Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Thief (1981)

He carries it all in his shoulders, the weight and pressure of the criminal life, the years behind bars.  He expresses his confidence in his strut.  Frank is a loner, but he is not alone.  He has a woman in his life whom he loves and wants to spend the rest of his life with.  But what is the rest of his life, the life of a career criminal?  Frank is trying to rectify the impending doom of his occupation when we meet him; but, of course, the allure of the life and dangers of outside influence won't allow swift exodus.  Frank is the perfect protagonist in Michael Mann's debut feature, the electric crime thriller Thief.  We all know the films of Michael Mann, and what he has become in a long and brilliant career, and some of his finer work is an echo of Thief in one way or another.  Mann is fascinated with crime, practically sexualizing the act of thievery in some of his works (Thief included), and from the very beginning it was clear his ability to harmonize the thrill of criminal behavior with a world that is fully realized, enveloping, and beautiful.

Frank is played by James Caan, a master of angst, confidence, and ferocity at the right moments.  He is an expert safe cracker who works independently with his own crew he can trust.  The story is a familiar one these days, the introvert criminal looking for one final score before he can ride off into the sunset.  But, as I have always said about cliches and genres, it is only a cliche if the execution is poor.  A film can have the most predictable plot outline, but the developments and the style can define it as something unique despite convention.

Thief is a living, breathing city noir, where Chicago as a backdrop absorbs the players as if they were on in the same.  Consider the opening shot, a sheet of rain backlit by green streetlights which we follow down an alley framed with fire escapes, to Frank a few moments before a heist.  Frank was borne of the city.  He keeps his circle small with his friend and partner, Barry (James Belushi in his debut performance), and his love, Jessie, played by Tuesday Weld.  Frank visits his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison, maybe to spend time with Okla, probably to remind himself he never wants to be back in prison.  Frank wants to get up enough money so he can skip town, leave the life behind, and live the rest of his life in peace with Jessie.  But then a wise guy comes calling for his services.

Robert Prosky plays Leo, an underworld boss who convinces Frank to work for him on one big score.  That, of course, doesn't turn out to be the case.  The one score turns into another, and when Frank tries to get out, things don't go as he had planned.  The thefts are a backdrop to the struggles of Frank as he gets his life in order.  This is a character study about a thief, not an action film charged and driven by pure plot devices.  One of the finest moments in the whole picture is a monologue from Caan in a diner booth, telling Jessie a story about his time behind bars.  In the end there is a double cross, a revelation for Frank, and a thrilling climax, all of which belong in a crime drama and devices noir fans recognize.  But, remember, it's the execution that sets genre films apart, and Michael Mann is better than just about anyone at technical execution and its marriage to style and panache.

Mann is known for his research and his attention to technical details, as well as his unique collaborations.  In Thief, Mann employed an actual safe cracker for technical support, and that safe cracker, John Santucci, would go on to play a detective in the film.  Conversely, the late Dennis Farina, who was a retired policeman, played a hood for Prosky's mob.  The materials used in the safe-cracking scenes were actual tools of the trade.  Thief was also the beginning of Mann's eccentric musical choices to pair up with his films.  Sometimes his music has worked wonders, other times it has not.  Thief is completely scored by the techno pop band Tangerine Dream, and the acidic musical notes almost bring more energy to the picture, or pull the seething tension to the forefront in some brilliant ways.


On occasion, Mann's technical obsessiveness has gotten in the way of his final product, and the humanity of some films suffer.  Ali starts like a rocket and fizzles out as Mann gets caught up in the politics of the story.  Public Enemies looks fantastic, feels authentic, but is lifeless.  However, Mann's better films - a list which outweighs his misfires tenfold - manage to capture both the authenticity as well as the human angle.  Think about Heat, or The Insider, his greatest achievements, and their ability to .  Those films, in their own separate ways, belong as the offspring of Mann's first film, which just so happens to be his first truly great film, Thief.