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.