The Empire Masterpiece: thief


Published in #343, December 2017

That thing men do in Michael Mann films, that obsessive and nihilistic act where they burn down their lives and bail when they feel the heat around the corner — that all arrived fully-formed in Thief, Mann’s first feature film as writer and director. Released in 1981 with a Tangerine Dream score, Thief is the emotional blueprint for every film he’s made since. 

James Caan stars as Frank, a thirtysomething, no-nonsense safe-cracking jewel thief who’s been out of the joint for four years after 11 behind bars. “You gotta forget time,” he says, explaining how he made it through prison. “You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die. You gotta get to where nothin’ means nothin’.” But now time is all he can think about: his ailing prison father-figure Okla (Willie Nelson) doesn’t want to die in his cell, and Frank’s finally got something to live for in the family he's planning with cashier girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld). He’s desperate to catch up with the rest of the world by doing one last job for prominent gangster Leo (Robert Prosky) with his partner Barry (James Belushi), and by cramming in the big life plans that everyone else had an extra decade to do. 

Like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sitting in a diner in Heat, the most memorable scene in Thief has no guns. It's also in a diner, Frank and Jessie sat in a booth, Frank laying out the life plan that he cut out of magazines in his prison cell and glued to a card he keeps in his wallet. It’s him telling her where she fits into it and hoping she’ll come with him. In a Michael Mann movie the diner is where you come clean late at night over weak coffee. It’s where you talk about your dreams and fears while the blurry blue and red lights of the city flash through the windows. It’s where Frank lets hope in, knowing that hope is an indulgence. 

Thief is the story before the fall, or more accurately the story between the falls: it’s never simple in a Mann movie when you’re a broken guy trying to get fixed. It’s based on a book by the real-life thief John Seybold — The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar written under a penname — who served as the technical adviser on the set while he still had FBI warrants outstanding, before ending up back in a New Jersey prison in 1995. 

While it may go down in the books as his first feature film, a lot of Thief’s DNA is found in his 1979 TV movie about a prison inmate who trains for the Olympics. Mann has said that working on The Jericho Mile helped him understand what those years in prison would be like for Frank in Thief, what it would be like to live outside of society for so long and then return to it. Plus, The Jericho Mile got him his leading man: its theatrical release outside of the US caught the eye of Caan, who was growing steadily disillusioned with the Hollywood system, turning down roles in films such as 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now

Caan has said that next to The Godfather, Thief is the film of which he is most proud. As for the critics, Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker, thought it suffered from a surfeit of adolescent angst in Frank’s frustration in not getting what he wanted, but Roger Ebert loved it, writing that “at a time when thrillers have been devalued by the routine repetition of the same dumb chases, sex scenes, and gunfights, Thief is completely out of the ordinary.” 

It was one of the last films Caan made before disappearing for most of the 80s due to depression following the death of his sister from leukemia, and “Hollywood burnout” after starring in Robert Mulligan’s Kiss Me Goodbye (1982), a rom-com he hated. Mann went on to make supernatural Nazi thriller The Keep (1983), which was an artistic disaster and a commercial flop but had another great Tangerine Dream score, and then Manhunter (1986) with William Petersen, who had his first onscreen role as the barman in Thief waving a baseball bat at Caan.

But it’s the ending of Thief that hits you: Frank shedding his bulletproof vest after a shoot-out, walking out of his own life into the dark. The ethical fallout of his abandonment plays in your mind as the credits roll and you’re left wondering what happens with Jessie and the stolen baby they adopted in the face of infertility — the act at the intersection of Frank’s practicality, dreams, and lack of time. Though we’ve since watched Michael Mann characters burn themselves out again and again, it’s Thief that started it: these films about nihilistic men, their doomed hopes, and their irregular-type lives.