Thief: Where Nothing Means Nothing

On Film / Essays — Jan 13, 2014

Without a word spoken, the first two shots in Thief, Michael Mann’s groundbreaking 1981 feature debut, announce a simultaneously grim and dreamlike vision that seems, in retrospect, perfectly poised between the great urban crime films of the 1970s and the formal aesthetics of the 1980s—the “style decade” that Mann’s subsequent cinema and television work did so much to help shape.

In the first shot, the jewel thief Frank (James Caan) gets into an Eldorado driven by his partner Barry (James Belushi), which then cuts across the camera’s field of view and drives away into the distance, down Chicago’s rain-swept Lincoln Avenue—thereby epitomizing the script’s bare description in a later sequence: “Taillights on wet, black streets.” The V of streetlights and its reflection form a perfect X of vanishing-point perspective. The second shot looks up at a big, moonlike light, with torrential rain coming out of the night sky, then pans down slowly between angular configurations of fire escapes to the narrows of Rat Alley. With the big, boxy cars that line the street, and the feeling of the city as a labyrinthine machine, these shots give Thief immediate kinship with the likes of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). But the X of lights shows a different kind of stylistic chutzpah, and in its grandiose descent from the sky, the second shot suggests a more totalized dystopia than the streets of New York represent in those earlier films, one that anticipates, for instance, the way Ridley Scott would shoot Blade Runner a year later, in a globalized city of perpetual rain. In the Chicago of Thief, the black streets are rat runs and the black sky behind the lights is impenetrable; dreams here have strict limits.

Frank’s world is self-limited to what he has set up. He’s a high-line thief with a tight crew comprising himself, alarms expert Barry, and comms man Joseph (William LaValley). He owns a used car dealership and a small bar as cover for his activities. In the bravura first heist sequence, we see what very efficient thieves Frank and his men are (the film was made with real-life thief John Santucci as an adviser; he also plays the part of a cop). With an authenticity that astonishes at times, Thief breaks down visually, in bold close-ups, how the technical business of attacking a safe full of uncut diamonds works—not by blowing it up or listening for the combination tumblers but by using industrial tools to expose or remove the locking systems. Sparks fly like fireworks; smoke pours off the drills.

But despite Mann’s reputation as a director of such breathtaking set pieces, he is always even more absorbed in the fine nuances of character. This opening sequence is done with as much panache as the famous heist in Jules Dassin’s Rififi, but its minutely controlled look and the suspense of the moment serve another purpose as well: to act as a fascination-grabbing prelude to what Thief is really about, which is the wider meaning and consequences of Frank’s character, and his dream of a life outside the prison that formed him.

As we discover in one anguished encounter with a bureaucrat, Frank was “state-raised.” When he was eighteen years old, he received a two-year sentence for stealing forty dollars that became—through his violent efforts to protect himself—a seventeen-year prison tenure. During this time, he was befriended by Okla (Willie Nelson), the older friend and mentor who taught him everything he knows about being a jewel thief. There is an intriguing mystery at the heart of the film about how Frank went from the pure theory of his Folsom training to the top of his game as a thief in just four years, but my guess is that he was bankrolled, at least for the first heist, by Okla, who would become his partner if he ever got out of prison. All of Frank’s ideas about his perfect life outside prison are concentrated into a folded-up photomontage he made there, with magazine images of a home, women, and children, and a snapshot of Okla. Just as Frank wants to get all of that in a hurry, he also wants to get out of the high- risk trade that will make it possible as soon as he can.

It is this foot-on-the-accelerator attitude that leads to the film’s most poignant and beautifully acted early scene. Frank has spotted Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a woman he likes who has a touch of class about her, even though he knows she’s had hard times and she’s now working as a diner cashier. Having set a date with her, he arrives late and has to quite forcibly persuade her to leave with him, more or less shoving her into his car. They go to a café, where he cajoles her, right then, to agree to be his life partner. “I’ve been cool,” he says. “I am now unmarried. So we can cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance.”

Up until this scene, Caan has had to play Frank as a hard- ass every minute. He was late for their date because he had an unforeseen meet with Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime boss who is offering him a quick way to make the amount of money he wants—albeit at the loss of some of Frank’s absolute, “I am Joe the boss of my own body” independence. That Frank thinks he has himself so thoroughly figured out, that his sense of himself is so consciously constructed to present a front of no vulnerabilities, this idea that it will all work out as long as he sticks to a plan, however eccentric or haphazard it appears to others, seems to grant Caan the security and self- confidence to riff his lines with a delicate sense of combined cocksureness and twitchiness.

Caan’s performance is so alive that the weather of thought not only crosses his face but appears also to affect every other part of his body—for instance, the way his head and shoulders sometimes move like he’s trying to balance his ass on a ball. He tells Jessie what prison was like: “You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die. You gotta get to where nothing means nothing . . . I survived because I achieved that mental attitude.” To woo Jessie, he reveals the worst part of his story, the attack, possibly a gang rape, he had to maim people to duck. He has already half guessed her story of an abusive man who left her in dire circumstances. Somehow Frank’s vulnerability and insistence work to convince her, and Weld does a terrific job of letting us see that Jessie is taking a big risk and knows it.

That Frank accepts Leo’s proposal in order to immediately create his domestic idyll with Jessie is, we can guess, a mistake. But before things go spectacularly off the rails, there is an even more spectacular heist—set up by Leo— in a bank vault that looks like a hotel lobby that might have served as a set for the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. An incredible, Wagnerian welding lance is used to burn through complex layers of metal so that the door of the vault just falls off. Easy as it is to sit back and admire Mann’s brilliant conception of this, again, it’s an interlude designed to stave off and distract us from the consequences of character.

Thief is set in Michael Mann’s home city, where he grew up in a tough neighborhood, and there’s a sense that he knows the streets intimately. While making the TV movie The Jericho Mile on location at Folsom Prison in 1979, he also became intimately acquainted with the way felons interact with one another in a penal institution, the clear demarcation of racial divides and gang hierarchies, the behavior necessary for survival in a severe dog-eat-dog environment. It must have been a watershed experience, since certain attitudes and realities learned there seem to have fed into many of Mann’s crime-related works—Miami Vice (the 1984–90 TV series and the 2006 film), Manhunter (1986), the TV movie L.A. Takedown (1989), and Heat (1995), to name only the most obvious. But one of the many things that make Thief so special is that it was the film that directly succeeded The Jericho Mile. Mann’s favorite motifs and situations are at their freshest here. We see the early versions of the meet with other felons that may go wrong and needs hidden fire cover; the beach as a brief release from life pressures; the key coffee shop encounter; the necessary tightness of jailhouse camaraderie; the need to be able to walk away from all attachments in seconds; the respect for the professionalism of thieves from cops and sometimes vice versa; the illusory or transient nature of settlement; the uneasy domestic truce between men and women.

In Thief, all of these pivotal ideas and moments are finely woven into one man’s dilemma, whereas they are divided among many character arcs in Mann’s other works. With Caan in his very best form at its center, and with so many brilliant set pieces paced out between the claustrophobic face-to-face encounters of Frank and the police, Frank and Leo, and Frank and others who seem determined to sully the purity of his vision by insisting on a piece of the action, Thief is a singular achievement by a director who’s hitting on his best ideas while in transition—from television to cinema, and from being under the influence of his forebears to bringing his own creative influence to bear on his times. The use of the synthesizer music of Tangerine Dream throughout was Mann’s way of emphasizing the industrial nature of thievery, the way the exigencies of corporate capital can pin down a felon as much as any ordinary Jill or Joe. But Thief also has a mythological quality—for instance, when Frank demonstrates the nature of his extremism by burning down his own car lot. One is reminded irresistibly of the Tom Waits song “Frank’s Wild Years,” in which the character burns down his familial home and the flames are “all Halloween orange and chim-e-ney red.” And another Waits line comes to mind that could be Frank the thief’s epitaph: “Christ, you don’t know the meaning of heartbreak, buddy.”