Thief at 40: Michael Mann's confident debut sent a message

The biggest villain in any Michael Mann film is Waingro, the trigger-happy loose cannon who bloodies up an armored car job at the beginning of Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat. Keep in mind, the most famous of all fictional serial killers, Hannibal Lecter, turned up in his 1986 thriller Manhunter, along with a ghoulish stalker dubbed The Tooth Fairy, but from Mann’s point of view, bloodlust isn’t the most contemptible human trait. What really irritates him is a lack of professionalism. The actual job doesn’t matter to Mann – which is why Robert De Niro’s thief and Al Pacino’s cop are set on equal moral footing – but it has to be done with honor, skill and a businesslike acumen.

Everything about Mann’s debut feature Thief, which turns 40 this week, is uncommonly assured for a first-time director, with many signature touches in place from the very first shots: the stylish neon-blue titles, the rain-slackened neo-noir nightscape, the pulsating synth score by Tangerine Dream. But the film’s true guiding force, its philosophical lodestar, is James Caan’s performance as Frank, a Chicago thief who wants nothing more than to do a job well and get paid for it, but runs into a city full of Waingros along the way. Waingros in the mob. Waingros in the police department. Waingros on the bench.

Caan specializes in playing human battering rams – more muscle than brains, but a blunt instrument of reliable force. His Sonny Corleone was never going to be Don Vito’s successor in The Godfather, despite his naked ambitions, because he can think of no obstacle that his masculinity cannot topple. Sonny’s death was like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, an equal and opposite reaction to the violence that he instinctually brought into the world. He may have been a glorified henchman, but he was not underhanded like his brother Fredo, and there was a certain dignity to his predictability. With Caan in the role, you usually know what you’re getting.

As Frank, Caan isn’t the sort of jewel thief who’s going to dangle from the ceiling or pick safe locks with a stethoscope and a delicacy of touch. His tools are heavy magnetic drills or 10ft-long welding torches, each tailored to carve holes through steel doors and plates. Through Mann’s lens, Frank is only distinguishable from a blue-collar worker through his expertise on how much force is necessary to bust into vaults and what sort of mechanical engineering it’s going to take to do it. The actual work is notable for its utter lack of grace and its reliance on Caan’s persuasive might. It takes hours of sweat on his part. He’s clocking in just like any other blue-collar stiff.

Mann exalts Frank’s brutish simplicity as a form of integrity and candor: he’s a man who means what he says and says what he feels, even if it gets him into trouble. And so when Frank decides to take on One Last Job before retirement, there’s never any sense that he’s angling for a bigger paycheck or secretly addicted to the criminal life. To him, the terms of any gig are straightforward: he and his guys will plunder a safe full of diamonds and his patron will hand him an envelope full of agreed-upon cash. But that’s not the way the world works, and the moment he gives up his independence and takes a shot at a big score, scoundrels cling to him like barnacles.

The parameters of Frank’s dreams are precisely the dimensions of the postcard collage he keeps in his wallet. Though Thief is bookended by two heist sequences, the true centerpiece of the film is an intimate diner scene where he shares the postcard with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), his cashier girlfriend, who learns she’s a part of it. The scene now reads like a preview of the Pacino/De Niro get-together in Heat, but what’s striking about it, beyond the nocturnal splendor of the window looking down on the freeway below, is how absolutely persuasive Frank is in the moment. It’s not just that his dreams are modest – a wife, a child, a house, a dignified fate for his incarcerated mentor (Willie Nelson) – but that they’re achievable. And they’re enough. He’s capable of happiness.

Against his instincts, Frank agrees to do a job for Leo, a big-time fence and Chicago mob boss. In a brilliant piece of character acting, Robert Prosky gives Leo an avuncular quality that’s at once reassuring and unsettling, and Frank can’t help but get pulled in by this sinister benefactor. Though Mann treats this One Last Job with his usual scrupulousness, paying careful attention to the tools and tricks necessary to pull it off, there’s not much suspense over whether Frank can get it done. He has made many mistakes in his life, including one humiliating blowup at an adoption agency, but it’s a crucial fact of the film that his work is guaranteed.

What’s out of his control is the Chicago machine, which grinds up the pure-hearted just as surely as Frank’s drill bit tears through a steel plate. When people talk about cities being a “character” in a movie, they’re usually referring to how the ambience of the setting complements the action. That’s true of Thief, too, as it is of every Mann production, but Chicago is much more active force of evil in the film, spinning a web of corruption that Frank can’t escape. Everyone is getting a piece of the action: as soon as the cops find out Frank is working with Leo, they want their cut. If one of Leo’s guys get pinched, the judge will grant clemency for the right amount. Leo can get Frank the baby he wants, but in this economy of favors, there is no debt that can be fully paid – just another job, and another one after that.

With his first film, Mann seemed to be sending a message to a studio system that was starting to change into a machine that would have its way with independent-minded artists, too. There would never be a time when Mann wouldn’t need big-money benefactors of his own to pull off the types of jobs he wanted to do, and he already seems conscious of how difficult it’s going to be for him to make mainstream films on his terms. Forty years later, he still hasn’t blown the lot up and walked away, but Thief suggests he wouldn’t get pushed around.

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