Criterion Project #7: THIEF (1981)

Thief

Year: 1981

Director: Michael Mann

Lately I’ve been doing a horror side project and, I have to say, 1981 was a banner year. These are just a few of the great films from that year I’ve been watching lately: An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead, Scanners, Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part 2, My Bloody Valentine, Dead and Buried, The Burning. Incredible genre year.

While not similarly themed, Michael Mann’s directorial debut, Thief, does bear some resemblance to those aforementioned films. Mann’s style lends itself to the story of anti-hero, Frank (James Caan), a man who lives solely in darkness or under neon lights. He assumes a discreet, camouflaged life in the daytime, not unlike a werewolf or a masked killer you might say.

While that was technically a non-sequitur, I think there is some crossover in narrative archetypes between genres.

As previously stated, this is Mann’s first feature and the filmmaking on display reminded me of another auspicious introduction, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 debut, Blood Simple. The bursts of violence, the sense of dread, smoky bars, creepy old white guys playing heavies, the neon-coated night sky. I love these films.

This was actually my first time watching Thief. I’d seen Mann’s Collateral (2004) and his 1995 opus, Heat, and you can undoubtedly see the skeletal outline of the latter in this film. There’s a bloodline between Frank from Thief and McCauley (Robert DeNiro) from Heat. They each lives as a contract-thieves, trusting only their crew.

But that life is coming to an end.

Both films capture these uniquely skilled men at a turning point in their lives. They’ve existed beneath the surface long enough. Frank is uneducated so he utilizes the skills he has to make a life for himself, but the nature of his business is not conducive to healthy relationships.

Frank finds his way out with a (semi)willing partner in down-on-her-luck waitress, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and a very willing “boss”, Leo (Robert Prosky), who promises bigger paydays and better scores.

It’s simple – boss scopes the job, Frank takes it down.

Rarely does someone come along with promises of making life easier for you without a hidden agenda. When the time comes to pay the piper, what’s the price?

All of this flies in the face of Frank’s modus operandi. He has a unique skill at breaking locks and vaults. He scopes his own jobs. He’s well trained and has steered away from cops since his 11-year incarceration by staying clear of bosses, preferring to keep things simple. He has his own crew, and he only steals diamonds. He’s self-made you might say.

But a mid-life crisis can bring all that crashing down.

James Caan is great as the hyper-masculine Frank, coiled to strike like an agitated rattlesnake. Also, look out for Willie Nelson as Caan’s father-figure, and the film acting debuts of Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina, and Robert Prosky, who is like your terrifying uncle who only says “I take care of my people” when the kids ask what Uncle Leo does for a living. A highly recommended watch.

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