Thief (1981)

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

Thief (1981)

Thief is the kind of film that might fall short of greatness, but is a real standout in its genre. The first notable entry in Michael Mann’s filmography, it has three big things going for it: outstanding photography, terrific direction, and 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. Caan speaks almost fondly of Frank, the titular thief in question, sympathising with his situation and the attitude he takes to survival. Frank is trying to take a shortcut in order to make something out of what is left of his life, after a long stay in prison for petty theft (a short stint extended by acts of self-defence while inside).

Caan mentions choosing to articulate his words very clearly and carefully for this role, due to the fact that Frank is a man who cannot afford to waste time: he does not want to say things twice, or to be misunderstood. This idea of the character 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 this is an intentional stylistic choice, and it clicks, it becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the film.

The photography is great. 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 be a heist flick of high quality into something really special and worthy of discussion alongside the best from the genre.

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Michael Mann returned to the same genre in 1995 with Heat, which is practically a companion film — it would make a great double feature with Thief. 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 draw from.

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 the film is encapsulated in the spirit and attitude of Frank. He has a simple toughness wrapped in 70s/80s action hero stylings. He deals with criminals because he believes it is the only way to make up for the time he lost in prison. 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 simple terms squarely. It is a pretty classic dramatic archetype: a principled individual in a corrupt world, rubbing up against people the wrong way and creating friction wherever he goes.

Frank is something of an action stereotype these days, yet the characterisation feels authentic — the film is old enough that at the time of its release it wouldn’t have been considered stereotypical, and something about that gets captured on film.

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

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, essays, and moonlit thoughts. You can reach him at [email protected].

Previously… Attitude Generation