Posted: 02/28/2003




by Del Harvey

“Lie to no one. If it’s somebody close to you, you’re going to ruin it with a lie. And if they’re a stranger, who the f-ck are they you got to lie to them?”
— Okla (Willie Nelson) giving advice to Frank

“I am the last guy in the world that you want to f-ck with.”
— Frank (James Caan) to one of Leo’s lackeys

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Frank pulls diamond heists, and he’s good at it. His teacher was one of the best, a man his friends call “Okla,” but whose real name is David. David’s in prison and has just found out he’s got a heart disease. Scheduled for release in 10 months, he may not live long enough to taste freedom again. He asks his best friend and ersatz son Frank to get him out. Frank says he will, but his eyes tell the story of heartbreak. Frank has just pulled off another huge score, but was double-crossed in the payoff and now wants his cash. He visits the only known connection to his client, who suddenly “took a flyer” out a hotel window. Frank has to threaten the connection with a gun, but he agrees to a meeting for another payoff. Only he does not come alone. Tagging along is the connection’s boss, a mob leader named Leo. Leo has Frank’s money as well as a proposition; work for him and everything will be taken care of. Frank is a lone wolf, a stand-up guy, who does just fine with his small crew and his untraceable life, thank you very much. But then Frank gets serious with the manager of his club, a blonde names Jessie. She can’t have kids but they both want them. Frank is afraid he’s getting old and feels too many internal pressures, finally taking Leo’s bait as his only way out. But he’s a square peg shoved into a round hole; he doesn’t fit into any society, let alone the mob’s. His dreams of the nice home and family and retirement are sadly not to be had. Pursued by the cops, double-crossed by Leo again, he sends Jessie and their newborn son away and sets out to settle the score and free himself of the mob, not caring if he gets killed in the process.

For Thief, Michael Mann loosely based his screenplay on the book The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer. He consulted with many professional thieves and came up with a story that rivals Rififi as a quintessential heist film. This was Mann’s first feature film, and it is a dark and gritty contemporary noir, full of the staples of the genre: irrefutable past, untenable situations, irreversible fate. There are a few other firsts tied to this film. The score, by electronica mavens Tangerine Dream, set a standard for film scores to follow, with their sleek, throbbing beats and incessant thematic melodies running just below the surface of each scene. Also, this was Dennis Farina’s (Snatch, Get Shorty) film debut; he was still a Chicago police detective at the time. This was also the film which debuted the talents of both Jim Belushi and Robert Prosky (The Natural). If you look quick, you’ll see another Mann favorite, William Petersen (C.S.I., Manhunter) in a scene as the Katz & Jammer bartender.

As the expert professional safecracker specializing in high-profile diamond jobs, James Caan is tough and straightforward, and an example of perfect casting. You sense before knowing that Frank spent many years in prison. When he lays out his very concrete picture of what he wants out of life—the nice home, a wife, and kids—for Jessie, we believe him. This is key for many of Mann’s films; believability of character. Caan isn’t just some hood; he’s a human being with wants and desires as real as yours or mine..

His crew is his family, and that includes Okla (Willie Nelson—Wag the Dog), Barry (Jim Belushi—Made Men, TV’s According To Jim), and Nick (Nick Nickeas). They work together like clockwork, as witnessed in the heist scenes. They share secrets none of the friends or families know, an act which serves to bring them towards a closeness few couples ever share. Frank has invested fairly well, putting his money into several businesses, including a used car lot and a nightclub (Chicago’s famous The Green Mill).

As Jessie, Tuesday Weld’s character seems carved from her role in Who’ll Stop the Rain, or perhaps is an extension of that role. She was involved with a man who bought drugs from the Colombians, and when a deal went bad and he was killed she found herself on the streets of Bogota. Now, living a quiet, unassuming life of drudgery in Chicago, she has convinced herself she is happy. When Frank comes along she resists involvement, until he spells out his plan for a new life with family and freedom. Unfortunately, she does not know what she is getting herself into, even though Caan is being as honest with her has he can.

If Michael Mann’s storytelling approach seems a bit cool, it is an approach intended to be as distinctive and effective as any Forties or Fifties noir, and Caan’s performance ranks among his very best, making Thief a crime movie worth viewing.

Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of FM. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, loves Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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