. Frank isn’t interested in working him and tells him that he’ll let him know. Although initially reluctant, Frank later agrees to the deal after a dinner date with Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld) – a woman he’s been trying to woo for a while – wherein she agrees to be a part of his life.
Franks tells Barry that this will be their last job and that he is planning to retire soon after. Frank and Jessie adopt a son, and names him after his friend and mentor David Okla (Willie Nelson in a cameo). Frank learns that a bunch of corrupt detectives are on his trail looking for a piece of the action. The heist organized by Leo is successful but Frank finds out that his share is a little light and questions Leo about this. Leo tells him that the rest of his share has been invested in shopping centers, which does not please Frank. He immediately ends their relationship and demands that the rest of his share be handed to him within 24 hours and makes a serious threat while doing so. This leads to a series of tense events that culminate in a stylishly executed shootout.
As I mentioned earlier, Frank is a character who makes no apologies about the work he is involved in. He is thrust into a cruel and unfair world and is determined to earn what he is entitled to, in a way that he thinks is right. Despite the moral choices he has made, we still find him to be a very likable character. There is a particular scene that stands out from the rest – the aforementioned dinner scene with Jessie in which Frank reveals to her the abominable experiences he had to go through in prison. This is an incredibly moving scene. Caan is able to convey the character’s emotions while describing these events so beautifully that you are transfixed to the screen, overwhelmed by the enormity of his performance.
Frank is a character that shares some similarities with another Michael Mann protagonist, Neil McCauley from Heat. You could say that McCauley is an extension of Frank. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day, Mann reveals that McCauley is actually Frank’s elder brother. Without spoiling anything, I would say that there is a certain scene towards the end of Thief where I was reminded of how alike they both are. While McCauley past – especially his childhood – is deliberately left vague, here Mann gives us a clear idea of Frank’s. The scene that informs us of this is when Frank and Jessie are at an adoption agency and he is rejected on the basis of his prison record. He lashes out at a female member of the staff saying, “I was state-raised, and this is a dead place!” This is undoubtedly my favorite performance by James Caan.
The cinematography is dazzling. No other director comes close to Mann when it comes to capturing the beauty of the night effectively. The soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is extraordinary. On some days, I play the ‘beach theme’ from it on a loop. And also the theme that plays during the climactic shootout. In the hands of a lesser director, Thief could’ve ended up as a disaster. But Mann’s deft handling of the subject matter, casting choices and a specific vision has enabled him to craft a film that is sure to stand the test of time. This is one of Mann’s best and for me, it is up there with Heat, The Insider, and Collateral. I hope he makes something like this once again.