With its heavily accented male viewpoints, Michael Mann’s 1981 heist drama has style to burn, and proves typical of the director in numerous ways. Also on display here is his penchant for unique visuals and endearingly left-of-centre musical accompaniment. Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, the crim of the title, is a fascinating early landmark in Mann’s career; it was his first major cinematic release and even without the precision of execution seen in his later work, it still carries all the early signatures his devotees have come to admire. Though technically an 80’s film it feels like a carryover from the previous glorious decade of American cinema with its stark, gritty story – hardly an original one, certainly, but carried off with such conviction that it becomes a compelling experience by the end.
Frank has spent a lot of time in jail but with a new relationship blooming with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) he’d ideally prefer to settle down if financial security can be arranged. He works as a freelancer, self-employed, with an able right-hand man in Barry (James Belushi), and with a job as a car salesman by day as a front. After complications ensue from his latest job, however, when the man transporting his money ends up dead, he finds himself confronting the temptations offered by underworld kingpin Leo (Robert Prosky).
Frank decides to seize the opportunity offered, claiming a stake in one last massive job with a large haul guaranteed, before hoping to ride off into the sunset with his lady and a life of luxury and financial security assured. But as you might expect not everything goes to plan as Frank discovers, the job behind them, it’s a lot more difficult than you imagine to extricate yourself from under the thumb of the man pulling all the strings. The consequences for both sides, trying to assert their primal dominance, will be bloody.
Caan makes Frank into a rough but charismatic anti-hero, a belligerent and dangerous man to those who get in his way. There are mannerisms Caan adopts that faintly annoyed me initially though I was beginning to turn down the stretch. Tuesday Weld is excellent as the tough but vulnerable Jessie, whilst Prosky shines in an unusual role for him. Belushi is fair support but given little to work with whilst Willie Nelson has a couple of good scenes as Frank’s dying mentor in prison.
Mann’s screenplay, based on a book by Frank Hohimer, feels slightly undisciplined and random, a little rough around the edges at times, but I like its hardness and he fashions a handful of classic moments – especially the interplay between Frank and the cops on his tail, a series of scenes that comes to a head in a brutal but humourous interview room beating. Visually the film is superb, the highlights being the glittering night-time scenes on slick wet Chicago streets which dominate the action, the empty urban darkness lit starkly by the slowly saturating neon. His point of view shots give certain scenes a resolute immediacy.
Mann’s musical sensibilities have always been a reflection of his peculiar subjectivity and Thief is no exception. Here he employed synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, who were popular for a few years at that time amongst filmmakers, to overlay long scenes with their dreamy, though simplistic, ambient soundscapes; it’s not something I’d listen to on CD but it has an undeniably hypnotic impact and works to great effect at times – though not when actual themes are called for, as for a family life montage towards the end when their approach dates the music badly. The last scene of the film too, with electric guitars introduced, sounds like it was scored by Pink Floyd.
Thief is a wonderful early effort from the director; though he’s undoubtedly surpassed it on numerous occasions – Heat (1995) for example feels like Thief‘s imposing older brother – but it’s hard to avoid falling in love over and again with the stylish, noirish texture of the film and, of course, the infinitely rich era of cinema it comes from. Anyone looking for a nostalgic filmic experience or who is a recent Michael Mann convert will find this a mostly compelling and exhilarating ride.