Though best known for such stylish crime thrillers as Manhunter, Heat and Collateral, Michael Mann began his career as a documentary filmmaker. After graduating from the London Film School, Mann travelled to Paris in time for the infamous student protests of 1968. Mann’s footage of the protests made its way onto American TV and inspired the creation of a short film that won Mann the Jury prize at the 1970 Cannes film festival. Upon returning to America, Mann parlayed his credentials as a documentarian into a job writing for uncompromising TV crime dramas like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story. This meant that when Mann did finally make the step up to directing feature films, he did so with a reputation for unblemished cinematic realism. Based on a novel by a real-life jewel thief, Mann’s debut feature Thief is as primped and stylised as any supposedly ‘realistic’ crime drama and yet beneath the nerdish obsession with criminal realities lies a pitch black character study of a man who tries his hand at normality only to discover that the good life just won’t take.
Frank (James Caan) is a control freak; a master thief who operates a small and tightly-knit crew, he steals either jewels or cash and what money he makes on the deal goes straight into his pocket via the second-hand car lot he uses as a cover. Every time someone offers Frank a partnership or a chance to spread his criminal wings to other ventures, Frank turns him down. He isn’t interested in making friends, except of course until he is.
Not long after the film’s opening heist, Frank visits his criminal mentor (Willie Nelson) in prison. The Elderly thief expresses profound regret at the break-up of Frank’s marriage and goes on to explain that he is terminally ill and needs Frank’s help to get out of prison lest he die behind bars. Struck by an uncharacteristic pang of loyalty and fearful that his only real family is about to die, Frank decides that he needs to get his life in order and so begins making contacts.
The emotional heart of the film is an absolutely astonishing scene in which Frank physically drags a woman named Jessie (Tuesday Weld) out of a bar and into a coffee shop so that he can explain his need to get married and start a family. However, Frank is in a hurry and has no interest in the time-wasting involved in seduction or courtship and so he proposes to the woman about a quarter of an hour into their first date. In an attempt to placate the woman and reveal something of himself, Frank explains how getting gang-raped in prison left him utterly isolated and beyond caring whether or not he lived or died. Jessie takes this astonishing revelation as a sign that Frank is wounded and in need of being nursed back to humanity but the entire tone of the discussion suggests that Frank is simply approaching his private life in the same ultra-organised and controlling fashion that he approaches his criminal activities. Hoping to demonstrate where Jessie will fit into his grand plan, Frank pulls out a collage that he claims to be his life. Again, the woman takes this as evidence of a broken humanity and artistic soul but in reality, Frank is simply ticking off the boxes on a long list labelled ‘the good life’.
Unable to get his mentor out of prison, purchase a house or adopt a child as a result of his chequered past, Frank turns to an organised crime boss for help. In his mind, Frank is simply setting up a series of heists from which he can safely walk away with pockets full of cash but the crime boss (Robert Prosky) is building a family and families are held together by a sense of solidarity and obligation. Without realising it, every time Frank turns to his new boss to ask for help, he is getting himself more and more involved in other people’s lives.
Despite being Mann’s first cinematic feature, Thief remains an iconic piece of cinematography. Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s award-winning Drive will feel instantly at home thanks to Mann’s avant-garde use of an electronic score and his obsession with ugly neon light bouncing off of rain-slicked streets. However, look beyond these embryonic Mann-isms and you will find an extended love letter to the idea of the criminal as artisan or craftsman including an entirely dialogue-free heist sequence that evokes that of Jules Dassin’s classic French crime thriller Rififi. In truth, the stylistic similarities between these three films seem far from accidental as they all explore issues of identity and whether or not a person should allow themselves to be defined solely by their job.
Frank begins the film as nothing more or less than a thief: He has no family, he has no friends and he has no business partners other than the people he hires to work his jobs. It is only when he comes face-to-face with his own future in the shape of a dying mentor that he begins to express a desire for something more. As might be expected of a man defined entirely by his need for control and his tendency to take what he wants without asking, Frank’s ideas about the good life are not only childish but perfunctory. He wants to live a normal life because that is what most people seem to want but his actions and attitudes show him to be so emotionally isolated and distrustful of others that his bourgeois dream of a life in the suburbs rings hollow the moment he presents it. How can a man that controlling and that prone to violence settle down? How could a man so independent ever trust anyone enough to have a proper relationship? The answer is that normality is simply not within Frank’s nature.
Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.
Mann smashes the idea of Frank’s normality on the anvil of his relationship with the crime boss. The crime boss makes it clear that he wants to be Frank’s friend and he offers Frank all the help he can on the understanding that this generosity and obligation would be repaid in time. However, the second the crime boss suggests that Frank would be better off becoming his partner in a legitimate property deal, Frank flies off the handle and begins waving his gun around. The crime boss’s reaction is brutal but the brutality is tinged with hurt at Frank’s refusal to return the generosity and obligation that the crime boss had granted to him. Frank may claim to want a normal life but the second he is presented with the bonds and obligations that comprise a normal life, his paranoia and need for independence force themselves to the surface and shatter his dream life in the process.
Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and psychologically complex, Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic whose re-release is being given the absolute reddest of carpets by the good folks at Arrow Video. The Blu-ray is 4K compatible and is so clear that it could have been made yesterday. The disc is also accompanied by a wonderful suite of extras including an hour-long critical study of the film by F.X. Feeney and an amazingly candid interview with James Caan who appears to have lost none of the charm and edge that made him such a popular staple of 1970s cinema. Undoubtedly an early contended for the home release of the year!