The Best Movie You Never Saw: Michael Mann's Thief
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at THIEF.
THE STORY: Frank (James Caan) is a hardened ex-con-turned professional thief who prizes his independence above all things. This puts him at odds with the local organized crime racket, whose boss, Leo (Robert Prosky) wants to bring Frank into the fold. Complicating matters are Frank’s dying ex-mentor (Willie Nelson) who desperately needs parole, which can only be made possible by Leo’s influence, and a wounded waitress, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) with whom Frank falls in love and impulsively decides to start a family with.
THE HISTORY: THIEF was Michael Mann’s first feature after a ten-year TV career that included time spent as a writer on “Starsky & Hutch” and serving as the creator of the TV series, “Vega$”. The TV-movie, THE JERICO MILE, an uncompromisingly tough prison film (for TV anyway) put him on the map in the same way DUEL did for Steven Spielberg, with it getting a theatrical release in Europe. Thus, Mann got a shot at features.
Writing his own script (but basing it on a novel called “The Home Invaders” by real-life thief Frank Homier – who was in prison during the film’s production), Mann, working with a young Jerry Bruckheimer as a producer, was able to make a pretty radical film for 1981 that anticipated a lot of the stylish, MTV-flourishes that were to define the decade’s pop culture. Sadly, despite some good reviews, THIEF was a box-office bust, grossing under $5 million. Part of this may be due to the fact that the production company, United Artists, was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the year thanks to Michael Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE. It was very well-received in Europe, where it played Cannes under the title “Violent Streets”.
Even if it wasn’t a hit, it gave Mann’s career a temporary boost, although his next film, THE KEEP, wound-up being so tortured a production that Mann has blocked its DVD/Blu-ray release and sent him back to TV, where he took the style of THIEF and married it to the classic cop show formula with the iconic “Miami Vice”, which then led to MANHUNTER, “Crime Story” and then his more modern classics like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT, THE INSIDER, etc.
“I liked the picture Thief a lot. But it did pretty well. There’s always a couple that came out at the wrong time or were up against something. There’s a lot of nice little movies out there, like Cinderella Liberty, that for one reason or another didn’t take off. Like, Thief came out with The Omen or something stupid like that.” – James Caan, Interview with Will Harris for Random Roles, The AV Club
WHY IT'S GREAT: It’s funny how some movies are rapturously received when they come out, but then are all but forgotten in the decades to follow, while some can make barely a peep and go on to generate a substantial following years afterwards. That’s basically what a cult movie is. THIEF is certainly one of those. While many of you may be questioning me including it in this column, the fact is not as many people have seen THIEF as you might think. It’s one of those movies maybe a lot of film fans feel like they’ve seen as they’re so familiar with the movies it inspired (like Mann’s own HEAT, which is like THIEF 2.0 and Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE). For example, a good friend of mine is one of the biggest Michael Mann fans in the world, but had never actually seen this – party because up to a few years ago it was in only modest DVD circulation.
Luckily, with streaming and a fancy new Criterion Blu-ray release, THIEF is available for any serious film connoisseur, although it’s certainly the kind of movie that’s so overwhelming at first that a couple of viewings are probably mandatory if you’re really going to appreciate it. There’s so much to love about Mann’s movie, which, controversially remains my favorite film of his (although it’s very close between this, HEAT and MANHUNTER).
“If you project Frank’s mental state—how does he think? how does he feel in the world he occupies? What is that world?—to him, the city isn’t this flat place, with streets at right angles to each other, like a grid. To him, in his mental projection, he moves through a place that’s almost three dimensional.” – Michael Mann, Interview with Kevin Jagernauth – The Playlist
James Caan’s Frank is one of the all-time great anti-heroes. Having studied real-life ex-cons to get into the part, Caan’s performance is incredibly authentic, in the way he tries to affect a certain level of sophistication (very much like the way one would “front” toughness in jail) but is prone to snap into a rage whenever threatened, such as a bit where he pulls a gun on a hapless bouncer (a quick glimpse of a bearded William Petersen). He’s somewhat tamed by his love interest, a “been-around-the-block” waitress played by Tuesday Weld. Both go into their relationship with their eyes open, almost negotiating the process of falling in love, with Caan wanting to fulfill the prison dream he once had of having a family, even if it’s this very wish that puts him in the clutches of Robert Prosky’s Leo.
Like Caan, the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect. Weld was a sixties sex symbol, and being a bit older by ’81, she fits the world-weary but vulnerable part to a tee. Prosky’s also very underrated as the sly, businesslike villain, who’s anything but typical of the genre (he’s a kindly, grandfather-like figure). While their roles are smaller, Willie Nelson and Jim Belushi (in his first part) are great as Caan’s ex-cellmate and new associate, with both conveying a massive amount of loyalty to their patron. And don’t miss Dennis Farina, who was actually a cop at the time, in a brief part as Prosky’s muscle.
“I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank’s experience specific only to Frank…So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream.” – Michael Mann, Interview with Kevin Jagernauth – The Playlist
As good as the writing, acting, and visuals are (it’s especially striking for the gritty era – looking more like a French “look” film than an American crime drama), THIEF is probably best remembered for the amazing score by Tangerine Dream. A German music collective that was huge in the eighties, what’s interesting is how the score initially dated the movie (with Caan ribbing Mann about it on the mid-nineties Laserdisc commentary track) but now makes it seem so modern with that kind of music having made a massive comeback in recent years. It’s one of my all-time favorite scores, although it’s worth noting that one of the best tracks, “Confrontation”, which scores the violent finale, was actually done by Craig Safan, who went on to score REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS and THE LAST STARFIGHTER.
BEST SCENE: Originally, I wanted to put in the final shootout, but I figured this would be really unfair for those of you who haven’t seen the movie. As the purpose of this column is to encourage readers to watch it, that would be counter-productive. Instead, check out the famous diner scene, where Caan tries to apologize to Weld for standing her up and eventually winds-up telling her all about his life as a thief, while she relates a story about being raped during a drug deal gone wrong. By the end of the scene, the two are completely in love.
SEE IT: You can watch THIEF on streaming, but your best bet is to buy the slick new Criterion Blu-ray (or Arrow Video in R2), which has both Mann’s preferred director’s cut and the original theatrical version. As usual for Mann, the differences are pretty subtle, with some only amounting to frames being added or cut, although his cut has one of the best scenes added.
PARTING SHOT: THIEF really is one of my all-time favorite movies and as crime drama is probably my preferred genre, watching this is akin to a religious experience for me. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see it, you’re missing one of the essential cinematic works of the last fifty years. Please check it out.