By Anthony Miglieri
The thief stalks the night. The reflection of the passing neon slithers down the massive hood of his black Cadillac. Clad in a dark leather jacket and sporting his D-flawless three-carat ring, this dude means business and makes sure everyone around him knows it. The thief is Jimmy Caan and the director is Michael Mann, a first-timer, although you wouldn’t know it to watch this incredibly assured 1981 debut. Thief is one of the great underrated films of the 80s, and even setting aside any critical analysis, it is certainly one cool movie.
To begin with, the titular thief, Frank, is one of the coolest characters ever, and James Caan’s performance is one of the most expertly calibrated displays of brash masculinity, ironclad resolve, and thoughtfulness in cinematic history. Surely, similar characters have littered the movies; Alain Delon’s hitman Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samoraï (1967), and, more recently, Ryan Gosling’s Driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) are prime examples of the introspective, fatalistic criminal tough guy archetype. That being said, one thing Caan’s character adds to these men of few words is a mouth, and what a mouth it is. Although I could (and would willingly) devote an entire essay to the amazing verbalizations of volcanic manliness that come out of Caan’s mouth in this film, I will merely cite what is likely the most incredible line in film history: “My money in 24 hours, or you will wear your ass for a hat!”
The other main pillar that contributes to the greatness of Thief is Michael Mann. Mann is closely associated with his sleek aesthetic, which is typically urban, reflective, and incredibly polished. Thief displays the debut filmmaker as being already fully formed in this regard. The camera slides smoothly through the seedy Chicago setting, and Mann’s love for detail is manifested in the exquisitely paced and staged robbery scenes. Nearly every step of the elaborate heists are sharply and realistically documented, from the careful deactivation of security systems to the monitoring of police scanners to the handling of the awesome welding tool known as the “burning bar” to cut a vault door open. The film is also extremely well structured and cut, which further proves Mann to be in full command of the story he wants to tell.
In addition, there are few slouches to be found in the film’s supporting cast, including Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, James Belushi, and Willie Nelson (yes, that Willie Nelson). Former 1960’s bombshell Weld is particularly excellent as an unusually detailed and touching love interest, especially in an extended dialogue scene in which she and Frank end up connecting as they recount their respectively disappointing lives to one another. Prosky, as Frank’s employer, also elevates Thief with a wonderful performance that is alternately paternal and acidic. I would also like to shout-out the cops, many of whom are portrayed by real police officers and criminals and brandish some hilariously exaggerated Chicago accents as they utter things like: “We’re gonna be right on ‘dis guy’s ass and ‘dis guy’s gonna be history. Gimme some coffee.” All the while, the synthesized score courtesy of Tangerine Dream inexorably links Thief to the 80’s, creating a throbbing electronic vacuum seal for the film’s tightly wound universe.
The film that is usually considered the pinnacle of Mann’s career is Heat, an L.A. crime saga starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. However, nearly everything that works so well in Heat can be observed in Thief: urban crime, strict codes of conduct, philosophical musings, and absolutely awesome action set pieces. In particular, Caan’s Frank is incredibly similar to Robert De Niro’s bank robber Neil McCauley, as they are both solitary men who live by their own rules, and harbor hopeful schemes to eschew the criminal life. While Heat is certainly hard to argue with as Mann’s finest picture, Thief is a clear, miniaturized forebear to that epic film and, in my opinion, even bests the 1995 masterpiece in a few areas.
Admittedly, the action in Heat is more accomplished, as it is clear that the 14 years since Thief have sharpened Mann’s knack for framing and pacing blistering robberies and gunplay. However, the lower-key nature of Thief does not necessitate the huge scale that Heat features. As I mentioned before, Thief consistently operates at a lower rev than Heat does, and thus plays like that film in miniature. Where Heat has a sprawling narrative, a huge ensemble cast, and a massive 3-hour runtime, Thief has a more intimate narrative and only a few significant characters, but does not bow to Heat in terms of overall quality. In my opinion, Caan’s performance rivals Pacino’s performance as Lt. Vincent Hanna as the finest of the two films. In addition, I believe that the relationship between Caan and Weld is better executed than any of the romantic threads in Heat. I also admit that I have a bias toward Thief on account of it being Chicago-set. That being said, my slight preference for it over Heat would stand regardless.
Objectively, there are a few things to nitpick in Thief, especially for someone like myself who has seen it several times. These include Frank’s thinly characterized partner, played by James Belushi, one or two scenes with mildly distracting continuity errors or extraneous insert shots, and a plot that may not have too much in the way of originality. But you know what? The whole of Thief is just too overpoweringly awesome and confident to let any of these small problems impact the overall piece too much. Thief is certainly a genre film with familiar elements, but its monstrous sense of style and craft make it fantastic viewing nonetheless. If you love yourself a good, incredibly cool, and philosophically engaging crime drama like I do, then stop depriving yourself of the undiluted awesomeness that is Thief.