Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

I always considered Michael Mann’s 1981 Thief  to be a kind of classic. It’s referenced in books about screenwriting, contains a lot of visual storytelling and symbols, and helped set the tone for an era of mainstream film making. Up until a couple of months ago, it had been years since I had actually seen it.

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Thief is the story of an ex-convict named Frank (James Caan) who works for himself as a professional robber. At that, he is quite successful. He pursues a woman (Tuesday Weld) with a similarly spotted past. His desire is to settle down and raise a family like “normal” people. Frank is adamant about the fact that he is self-employed and under the auspices of no organization. A mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky) wants to change all this and employ Frank’s talents to serve his own ends.

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An hour into my most recent viewing, I found myself thinking Thief  contained a lot of over-acting and unearned yelling, which was disappointing, since I’d always considered Caan’s performance to be one of the greats. I especially reacted this way to the scene where Frank yanks Tuesday Weld’s Jessie out of the bar and throws her in his car and they yell at each other and blah, blah, blah. Our society’s attitude toward such behavior has changed significantly, but even if it hadn’t, the sequence plays as over the top.

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But it’s also where things get interesting. The scene or its followup (location changes; interplay continues) establishes something essential about Frank’s philosophy, about what prison did to him, what he did to deal with it, and what he wants out of life that sheds light on the last few scenes of the film.

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After the first hour, after the defiant Frank finally succumbs to the relentless hard-sell of the Faustian bargain being offered by Prosky’s atypically diabolical Mephistopheles (brilliant casting and performance), when he and Jessie name their newly adopted child after Frank’s dead friend, when Frank gets roughed up by dirty cops, asks them if they ever considered working for a living, and calls them greasy motherfuckers, when Jim Belushi appears in his final scene as Frank’s friend and partner, whatever was rough about the first half of the movie proves to have been for a purpose.

It all comes together.

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Thief is a great, bleak, badass crime flick that indeed was seminal in so many ways. Frank’s dialogue about being state-raised, his uncompromising refusal to be beholden to anybody on either side of the law, his struggle to find his way to a life like everyone else has, his eventual failure and why it happens. The scenes of Frank physically destroying his own identity and literally burning it all down strike hard, as does the film’s portrayal of urban environments as simultaneously dazzling and treacherous, a portrayal facilitated by the photography of Donald Thorin and cocooned sublimely by Tangerine Dream’s score. Caan’s performance is great; the loud bravado of the first half of the film is setting things up for the payoff. In the end, he just walks away, but isn’t likely to get far. Thief holds up, after all.

– The Acolyte