Before The Driver swung his scorpion-embroidered, leather jacket around his shoulders, before Rust Cohle crushed his first can of Lone Star, before Lou Bloom picked up a camera, there was Frank. Said to be James Caan’s favorite role, the modern crime thriller owes a lot to this man, a career criminal whose passion and sensitivity is only outmatched by his meticulous and tactical nature. The 1981 neo-noir “Thief” didn’t only introduce audiences to the type of rough, yet intellectual baddie that would later become a form of archetype, but to now-celebrated crime director Michael Mann. Upon its initial release, “Thief” garnered little to no critical acclaim and fielded minimal box office grosses, but it has since become a reference point for Mann’s career, the first film to display his appreciation for authentic, yet personal tales of crimes.
From the opening scene, the sharp, precise shots of Frank as he cracks a safe, the neon-lit streets of Chicago reflected off the hood of a lone car, the intricate and trancelike beats of Tangerine Dream overlapping, the world of “Thief,” though now somewhat familiar, was, at the time, so new, so stylish, so sleek, that it would go on to influence the look and feel of the subsequent decade. This is no mere pretty film; it is instead a canvas for Mann to back up his richly detailed character study with beautifully stark imagery. Though it is something many of his fans have come to know, “Thief” is the first film to showcase not only Mann’s process of revealing a character’s persona through their given talent, but the first time a crime thriller focused more on psyche of a criminal and the legitimacy of his craft – in this case the art of safecracking – than on crime as broad, overarching concept.
To reach this heightened sense of lawless reality, Mann relied on actual career criminals, using many ex-cons as technical advisors and even actors in the film. This allowed James Caan’s performance as Frank to truly stand out, as it is such a layered character whose violent tendencies and illegal doings are only a means to a more peaceful, stable life. In a particularly groundbreaking scene, one similar to the diner scene De Niro and Pacino would later share in Mann’s crime epic “Heat,” Caan opens up to his girlfriend, played by the wonderfully delicate Tuesday Weld, about the apathetic mindset he had to get use to in prison and his dreams of the future, having a house and a child. This scene aims to reintroduce us to a man we initially believed to be immoral, to show us that this man is a lot more than what the title suggests, yet still someone who, by nature, needs to be in control of every situation. Unfortunately, Frank slowly loses control of things he cares most about as he loans out his safecracking gift to a crime boss, the late character actor Robert Prosky, who at the age of 51 made his underappreciated debut in the film.
Of course, “Thief” is not necessarily a perfect film. Its supporting characters, particularly Tuesday Weld and Willie Nelson, who pops up as Caan’s old partner, are given the cold shoulder towards the back-half of the film as the story shifts to a brutal takedown of Prosky and his cohorts. Though the cinematography is gorgeous and precise, showcasing some of Mann’s now-famous techniques, the neon style and heavy synths that were so popular then, now feel strangely outdated. Nonetheless, these aspects should be appreciated in some regard, as the film did help define the pop culture of the 80s. It wouldn’t be until Mann started working on television series “Miami Vice” that he would really gain any notoriety, but after following the rise of the modern crime thriller with films like “Drive” or even shows like “True Detective,” it’s clear that none of it would have happened without a man named Mann and a thief named Frank.
Review by Harrison Richlin