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After years of writing for television and cutting his directorial teeth on the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, Michael Mann made his feature film debut with Thief (1981), a cool, gritty crime movie starring James Caan as the head of a high-end crew of professional safecrackers. Mann builds the simple story of an independent who reluctantly signs up with a crime syndicate on meticulously directed heist scenes, an evocative atmosphere, and the central character, an ex-con known simply as Frank that Caan plays with a guarded, wary professionalism.
It's quite the calling card, an accomplished piece of storytelling with a vivid, evocative style that has since become Mann's calling card in his distinctive run of urban crime thrillers: the tech noir look of city streets and rain-slicked alleys at night, shadowy bars, and shrouded industrial spaces with pools of hard white light and shades of neon blue cutting through the darkness. This is a secret network of terse professionals whose actions speak for themselves and still maintain a code of respect and responsibility in a corrupt world. The sensibility and style of Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), Miami Vice (2006), and Public Enemies (2009) can be traced right back to Thief.
Frank is an ex-con and a survivor, but behind the armor is a romantic yearning for home and family and civilian life, and he woos a wounded beauty (Tuesday Weld) to be his partner by dropping his guard and confessing all in a long conversation in a coffee shop, an anonymous oasis of light and society in the city of night. "It's the scene that made Frank come clear to me," explained Caan in 1998, and it convinced him to take the role. "This is probably the scene I'm most proud of in my entire career." Mann returned to the same template but with a different dynamic in Heat, where De Niro and Pacino take a break for a coffee shop heart to heart between cop and crook.
Chicago born and raised, Mann sets Thief in his home city (with a side trip to Los Angeles) and for the most part shoots and casts the film locally. James Belushi, at the time a Second City alumnus with a couple of short-lived sitcoms to his name, made his film debut as Frank's best friend and trusted partner. Robert Prosky, who plays the seemingly paternal head of the criminal syndicate, was 50 when Mann cast him in his first substantial film role. You can also spot William Petersen, then a member of the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, in his film debut playing a bartender. A few years later, Mann cast Petersen in the lead of Manhunter.
Mann was meticulous when it came to shooting the high precision heists and brought in consultants from both sides of the law to get them right. John Santucci, a recently-paroled safecracker, trained Caan in the use of the tools of the trade--the drills, saws, and torches used in the movie--and not only served as a consultant but was cast in a memorable supporting role as a corrupt police officer. Gavin MacFadyen, a former thief, was also a consultant/co-star. From the Chicago Police Department came Chuck Adamson, who plays the cop who gives Frank a lesson in "how things work," and Dennis Farina and Nick Nickeas, who have small parts as Leo's thugs. Many of them were brought along by Mann for his Chicago-based TV series Crime Story (1986-1988); Adamson as a co-creator and writer, Farina and Santucci in starring roles (with Farina as the cop and Santucci as a mobster). They first came together on the set of Thief, cops and (former) criminals both, sometimes even in the same scene, and the tensions were cut by discussing old cases. "They were all from the same neighborhood," recalled Mann, and it wasn't unusual for them to discover they were on separate sides of the same unsolved cases.
Having been trained in the use of specialized industrial equipment, Caan used the real machinery for the heist scenes and even injured himself manning the heavy industrial tools. Even the vault that Caan cracks in the opening scene is the real thing, purchased by the production just to dismantle it on screen. The torches used for cutting through the vault doors were so hot that fire extinguishers were needed to put out fires started by the intense heat. Not by grips, mind you, but the actors in the scene themselves.
To complete the atmosphere, Mann hired the German group Tangerine Dream to score the movie with a moody electronic soundscape. It was only their second film score (after William Friedkin's Sorcerer, 1977) but it was a good match to Mann's tone and atmosphere and it remains one of the group's most distinctive and effective scores.
Thief was not a hit but it was well reviewed and established Mann as a director with a strong storytelling style and distinctive sensibility. Its reputation has only grown in the years since.
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer, Ronnie Caan
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann (screenplay and screen story); Frank Hohimer (novel)
Cinematography: Donald Thorin
Art Direction: Mary Dodson
Music: Tangerine Dream
Film Editing: Dov Hoenig
Cast: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. [Bill] Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido).
by Sean Axmaker