The opening sequence begins in the dead of night on the moody rainswept streets of Chicago. During the next almost dialog-free ten minutes we accompany three well-equipped thieves on a heist to liberate the contents of a safe. We can tell that their leader, the safe cracker himself, is a professional by his cold determination, his ability to handle a 200lb magnetic drill press, and his focus on his specific quarry – in this case uncut diamonds. By the time they flee the scene, we have been drawn into the driving and hypnotic tale of “Thief” (1981), director Michael Mann’s feature-film debut starring James Caan, featured this month on MGM HD.
Michael Mann’s skills were on full display and “Thief” bears many of thematic and stylistic touches that would become his hallmarks: crime; violence; heavy atmospherics; innovative use of music; nocturnal cityscapes; and emotionally shut off characters. But at the heart of the movie is James Caan’s performance as an ex-con attempting to steal his way into the American dream only to find himself in a different sort of prison.
Caan’s “Frank” is a man whose singular goal is to live a normal life complete with a wife, child, and house in the suburbs, and he sets out to acquire those things with the same sense of mission he applies to his heists. As an actor, James Caan was known for playing emotions close to the surface, but the hard-shelled Frank posed a challenge. To find the behaviors that would reveal the character’s inner life, Caan made the choice that Frank would never use contractions when he spoke to show how Frank is as precise in his speech as he is at his job.
This is not to say that Frank is inaccessible or unrelatable to the audience. In a series of scenes, Mann and Caan unpeel and reveal Frank’s motivations and feelings. In an interview, Caan pointed to a seven-minute monolog in a diner with co-star Tuesday Weld, as one of the scenes of which he most proud. A scene in an adoption office allowed Caan to show the anger and resentments seething right behind Frank’s controlled facade.
Of course, “Thief” also contains the kind of hardboiled scenes that make it a neo-noir classic. As with most of Michael Mann’s movies, realism was paramount and Caan had to learn how to really break into a safe from real thieves hired as technical advisors to the film. Character actor Robert Prosky is excellent as the antagonist, who’s bonhomie slowly morphs into deadly menace. Look for Jim Belushi as Caan’s partner, Dennis Farina as a hitman, and a blink-and-you-will-miss-him appearance by a young William Peterson as a bartender.
Marking the 40th anniversary of the release of “Thief” it is easy to see why it has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Watch “Thief” October and November on MGM HD.