Thief (1981): Mann/Caan Slam

Helped by a great Caan performance, Mann gets enough things spot on, early in his career, to make a heist movie that feels exceptional.

Thief (1981): Mann/Caan Slam

This film, the first notable entry in Michael Mann’s filmography, has three big things going for it: outstanding photography, terrific direction, and the combination of a well-written character rendered brilliantly on screen by James Caan.

It might be Caan’s most committed performance, and it feels like one he put parts of himself into. In interview Caan speaks fondly of Frank, the titular thief in question, sympathising with his situation and the attitude he takes to survival and trying to make something from what is left of his life — which we are told has been wasted in prison largely as a consequence of defending himself while serving what was initially a short stint inside.

Caan has talked about how he chose to articulate his words very clearly and carefully for this role because Frank is a character who cannot afford to waste time — he never wants to say things twice, or to be misunderstood. This idea of Frank as “a man with no time” lies at the heart of the story. It fuels the drama and sets its tone.

Look, I have run out of time. I have lost it, all. And so I can’t work fast enough to catch up and I can’t run fast enough to catch up, and the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act.

The style of acting is in the same vein as 1970s action films starring Charles Bronson or Steve McQueen. Caan’s delivery sounds stilted at first, but when you realise it is an intentional illustration of Frank’s deliberate and sure mindset, and it clicks, it becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the film’s style.

The photography is outstanding. The composition is superb, and the colour palette has a beautiful “dirty city by night” feel. The image has a gorgeous filmic quality — an inimitable grain, contrast, and dynamic range. Cities and industrial settings can’t look much better than this. It elevates what would already be a heist flick of high quality into something truly special and worthy of discussion alongside the best in the genre.

Michael Mann returned to the same genre in 1995 with Heat, which is practically a companion film. They would make a great double feature. Both have a similar tone and pace. A kind of subdued, slow-burning fuse leading up to a blitzkrieg finale. Both share a similar photographic style. Both show the life of crime with its gritty underside and “can’t win” nature, like a law of moral physics preternaturally influencing outcomes. Both have single word titles that cut to the core of what they are about. Also, both feature stars from The Godfather films. Mann knew which pool of acting talent he wanted to swim in from the start.

See, I — I am a straight arrow. I am a true blue kind of a guy. I’ve been cool. I am now unmarried. So let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit, and get on with this big romance.

The essence of this film, its artistic core, is encapsulated in the spirit and attitude of Frank. He went to jail for stealing forty dollars and had his term extended by killing in self-defence. He deals with criminals because he believes it to be the only way to recover something from the ruins of his life. Above all else, he takes no shit — either from gangsters, state officials, or the police. He is “a real stand up guy” (a phrase that was in use since the 1950s, but only popularized by The Sopranos in the 2000s) as a group of corrupt cops tell him, bemused. He makes deals on simple terms, and holds people to those terms squarely. It is a classic dramatic archetype: a principled individual in a corrupt world, rubbing up against people the wrong way and creating friction wherever he goes.

Frank might sound like something of an action film stereotype today, but it is a characterisation that feels authentic. Caan does a great job rendering a beautifully simple toughness on screen. An ability to survive matched with a willingness to die.

All told, this is a gem in Michael Mann’s filmography, coming surprisingly early in his career — and an excellent 80s heist film.