THIEF, 1981 Michael Mann

Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors, and this is the first film of his that I saw when I was a kid. As an adult, I can re-appreciate this film on additional levels. This feels like Michael Mann’s rehearsal for HEAT, his crime classic from 1995. And what a great rehearsal it is. James Cann is fabulous. His diner scene with Tuesday Weld is reportedly his proudest moment of his acting career. He plays a great tough guy with a heart who has goals like all of us: starting a family, adopting a child, accumulating wealth and the status we all strive for. But he is betrayed and broken. One particularly effective line is when he pulls a gun on somebody in his office and says, “I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”

But what makes his characterization so great is that he’s not just a one-dimensional tough guy. If Mann wanted that he would have written the part differently, and had somebody like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone play him. Somebody larger than life, impervious to damage, and often quipping one-liners. But James Cann’s portrayal of Frank is so much more powerful because he is believable. An everyman. He’s been in tough situations and can certainly be the tough guy. But he gets just as upset over everyday things as he does deals gone bad or rip-offs. And his vulnerability in the infamous diner scene is expertly acted. Not many action characters spend time on-screen talking about adopting a baby, helping friends in prison, and  talking about past personal brutalizations. But this isn’t an action movie even if it appears like it on the surface. It really is a drama that happens to take place in the crime world. James Caan had been superstar for almost a decade when this film was released due to the worldwide success of The Godfather. His Sonny Corleone character was unforgettable. We know that going in, and sort of expect that hot-headed reactionary character. Mann surprises us by giving us a calm collected criminal that prides himself on thinking everything out beforehand, which is the exact opposite of Sonny Corleone. When the film builds to the inevitable violent climax, we are almost relieved to see him finally react in this manner. One could almost imagine Thief as an alternate universe where the Sonny Corelone character from The Godfather actually lived, left the protection of the family, and struck out on his own as a diamond thief. Sonny calmed down and learned self-restraint and calculated planning, and became Frank.

Michael Mann is a meticulous director who researches police procedure like no other. Part of the reason that Thief, Manhunter, and Heat work so well is the attention to detail and the honesty of what you see onscreen. He employed actual high-end bank robbers as consultants on this film, and a couple of them even have small roles. The detail of the heist scenes is unequaled. No dialogue is used, just the amazing droning pulse of Tangerine Dream on the soundtrack. Watching them burn their way into a strong safe with the use of a thermal lance is surreal and mesmerizing. This is pure visual film-making that really draws you into the scene, making you feel like you somehow snuck in behind the diamond thieves and are right there with them.

I must comment on the epic denouement of the film, in which James Cann goes against logic and does what is right for his personal code. (SPOILERS) He purposely breaks his girlfriend’s heart and sends her off (financially taking care of her) so she will not be in danger. He destroys everything linking him to his double-crossing bosses, devaluing any possessions they could claim as theirs. He literally blows up any connection to that life of material possessions that was once his dream. His house, his local bar, his used car business, and dozens of cars.

This is a portrait of a man erasing himself.

To quote Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.” After he destroys all of this, he goes after the bad guys for revenge, not caring if he destroys himself as well. An unofficial version of Pink Floyd’s song ‘Comfortably Numb’ pushes the final action along. Mann steps into a comfortable zone of staging action scenes like no other director. He had just done numerous episodes of Miami Vice, and the stylized and colorful action and editing styles do indeed remind me of that show. I was a teenager when Miami Vice was on TV, and I absolutely loved the marriage of popular current music loud in the mix with the striking visuals. Mann used this technique in the climaxes of both Thief and Manhunter, two of my favorite films.

Tense, exciting, stylized and rewarding shootouts ensue in the climax.  This is a fantastic crime drama that everyone should see.

SITTING TARGET

Sitting Target is one of those movies I would catch on TV growing up as a kid. I’d stop what I was doing and change my plans to watch it. An admittedly adult film, I felt like I was getting away with something by watching it. I wish more people knew of this 1972 movie, as it is one of the greatest gritty revenge films of all time.

The plot is simple, but with an interesting twist. Oliver Reed’s character is in prison. His wife visits him to tell him that she wants a divorce and is pregnant by another man. So starts his twisted plan. He loses his mind over this revelation and decides to break out of prison for the sole purpose of killing his wife and her lover (and unborn child).

This is a tour de force for Oliver Reed. He is a barrel-chested alcoholic, deep-voiced everyman, and in this film, a seething sociopath. Reed spends the film obsessed and simmering, you can’t take your eyes off of him because you know he is about to erupt at any moment. I love hearing him bellow lines like, “You bloody bastard!” or “You conniving bitch!” in full rage.

This was probably the first film that introduced me to the anti-hero. Where the main character has amoral motivations and isn’t a particularly likeable person. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to follow the story of this man’s revenge quest to murder a pregnant woman, but somehow it works.

Oliver Reed plays Harry Lomart and his cell-mate Birdy is played by Ian McShayne. He has been a great actor for many decades that most of us know recently from his portrayal of Al Swearengen on Deadwood. The unfaithful wife is played by Jill St. John, and the detective that tries to keep her safe is played by Edward Woodward. Both are perfectly adequate for their relatively small roles.

I love that this movie pulls no punches and doesn’t hold back at all. It defines gritty 70’s revenge cinema. There is no comic relief, no cheesy songs, and no tonal changes. It is a simple tale told economically and filmed using some very creative and unusual methods. It revels in its darkness and nihilism. This film came out 2 years before Death Wish, and one year after Get Carter. I honestly think this film is far better than Get Carter, but because they were both British productions released around the same time, often this movie gets compared to that Mike Hodges movie starring Michael Caine.

The music was done by Stanley Myers and is perfect. The soundtrack is unusual and a bit jarring, which fits the theme of the film.

The direction by Douglas Hickox is inventive and deftly done. Lots of interesting framing and camera angles, including use of the split diopter lens. This makes the object in the foreground and background sharp and in focus, while the objects in between them are blurry. Brian DePalma adopted this and used it heavily later on. For the introductory scene where the wife visits Harry in prison to give him the bad news, the director had a challenging scene. How do you make a scene of two people talking through a window interesting? Rather than the typical A-B shot back and forth repeatedly, Hickox made a truly fascinating scene. He used extreme close-ups on their eyes and faces and set up reflections in a unique way. He used the shadows from the slats in the talking window to a film noir effect, bisecting their faces and sometimes obscuring their mouths. Or he would align the reflection in such a way that one character’s profile appeared directly in front of the others facing the same direction. It’s a truly inventive scene that gets your attention. A lesser director would’ve filmed this straight and boring. There is another scene with multi-panel mirrors that Brian DePalma famously copied in Scarface with the character reflected (or split) into multiple images. Symbolic of the fractured mind and soul, I imagine, but also just a damned great image.

The prison escape is tense, brutal, and exciting. Once Harry and Birdy break out, he acquires a Mauser and starts tracking down his wife. Gun aficionados love this gun. It’s a 9mm automatic handgun attached to a removable rifle stock, also called the ‘broomhandle’.

My favorite scene is a chase with two motorcycle cops following Harry through a bunch of laundry drying lines. Everyone is obscured by the flowing white sheets and clothes hanging from the various lines, and they hunt each other in the surreal sea of fabric. Instead of dramatic movie music, the director just ramped up the police radio chatter and the bizarre police sirens to create a dreamlike scene that, of course, ends in violence and death.

The film builds to a great conclusion that I felt was perfect. Nihilistic and brutal, you won’t soon forget it. The lighting, the editing, and the slow-motion would make Sam Peckinpah proud. (Also the end scene has the famous London Battersea powerstation smokestacks that Pink Floyd used for the cover of their 1977 album ‘Animals’.) If you are willing to go down this seedy road of the London underground with Oliver Reed, it’s well worth your time. Honor among thieves. The beatings, gunplay, chases, and overall darkness make for an excellent jailbreak/revenge thriller.

This line of dialogue sums up the film beautifully, “The spirit is weak, Harry. The flesh even weaker.”

CANDLELIGHT

The two of us
Alone at this table
Split by candles
Divided by much more

Our words
Carry more weight than ever
We lean in
And listen very hard

By candlelight

Glittering light
Flickers on our faces
We send words
Across the smoke

Skin looks better
By candlelight
I speak more clearly
In darkness

By candlelight

I’m still listening
But I just can’t talk anymore

Flame in the wax
Hands on the wood
Water in the glass
Misunderstood

Wet your fingers
Pinch the flame
Relish the pain
Just walk away

 

 

I wrote this in 2016 and my band, THE SHRIKE, is using it for a song of the same name on our Chase The Sun EP.