”What is your favourite movie?”. I’ve always had an extraordinarily difficult time with that question over the years. There is many a Scorsese title that can be thrown into the mix, just as there are Altman, Bergman, Huston, God knows how many works by cinematically progenitive name-powers that have conjured up some brilliance since my induction as a rabid cinephile in short pants. I’ve often thought that the notion of it was utterly absurd, seeing as so many films are fantastic for so many different reasons that narrowing it down to one lacks all sense. Despite all of that, there is one that always comes back.
Thief, the directorial debut of Michael Mann inspired by the non-fiction book The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer, is most certainly the one I pick to fit the bill. Featuring the greatest performance of James Caan’s entire career, it is a gritty, exciting, dark and poignant saga suffused with outstanding acting, spellbinding cinematography and a killer soundtrack and, although he has produced a menagerie of excellence, it remains my favourite Mann film as well as my personal apex picture.
Frank (James Caan) is a 35-year-old blue-collar hardcase who is 4 years out of an 11-year prison stretch for stealing $40. Having learned the crème de la crème of theft from fellow prisoner and father-figure Okla (Willie Nelson), Frank operates a car dealership and a bar as front businesses for his career as an expert diamond thief. Working closely with partners Barry (Jim Belushi) and Joseph (William LaValley), Frank clears hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, but he nevertheless feels intangibly bereft. He has had his fill and wants to settle down into an archetypal wife-and-kids setting away from everything.
Already halfway there given his courtship with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld), Frank is authoritative and committed in his endeavour to attain his personal American Dream, but he’s going to have to pull a few more grand scores to see it come to fruition. Fate seems to intervene when a business-related altercation brings him into contact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a high-level fence and apparent crime lord who states his familiarity with Frank’s incredible skills and delivers him a once-in-a-lifetime pitch: Do a few big scores in my employ, I’ll take care of all the legwork and you’ll be a millionaire before you know what’s happening. Given his individualist philosophy and thoroughly ornery nature, Frank is reluctant to sign any contracts be they literal or figurative, but the pull of six-figure sums that put his ideal final chapter in reach proves too great. It’s only a short while before Leo is providing more than Frank could have ever envisioned, but is he truly going to allow our hero to simply walk off into the sunset when it’s all done and dusted?
It was during one of my many up-too-late-on-a-school-night episodes that I first fell in love with this film. I was immediately transfixed and overcome with indescribable mental-emotional sensations when I first laid eyes on its rain-slicked, neon-hued Chicago streets and heard the first few sumptuous bars of Tangerine Dream. The love for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and many other contemporary retro-wave entries is something I can easily and strongly identify with, and Thief is a work that essentially allows that whole aesthetic to exist.
The score imbues an incredible emotional power that seems almost pre-ordained for the film by some greater force, such is its resonance in illuminating Frank’s life. It’s the most dynamic and stirring example of emotive synth-wave soundtracks that dominated many 80s movies because of how adequately it reflects the film’s alternating moods of excitement, tenderness, suspense and mortal threat. In conjunction with Donald Thorin’s wonderful cinematography, it crafts a nighttime underworld of big-time gangsters, sleazy fences, crooked cops and strangers waiting up and down the boulevard, as Journey would put it. Frank and Jessie are in the final category for their respective reasons, and the scene of their first date is simply one of the strangest, most powerfully acted and intensely moving sequences of its type.
The ultimate distinguishing characteristic is the lead performance of James Caan. At the time he was mostly known (and to be fair, probably still is) for his portrayal of Sonny Corleone, one of his many 1970s bankability period highlights. I’ve always generally been a fan but, in Thief, he elevates his idiosyncrasies and overall style to a level that is unlike anything he has done before or since. Having dragged himself up solo and suffering some of the worst shit that life has to offer, Frank is legitimately one of the toughest characters to have ever adorned a screen, and Caan’s utility of his plain-speaking Bronx bark and own reputed irascibility cement it as utterly believable. Scenes of Frank on the job are given a singular technical flair due to Mann’s on-set consultants being largely composed of ex-thieves and ex-cops, many of whom knew one another.
Despite being very stubborn, blunt and, at times, downright rude and abusive, Frank has a softer side that he articulates to Jessie, and this nuance is what puts the character on the same pedestal as the likes of Travis Bickle for me. In much the same way that I first viewed Taxi Driver as an angry, muddled young man and wound up largely empathising with its batshit protagonist, there has always been something deeply magnetic about Frank’s journey. Frank would sooner die than relinquish his self-ownership, and his uphill battle to protect the things he cares about from opportunistic parasites proves maddening in its pathos, Frank’s embodiment of rugged individualism and his redemptive qualities inducing unrelenting tension in the viewer, worried as to how proceedings with his new bedfellows are going to turn out.
Though it would be far too intense to attempt on a first date in reality, Frank’s raw confession to Jessie in the diner encapsulates a certain mindset that defined me when I was a lot younger, an elusive desire to get away from it all with my life-mate and start everything fresh, and seeing adversarial qualities in people who, looking back on it, most likely didn’t have them. Frank’s paranoia and hard-headedness are arguably more practical than that of Paul Schrader’s lonely men, given the fact that he’s actively mixing with some extremely nasty people as opposed to delusionally lashing out, but there’s still a spiritual similarity there. He’s the complex lone wolf who must contend with troubling forces to actualise himself, and he’s the best of the bunch. In his big-screen debut after decades treading the boards, veteran character actor Robert Prosky is mesmerising as Leo, unrecognisable as the kind-faced, avuncular old man from Last Action Hero. Leo smiles and offers benevolent pronouncements just a little too much, and if you want to see one of the greatest depictions of an extremely scary personality shift, you needn’t look any further.
Willie Nelson is terrific during his minimal screen-time as Okla, and it’s literally the only thing I would have liked to seen adjusted as he and Caan have notable chemistry and their mutual story deserved a more thorough examination, but it still leaves an indelible impression. With Caan’s central performance abetted by uniformly superb turns from everyone involved, Thief is an insanely solid crime drama and character study that permeates immersive human relationships with cutting-edge heist sequences, ultimately creating a grim and unapologetic snapshot of life’s realities when you earn your living outside of the law, with some deep warmth amid the grit. It’s an essential classic.