Hearing ‘Michael Mann’ will, for a majority of folks, immediately conjure up titles such as ‘Heat'(1995), ‘The Last Of The Mohicans'(1992), ‘Collateral'(2004) and of course the glitzy ’84 to ’90 NBC crime saga Miami Vice (Don Johnson still seems to have never left the time period, be it spiritually or physically).
But in the sad state of affairs that the land of film can occasionally be, his triumphant first effort is often overlooked, not only in itself but for the profound influence that it had on his later work, especially Heat and Collateral’s emphasis on the nocturnal landscape and the varying ethical codes of players in the criminal underworld.
James Caan (in what he recalls as his personal favourite of his own performances next to Sonny Corleone in The Godfather) is Frank, a surly, hard-bitten, slightly sociopathic but still-a-pretty-decent-kind-of-guy professional jewel thief. He can break any safe in any building, no matter the intricacy of it’s security system. A fairly solitary man, the closest thing Frank has to family is Okla (a brief yet convincing turn by country superstar Willie Nelson) who acted as his mentor during an 11-year prison stint. Despite the impressive wealth that he has amassed through his criminal endeavours and his successful front businesses, Frank is tired, burnt out and wants nothing more than his own American Dream to come to fruition, a wife, a few kids running around, and a cosy little home in suburbia. His selected catalyst for the idea is Jessie (Tuesday Weld) a weary diner clerk who comes into Frank’s life with her own extreme baggage, as we see in one of the greatest sequences I’ve ever come across in a movie, their first date in a restaurant against the backdrop of Chicago nighttime.
In a desperate bit to make it all happen rapidly, Frank sees a window of opportunity when a business mishap brings him into contact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a powerful Chicago gangster, who is aware of Frank’s reputation as a master safecracker and offers him contract jobs for six figure payments. You may recognise Prosky’s jolly, grandfatherly face from movies such as A Miracle On 34th Street, but here, in his big screen debut after decades on the stage, you’ll see even the seemingly cheeriest and charismatic criminals have their abominable dark side. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a scene in the movie where he’s not in the best of moods, it will chill your blood.
Also marking the debuts of Jim Belushi and Dennis Farina, Thief is a horribly overlooked crime drama that has influenced countless big budget gangster blockbusters in cinematography and character aesthetics, and is also an extremely moving and stark portrait of one of the hardest characters ever committed to film trying to eke some happiness out of life. If I had to offer any criticism whatsoever, small portions of the soundtrack date it a tiny bit. That’s literally it. 9/10.