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Know thyself, as the ancient Greeks used to say. 1981’s Thief is Michael Mann’s debut feature, one of James Caan’s finest films and though it’s neo-noir and set on mean streets (Violent Streets was its original title), it’s Greek to the bone – this hero is shot through with the tragic flaw of not knowing himself well enough.

Caan plays the ex-con now running a car sales business who keeps his hand in by moonlighting as a jewel thief. He’s good, one of Chicago’s best. In an opening sequence Mann demonstrates how good, and that this film’s director has seen all the great heist movies, in a sequence wehre Frank (Caan) is shown silently cutting his way into a safe, working alone while his back-up, Barry (James Belushi), keeps lookout on the outside.

Frank may be the best in the biz but he wants out. He’d like to embark on a life of domestic bliss with Jessie (Tuesday Weld). In their key scene together he suggests he and Jessie could settle down and have kids. I can’t have kids, she blurts. We’ll adopt, Frank retorts, the words out of his mouth almost before Jessie has spoken. It’s a brilliantly played demonstration of Frank’s desire for a new life. The irony being it’s his intense desire to set up shop domestically with Jessie that drives Frank into the hands of the local Mr Big, Leo (Robert Prosky, excellent), who wants Frank to do one the one last job that is the heist movie’s staple food.

Mann doesn’t have the budget he’d have in later films like Miami Vice or Collateral but he does have an eye for a stylish set-up and a beautifully framed image. Shooting often on night-time streets slicked with thousands of gallons of water, this is the story of a nocturnal creature trying to make the switch to the conventional life and wondering en route if he’s prepared to give up what he already has for a promise.

Tuesday Weld as Jessie
Tuesday Weld as Jessie

Caan gets a little mannered here and there, but the scenes he shares with Weld all have real emotional weight. There’s also a scene where he visits his mentor from prison (Willie Nelson) who’s dying on a hospital bed. Here Caan shows how good Caan he could be when he gave the wiseguy theatrics a rest and let a little vulnerability peep out, a layered moment of brilliant acting. In a patchy career that should have left more of a legacy, Caan thought this was one of his best movies.

There’s a love of style and surface texture and little urban “Michael Mann-does-Ozu” poetic cutaways but Mann is also keen on keeping things real. The film is based on The Home Invaders, by Frank Hohim, an ex cat burglar, and the drill we see in the opening sequence – it clamps magnetically onto the safe Frank is working on – is a real safebreaker’s drill. As are all the tools in the climactic job, a dirty and lengthy affair in which a thermal lance is cracked out and we suddenly understand why these safe crackers have brought fire extinguishers along on a job.

As a bit of ironic authenticity there’s a small role for Denis Farina, as a henchman – he was still working as a cop at the time. And playing a cop is ex-con John Santucci, who’d bobble about in Hollywood for a while taking small roles until he went back to a life of crime.

The finale is a touch Clint Eastwood shootout and doesn’t quite fit the film it’s in, which is darker and grungier in tone than a nice clean showdown can accommodate, but the Tangerine Dream soundtrack – dirty, jangly, driving – helps glue together the various bits that want to flap away on their own.

This was an auspicious feature debut for Mann. His film got good reviews (“One of the most intelligent thrillers I’ve seen,” said Roger Ebert) but it didn’t do great box office. Mann followed up two years later with The Keep, a gothic war movie which excited neither critics nor audiences, but then followed that up with Manhunter in 1986. And with that he really was off to the races.

Thief – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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