Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature and one of his best, Thief is part operatic tragedy, part film noir, part heist movie, and all Mann. The story of a loner who almost escapes the trap he was born into only to find that the only way out is to leave everything he loves, Thief is a prime example of what Matt Zoller Seitz calls Mann’s Zen pulp.
In the gracefully choreographed set piece that runs over the opening credits, Frank (James Caan in a role that makes brilliant use of his stiff-legged cowboy swagger and his powderkeg fuse) breaks into a safe and makes his getaway with the help of his partner, Barry (Jim Belushi in his first and least showboat-y movie role). As always, Mann, who cowrote the script from a novel by a professional thief, was fascinated by what his characters do and how they do it, so he took pains to get every detail right. That included buying a $10,000 safe for Caan to crack, hiring professional thieves to teach him how to crack it, and giving him a real safecracker’s tools to use in place of props. The preparation pays off, giving Caan a confidence and competence that make the burglary look real. But the alchemy happens as Mann’s distinctive style turns the heist into a propulsive ballet set to the electronic beat of Tangerine Dream. At times, the camera pulls in so close that the drill cutting through the safe door becomes a gleaming collection of still and moving metal parts, a near-abstract—and surprisingly beautiful—portrait.
The talk, when it comes, is just as believable and just as strikingly stylized. Frank, an ex-con in a rush to create the life he envisioned in the joint, doesn’t have a minute to waste. Besides, his mentor, Okla (the always wonderful Willie Nelson, who makes the most of his too-brief appearances), tells him never to lie. So Frank speaks with blunt urgency, hammering home every word, and his dogged honesty and sparing use of contractions make for some indelible speeches. “Let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance,” he says to the woman he wants to woo (the excellent Tuesday Weld, doing to her truncated part what Nelson does to his), in an electric exchange that Caan says is “probably the scene that I’m most proud of in my career.” And when a mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky, hitting the ground running in his first role) tries to recruit Frank, he says: “I am self-employed. I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos. I am the boss of my own body.” This is great dialogue, idiosyncratic, chewy stuff that tells you a lot about his character and makes you feel something. It might even make you laugh, the way the truth sometimes does when it catches us by surprise.
The Chicago of Thief is a forbidding fortress of glass and steel and neon and glistening, rain-soaked concrete, a place where corruption is so deeply embedded that it’s not worth remarking on. When Frank hires a lawyer to get Okla out of prison, the lawyer openly arranges the proper bribe with the judge by exchanging easy-to-read hand gestures in a crowded courtroom. The cynicism and machismo feel authentic, probably in part because Mann cast some actual thieves and cops and other local characters in supporting roles—including Dennis Farina, who was then a Chicago detective and had never acted before. Most of the thieves play cops, in a sly variation on one of Mann’s favorite themes: the thin membrane that separates cops from criminals.
Mann shoots mostly at night to maintain the noir feel and the sense of claustrophobia, and every shot is intelligently conceived and beautifully composed. He often boxes Caan in, caging him beneath strings of lights or amid diagonal lines to make us feel the trap that’s closing in around Frank. Big cars cruise down near-empty streets like sharks, feeding the sense of instability and danger, and when Frank first meets up with Leo, the mobster’s silky words are belied by the deep shadows on his underlit face and the way it seems to float eerily in the darkness as his black clothes fade into the night.
Thief is an astonishingly assured first feature, as powerful and streamlined as those cars that glide down its streets and every bit as glossy.