revisited: ‘thief’ written & directed by Michael mann

Making his feature film debut with Thief, writer/director Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) implemented what would become his signature trademark style by swathing this film in hues of blue. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) with an electronic synth-rock musical score by Tangerine Dream, Thief follows Frank (James Caan), a skilled jewel safe-cracksman who takes down a score for a mob boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), with aspirations of living a normal life with his wife Jessie (Tuesday Weld) after being incarcerated for 11 years. Frank has been out of jail for four years and when the film begins, we see Frank cracking a safe, and through the dark alley of downtown Chicago amid the misty rain as the steel fire escapes present themselves against the sky that acts as a lid on top of Frank, who’s like a rat weaving through a maze. The city of Chicago becomes three-dimensional and every scene makes you feel like you’re in a tunnel. By day he’s a Cadillac salesman, by night he takes scores. During his time served, he put together a dream board in the form of magazine cutouts into a collage of manifestations he wants his ideal life to be like when he gets out of jail. His dream is to get married and have a son, but Leo, the mob boss he takes a score for, deceives him behind the guise of his benevolent paternalism. Leo is a vicious guy, cheating Frank out of his financial cut of $830,000 and threatening to ruin his life through exploitation if he doesn’t succumb to their plans for him as an operative for future scores. What Frank comes to realize is that, you can’t live a life of crime and expect to raise a family and live normally. He’ll never live normal. Frank realizes that he has to throw everything away in order to save the people he’s put in jeopardy, in order to attack Leo, who’s wiggling his toes behind close doors. The viciousness he possesses is unmasked in the privacy of his own home.

Frank (James Caan) in Thief (1981) United Artists

“Lie to no one. If someone is close to you, you’re going to ruin it with a lie. If they’re a stranger, who are they you’ve got to lie to?” Okla (Willie Nelson), who was a father figure to Frank, says that when Frank visits him doing time behind bars. Frank’s partner Barry (Jim Belushi) is a loyal right hand and alarms expert. When Frank takes the offer from Leo after collecting his fair share from the latest score, Barry snipes the location from a distance, in addition to the Police who are trailing Frank, as he rushes to meet with Jessie, arriving two hours late for their date. Frank has to constantly persuade her, revealing his susceptibility toward a longing for her love. He finally reveals to his lady, Jessie, that he’s an ex-con and works as a thief. In the opening sequences of the film, we got a taste of Frank’s inner sensitivity, when he offered a lonely fisherman a Danish for breakfast, but immediately thereafter, he returned to his hardened prison conditioning and became a tough guy with a used car dealership and a lounge bar as a business front for his life of crime by night. All of these aforementioned events fast-tracked to the film’s most touching moment at a diner, where Frank hands Jessie a small collage that he put great effort into while he was doing time. “What is this?” Jessie asks, after Frank hands her the collage. “That is my life. Nothing…nobody can stop me from making that happen.” Frank says as she smiles. “And right there, that would be you.” Frank points to the picture of a bride with her face cutout. This is his marriage proposal to her. She accepts it, holding Frank’s hand while placing it on top of the dream sheet of manifestations. This is the most beautiful scene in the film that benefited from the abstractions of an electronic score by Tangerine Dream. Frank loves her so much that he convinces her to adopt a child, once we learn that she can’t conceive and see that he doesn’t care. Frank’s mannerisms were hard-hearted up until this scene, where we saw his vulnerability with Jessie, revealing his soft spot for her. What Frank realizes upon the film’s climax is that the only person that can stop him from obtaining his dream is himself and the only thing that can prevent him from living his dream life with her is his twisted life of crime.

Frank (James Caan) and Jessie (Tuesday Weld) in Thief (1981) United Artists

Frank and his tight knit crew use mechanized instruments to crack open substantially complex metals using welding tools. Michael Mann uses incredible patience in capturing these sequences by showing us the depth and detail of the work involved in breaking into a vault that houses diamonds. Sparks ignite and flash with extreme close-ups like rockets and firecrackers as Frank and his team drill boiling hot holes into titanium alloy vaults with a burning bar that reaches 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The way Michael Mann captures the rain swept streets at night with lights reflecting off the pavement as hard rain pours down in various scenes with Frank traveling through the alley’s and byways through the city skyscrapers like a figure in a maze amid the vast skyscrapers in Chicago. Michael Mann’s signature trademark color blue drapes the film in almost every scene with various hues and shades. The visually stunning shots like the illuminating Chicago nightlife lights reflecting off the hood of Frank’s El Dorado or the light bulbs reflecting off the waxed Cadillac’s at his dealership.  There is a particular overhead shot of Frank’s alarms expert, Barry, stepping down a building staircase that looks like a labyrinth, further adding to the confined feeling of enclosed spaces and oppressive lifestyle of Frank, the limited space he had while serving time, the cramped environment of torching metal during scores, the narrow backstreets and pathways of Chicago’s dark nights, all of these instances evict the emotions of Frank’s internal state and the condition of the world he lives in.

Thief (1981) United Artists

The elaborate final score takes us into the step by step methods of Frank and his crew as they break into the bank from the rooftop, cutting a square hole using industrial tools overtaking the audio effects with the electronic ambient music on the soundtrack, heightening the intensity of their work. Barry disables the alarm wires before they get inside into the luxurious lobby. Barry torches the welding tool as they begin cutting through the safe wearing welding helmets like iron workers. Once the job is finished, Michael Mann allows us to breathe with Frank as he pulls up a lobby chair and sits down, exhaling his sighs of stress, lighting up a cigarette, while Barry collects the diamonds, in a breathtaking transition into the sunlit beach in San Diego with stunning ocean waves pouring in as Frank and Barry enjoy their success with their women. Jessie cradles their baby boy. Barry enjoys a swim. But, we know it’s too good to be true. “Enjoy it now.” Frank says to Barry. “Tomorrow we’re going home to collect.” Frank knows better. He sits down in a muddy area of sludge. And behind it, as if behind a barrier, the ocean, representing freedom and bliss, almost unattainable for Frank. Not matter how close he comes, it’s never close enough.

Thief (1981) United Artists

Despite all of the magnetic aesthetic qualities this film is enveloped with, what’s more outstanding is the character of Frank and the way his life has shaped him to the inevitable point of extremist decision making and grasping the reality of his life with regard to the drastic measures he must take in order to keep what’s important to him safe. Through a stunning display of shocking pyrotechnics of explosions, Frank has to literally burn everything in his life down and put an end to it all, before he seeks vengeance from the disingenuous mob boss that triggered his extreme decisiveness upon the film’s climax, becoming the cowboy he attempted to avoid turning into, invading into the home of Leo and gunning everyone down. The only way out of Frank’s threat from Leo is for him to not have any assets. When he has nothing, there’s nothing Leo can threaten and now Frank has the capacity to kill Leo because of his mental state of having nothing, like he did when he was in jail. Michael Mann’s Thief is an extraordinary film after taking into consideration that it was his directorial debut. He implemented all of his finest ideas, that we would later see in his films Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice, to mention the least from this legendary director’s filmography. Thief conveys a grim elegance using affectionate methods with the magnetic attraction of shiny streets radiating a glow upon James Caan’s temperamental acting as he weaves through the tunnels and mazes of inner-city Chicago with an undercurrent of electronic synth-rock music heightening our senses as we witness him break into heavy metal vaults stealing jewels and diamonds. It’s a visually compelling film with a hypnotic undertone of music and sound that supplements a multilayered narrative about a man who was dealt unlucky hand in life who wrestles with the fact that no matter how much he dreams to evolve, he won’t be able to have a normal life. Frank is forced to move forward, and the only way he knows how is by not dreaming anymore; by destroying everything so he can become a free man.

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