I revisited "Manhunter" this week in the wake of the "Hannibal" finale, and then decided to take a look at another Michael Mann film that's long been on my "To Watch" list. "Thief" was Mann's feature debut, which saw a resurgence of interest recently thanks to Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive," often referred to as its spiritual successor. I've had a hit-or-miss relationship with Mann's work. I liked "Manhunter" and "Collateral," but found "Public Enemies" and "Blackhat" wanting. There was so much hype around "Heat" that it inevitably disappointed me, but I was very young when I saw it, and I know I owe it a rewatch someday. "Thief," however, may be the first of Michael Mann's films that I've really loved unreservedly.
The heist film is a fixture of popular cinema, and thieves are familiar protagonists. There's an appealing fantasy image of the professional safecracker that's been created over the years. He's a smart, skillful operator who happens to be down on his luck for one reason or another - usually some sympathetic personal troubles or a weakness for some common vice - and understands that continuing the criminal lifestyle is a dead end. One more big job, and he'll walk away from the whole sordid business for good. Frank (James Caan) fits the bill perfectly, an ex-con who is quietly building up quite a reputation by pulling off impressive burglaries. But as he reveals to the pretty waitress, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), Frank is working toward the goal of having a home and family. A quick path to that goal appears in the form of Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime boss, who convinces Frank to work for him on a major diamond heist. The cost of doing business with Leo, however, is very high.
"Thief" is a product of its time, with the Tangerine Dream electronica soundtrack and early appearances by James Belushi and Dennis Farina in supporting roles. Surveillance systems require digging into the guts of a building's electrical wiring, but Frank and his crew don't have to worry about cameras, because they weren't widely used yet in 1981. Mann shot on location in Chicago, and captures the city as it never will be again. His famous night scenes are on display here, the style already fully developed and self-assured. And then there's James Caan, robust and dangerous, who exudes the kind of presence that's largely missing among our modern movie stars. One of the film's highlights is an early scene in a coffee shop with Tuesday Weld, where they simply have an intimate conversation about their pasts and their hopes for the future.
So as much as "Thief" should be lauded for its carefully constructed heist scenes, viscerally violent confrontations, and a whole lot of Mann's famous nocturnal atmosphere, what's really impressive is the attention it gives to the psychology and the growth of its main character. That's what allows it to spring some of its best surprises and take the third act in a direction that would seem contrived in other circumstances. "Thief" is very much a genre film and power fantasy, one that executes many of the usual tropes to great effect. However, it also subverts some of the big ones, especially that image of the safecracker hero who just wants a normal life. I love the way that everything is built up to Frank's realization that what he has to do to get by as a thief, and perhaps his fundamental nature, are incompatible with the lifestyle he wants and the dreams he aspires to.
I know that Michael Mann had a long career in television prior to "Thief," but it's still difficult to believe that this was his first feature. The look of it is so bold and the details so meticulously laid out. Extensive research was done on the technical details, and boy does it make a difference. I can't remember any other movie heists that involve so much heavy industrial machinery, which is how real safecrackers open safes. The film is worth a watch for these sequences alone, particularly the one involving a spark-throwing cutting lance that requires a three-man team to operate. "Thief" joins "Rififi" as one of the most realistic heist films as far as the actual heists go. Outside of them, the film's depictions of crime and mayhem involve much more creative license.
Frank may not be a traditional movie thief, but he's still a genre film hero. There are certain obligations that come with that, which the filmmakers fulfill brilliantly. Many of Mann's later films can be daunting because of their subject matter or complexity, but "Thief" is pure entertainment. And in the end, that's probably why I like it so much.