Thief (1981)

James Caan in the opening heist scene from Thief

Two mysterious characters come out in the dead of night. The bright streetlights contrast with the dark in stark noir fashion. Rain falls. Smoke fills a lifeless alley. Two thieves work their magic as a riveting musical score pulsates in the background. This is the opening scene to Thief. It runs for ten minutes yet feels like it just blows by once the pair of robbers drive back to their hideout as the sun rises on downtown Chicago. It exhibits the type of patience, control and meticulous attention to detail that one would think it was put together by a seasoned director. But it’s not.

If there were any opening scene from a feature film debut that one could say typifies the potential of a budding filmmaker, this would be it. In Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, he exudes the visual and aural pizazz of an auteur far beyond his years. He juggles tones with expert dexterity at the same time filling the screen with a flamboyant style, which is to be his trademark in later years. He nails the gritty and sinister atmosphere of a vintage noir. He enthralls with thrilling and bloody action sequences. And amidst all of this, he compellingly tells the story of a tragic hero determined to follow his plans on his terms.

At the heart of it is James Caan infusing his innate tough-guy bravado into the character of an ex-convict we only know as Frank. He’s a businessman by day, running both a used car shop and a bar to front his criminal operations. But during the night is where the real money is, as he and his partner Barry (James Belushi) carefully map out and execute various diamond scores. The grand plan at the center of all of this being the realization of a perfect, normal life. A life with a wife, a child and a modest home in the suburbs.

It’s at this point where Mann shows a knack for playing with the viewer’s sympathies. When Frank’s fence bites the dust, all hell breaks loose. His plans get thrown off the rails, and try as he might to get them back on track his way, it becomes increasingly apparent that the only way may have to be by force. By the time the film draws to its climax, we find ourselves rooting for the criminal – this stubborn, hardened thief – hoping against hope that he comes out of it alive with his dreams intact.

Thief is precise and detailed. It’s intricately planned and slickly executed. It drills down to the details such as testing the voltage of wires for information and running an extinguisher under a thermal lance while melting away at a safe to make sure nothing catches fire. In fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie and that’s where the strength of the film ultimately lies. It’s such an intricately-made piece of work in that every shot, every edit, every scene and line of dialogue seems like it’s all been painstakingly plotted on a map.

Rating: B (good)