The Film: Thief (1981)
The Principles: Written and directed by Michael Mann, starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, James Belushi, and Willie Nelson. Loosely based on “The Home Invaders” by Frank Hohimer.
The Premise: Career criminal Frank (Caan) lives by a strict code. He lost a lot of time in jail and he doesn’t plan on going back anytime soon. When Chicago organized crime boss Leo (Prosky) convinces Frank to work for him, he’s got to sacrifice it all to get out with his life.
Is It Good: Christ, where do I start. After years of directing commercials in England, Chicago-born Michael Mann took on his feature film debut with Thief, which he wrote and directed. Little did he know his first was going to be his best. He may as well have hung up his spurs after Thief. Sure, Heat is an amazing film, but Thief is an undisputed masterpiece. If that’s a tough pill to swallow, then you’ve probably never seen the film. And I feel sorry for you.
Thief begins with dialogue-less heist sequence in which Frank and his partner Barry (Belushi) are drilling through a safe to snatch the diamonds inside. It’s a fascinating sequence that swiftly seeps the audience into the underworld of the film. What it says is that for the next 120 minutes, you are in the hands of professionals. People are going to act and talk in manners you may not understand, but keep up and you’ll be rewarded with a truly unique cinematic experience.
Frank’s obese diamond fence runs into some trouble and when he comes to collect, he gets roped into an industrial heist that could set him on easy street for life. The tempting gig is organized by Leo (Prosky), a paunchy local crime boss who will promise his employees the world if it’ll make them deliver. Aside from planning the heist, Frank is nurturing a romance with his gal Jessie (Weld), an infertile waitress who’s scarred from a previous relationship with a drug dealer.
She initially doesn’t know about Frank’s profession and when he reveals himself, it’s a humorous, sorta dark, moment of pure release. You can tell he’s been dying to spout off about his expensive digs and criminal skills, but there’s also a lot of frustration in his voice. Specifically, frustration at the real world – that place where the waitress comes from. The sheep who go to their soul-sucking jobs everyday, who don’t wear flawless diamond rings and $150 slacks. He doesn’t understand them.
After he cools off, they share an intimate scene at a diner. Man, Caan’s never been better than this. He spills his guts about basically everything – who he is, why he is, and what he wants. See, Frank was raised by the state and spent the introductory years of his adult life behind bars, so the familial expectations of his life have been dictated by pictures he cut out of magazines. He believes that when you like a girl, you marry her and have children – no matter what. Because that’s what the happy people in “Better Homes & Gardens” do.
To further illustrate Frank’s mental state, when he visits his mentor/father-figure in prison, played by Willie Nelson, he tells him he started seeing a new girl. Instantly, Nelson asks “You’re going to marry her?” This is the worldview of someone who’s been locked up most of their lives. Not “What does she look like” or “where does she work,” but “Ooh, okay then you’re going to marry her.” They believe that to fit in with society, you need a wife and kids. Period. Frank carries in his wallet a symbol of this goal: a collage of magazine photos he compiled in prison. It includes a blissful couple, babies, skulls, and Willie Nelson. Life, death, Willie. As Frank tells Jessie, “This is my life.”
You can read Thief as a character study of Frank, but he’s really not that complicated. He’s Frank not just in name alone. A simple man who’s full of advice and codes, Frank expects the world to be like he imagines and when it’s not, he burns the fucking thing to the ground. Literally. The final 20 minutes of the film seem shocking, but if you’ve been paying attention to Frank’s outlook, what else would you expect? This swan song is one of the most badass finales in film history. Not even the Tangerine Dream score can warm the blanket of coldness as Frank proudly tells the world to go to hell.
And Caan’s never been better. He’s sadly never gotten the high-profile hard-ass roles that De Niro and Pacino got, and I’ve never understood why. He’s prettier than the both of them and can match acting pants any day. Thief‘s the proof. Caan, who grew up in a shady side of the Bronx, embodies Frank in a flawlessly believable manner. The way he talks, moves, and thinks – Caan is Frank. There’s an authenticity about him that’s rarely matched. He shadowed a lot of Chicago thieves to prepare for the role while learning how to use their tools and weapons. His mechanical prowess with a gun (impressively displayed during the final scene) was learned through Navy SEAL and CIA training.
For a further example of realness, consider the way Frank talks. He rarely uses conjunctions, such as “don’t” “I’m” and “won’t.” That’s because Caan and Mann decided that Frank was making up for time lost in prison and wouldn’t speak in a manner that might be misheard. He doesn’t have time to repeat himself. Everything he says is slow, intentional, and thoughtful. It comes off as condescending at times, but he speaks and moves with economy because he’s wasted enough time rotting in a cell. Even when he has to make the tough decisions – like literally deleting his entire life – Frank’s no bullshit.
Speaking of chilling, I bet you never thought Robert Prosky would make your asshole clench. In his first feature film role – at age 51 – Prosky’s Leo is the hulking, vampiric embodiment of a horrible boss. He comes off like an enthusiastic team player at first, but think about the shit this man is capable of. He can buy a baby. A BABY. So when Frank decides to retire, Leo lays it out for him in plain English: he owns Frank. It’s honestly one of the most chilling monologues of villainy I’ve ever heard. In the span of two-minutes, Prosky makes Don Corleone seem like margarine.
Thief established Mann as a director obsessed with authenticity. If the devil is in the details, then Thief is Satan’s favorite movie. It’s loosely based on the book “The Home Invaders” by Frank Hohimer, a cat burglar who was in prison during filming. The book is essentially a textbook for thieves. Retired jewel thief John Santucci served as technical advisor for the film – assembling Caan’s tools of the trade and showing him the ropes. He also plays the mush-mouthed corrupt cop Urizzi who’s up Caan’s ass most of the film. Their scenes together are seriously hilarious. Santucci, who passed away in 2004, went on to act in several TV crime series, including Crime Story, with Dennis Farina, who also made his film debut in Thief.
Back in the diner scene, Frank explains to Jessie that “nothing is nothing.” He says he survived prison because he doesn’t give a fuck whether he lives or dies. Later on, Leo explains that Frank is scary because he “doesn’t give a fuck.” This nihilistic attitude that Frank has rejects everything he tells himself he wants in life. A wife, a baby, a house in the suburbs – everything is just window dressing to him because he’s already dead inside. Once his life is threatened, Frank devolves to his primitive state and destroys all he’s built. It’s wonderful to watch and sorta noble when you think about it. As a whole, Thief is unlike any other crime film in history. A diamond in the rough, you can say, which would probably get Frank all excited.
Is It Worth a Look: See above. Buy it from CHUD!
Random Anecdotes: The “burning rod” used by Caan and Belushi in the film was real. It’s a magnesium rod that transmits oxygen, which can heat up to 8,000 to 9,000 degrees.
In the interrogations scene where Frank is getting pummeled by cops, the lead officer is played by Chuck Adamson, a real-life cop.When he says he’d like to take Frank to a ball game or the track, those are real techniques he would use to get criminals to squawk.
Tangerine Dream may not be your first thought when it comes to gritty, realistic crime dramas, but Mann chose them to add to the feeling that Frank was a rat in a metallic, neon maze.
First film for Dennis Farina, John Santucci, Robert Prosky, John Belushi, and William Petersen, of To Live and Die in L.A. fame.
Cinematic Soulmates: any crime flick about “one last score.”