Movie Review – Thief

Thief (1981)
Written & Directed by Michael Mann

Michael Mann has made a name for himself for producing some of the best American crime films of the last 40 years. Beyond Thief, he has directed Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral. Outside of the crime genre, Mann directed The Last of the Mohicans and the political drama The Insider. Along the way, he co-created Miami Vice and adapted it to the big screen in 2006. It started with Thief, his feature film debut, exploring the life of a talented safecracker in Chicago. From the start, we can see the atmospheric lighting and the attention to detail that would become a hallmark of Mann’s best work.

Frank (James Caan) is a safecracker who specializes in jewel heists, aided by security systems expert Barry (James Belushi). Frank has spent a lot of time in prison, and being free is something he cherishes. He imagines having a life for himself outside of crime one day, a wife and child with a home. His mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) is still locked up and just learned he’s dying. Okla wants Frank’s help to ensure he doesn’t die inside these prison walls. There’s also a love interest in the form of Jessie (Tuesday Weld), who sees the good inside Frank that others might not. Complications arise when Frank becomes entangled with Chicago Outfit boss Leo (Robert Prosky), who tempts the thief with promises of being protected and set up for life in exchange for Frank’s theft services. Eventually, Frank wants out and realizes they don’t plan on letting him go alive.

Mann directed a tv movie shot at Folsom Prison, and it informed this script as he examined what it would be like for someone to lose so much of their life behind bars. He became particularly interested in how Frank, having developed as a person removed from society, would be and how difficult it would be for him to interact outside of criminal enterprise. Mann would encourage James Caan to do deep research on inmates upon their release into society. He wanted the actor to both understand the psychological parts of the character and practice Frank’s skills in the film related to his line of work. There’s an exceptionally wonderfully written monologue Frank delivers to Jessie, which is the highlight of the film. I think it’s a fantastic showcase of the empathy & thought behind Mann’s writing, as well as a testament to the work Caan did to inhabit the character. 

I always have a great appreciation for the technical elements of Mann’s work, and his world is so clearly his own when you see it on the screen. Lighting, often cold blues, and shadow are used to evoke a sense of danger. Most scenes are shot at night because that’s when his characters are most active. That time of day is also what makes his lighting stand out best. Mann had initially wanted to score the film with blues music but found the eerie Tangerine Dream electronic score to work better. It became a hallmark in his movie from here on that you’d get musical scores that were just a little bit ahead of their time, using electronic instruments to evoke a sense of looming danger.

I find myself lured in by highly stylistic movies, but so often, they are a complete disappointment; the story & characters fail to live up to the promise of the visuals. However, with Mann’s work in the 1980s through the early 2000s, I think he delivers both style & substance. He manages to take very procedural stories where cops investigate crimes and criminals go through the tedious steps of breaking into a building or safe and make them captivating to watch. 

He gets great performances out of his actors, and here he has a tense dynamic between Frank and Leo. Robert Prosky is a familiar face in cinema, but this marked his film debut. For most of his career, he worked in stage productions or television. But Prosky walks that fine line between warm/genial and vicious/bloodthirsty. It’s a perfect contrast to Frank’s reserved personality, never letting anyone see more than he wants them to. It’s clear from their first meeting that it’s going to lead to a bloody showdown. Thief is one of those near-perfect movies, mimicked by so many (see Christopher Nolan) yet rarely ever matched in quality. 

3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Thief”

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