You hear the rain before you see the first gauzy image. Actually you hear it before the first credit hits, even before the first sizzle-drill-drone of Tangerine Dream’s score. But if you’re familiar with Michael Mann movies I probably don’t need to tell you the guy’s big on atmosphere, or an idea of atmosphere that, not unlike the stories Mann likes to tell, takes what feel awfully close to clichés and infuses them with enough sincerity and technical brio to grab your attention.
Barley based on Frank Hohimer’s The Home Invaders, Thief (1981), Mann’s feature debut, was far more informed by Mann’s experiences growing up in Chicago, and by those of the real-life thieves who worked as consultants and appeared as actors in the film—one of whom, Mann claims in a new interview for Criterion’s release, remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list to this day. This is, naturally, a film about a career thief. Frank (James Caan) sells cars professionally but steals money and jewels by vocation, having learned his skills in prison from surrogate father Okla (Willie Nelson!). Thief follows Frank as he tries to construct a life based on an endearingly naïve photo collage he pasted together while incarcerated. The collage shows Okla and a woman and kids and a bunch of other stuff that appears on screen too briefly to make out. So the story’s about Frank’s hubristic attempts to get Okla out of jail, find a woman, finds some kids, a house and so on, and quit crime after the proverbial one last job.
That’s the story. The film is rather something else, another force working in tandem with story. There is an overwhelming emphasis on Frank doing his work, on procedure. At times it’s almost documentary. Frank consults a metals expert. Frank examines blueprints. Mann’s crazy for inserts, logic, geographic coherence, for completing visual sentences. Phones gets hung up, doors get closed. Establishing shots are rigorously attended to. Documentary, and also homage: Mann obviously admires the sort of thief Frank represents, the kind of guy who under different circumstances could have easily had another, less lucrative life as a brilliant tradesman. In that same Criterion interview Mann claims that Thief isn’t noir, which strikes me as false, but, to be sure, the films that Thief clearly echo aren’t from the classic noir era, but rather from the subsequent neo-noir period, French films by Jules Dassin (see 1955’s Rififi, intentionally released by Criterion the same month as Thief) and, most especially, Jean-Pierre Melville, whose clean, detail-oriented but very stylish crime films include 1967’s Le Samouraï.
I dislike categorizing films by gender, but if Thief sounds like a guy movie to you I wouldn’t disagree. Partly because of Mann’s remarkable disinterest in women. One of Thief’s most compelling sequences has hot-headed Frank trying to convince Jessie (Tuesday Weld) that she’s the woman in his collage. “Let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance!” These ostensible two-handers are almost entirely about Frank, though I would argue that one of the few flaws in Mann’s construction of Frank has to do with the dubious amount of insight Frank has regarding Jessie, considering that he’s spend nearly all of his adult life behind bars.
Mann and Caan, delivering what may be his best-ever performance, seem determined to cram as much into the characterization of Frank as possible. Indeed, if Thief feels different from certain classic films noir, it’s because it’s so much a character study. Another fascinating scene has Frank and Jessie visit an adoption agency. In this case Mann doesn’t make Frank in any way more sophisticated or psychologically shrewd than he believably could be. Frank attempts, with disastrous results, to negotiate with the withering agent, who has just discovered Frank’s penal past. “You got an eight-year-old black chink kid, we’ll take him!” It’s in these grotesque moments that Frank really exposes the tragedy of his past—he originally got put away for stealing $40—and foreshadows the hopelessness of his collage-dream. Mann’s slick, information-packed style is what makes Thief captivating, but it’s the uneasy balance between Frank’s ambitions and his capacity to live in the outside world that makes the film stay with you. V