Thursday, September 21, 2017

James Caan and Michael Mann Team Up for "Thief"

James Cann as Frank.
Michael Mann makes a remarkably self-assured debut as feature film director with his sleek 1981 drama Thief. After graduating from the London Film School in the 1960s, Mann gained experienced on television, working on crime dramas such as Starsky and Hutch and Joseph Wambaugh's Police Story. He won an an Emmy for writing and a DGA award for directing the made-for-TV film The Jericho Mile. Thus, Mann already had an impressive pedigree when he turned his sights on writing and directing Thief, an adaptation of a book written by real-life jewel thief John Seybold.

Caan and Tuesday Weld.
James Caan stars as Frank, an ex-convict who, by day, runs Rocket Motor Sales and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. By night, though, Frank stages elaborate heists with the help of a couple of cronies. Frank's dream is for a normal life with a loving wife, a baby boy, and a home in the suburbs. Anxious to make it a reality--especially after meeting a pretty cashier (Tuesday Weld)--Frank agrees to work for a mob boss named Leo (Robert Prosky). Frank's plan is to complete one last big job and then retire to the idyllic life. Unfortunately, Leo has other plans for the thief.

Thief provides James Caan with a rare juicy role, one which highlights the actor's likability and his explosiveness. In the film's best scene, Frank recounts the horrors of prison life to his girlfriend over a cup of coffee in a restaurant. It's a revealing conversation that explains his paternal feelings toward an old master thief (Willie Nelson), who is dying in prison. More importantly, Frank explains that he survived by learning not to feel anymore. He stores his dreams on a postcard-size photo collage in his wallet, thus making them dreams that he can literally tear up and cast aside if necessary.

Yet, while Frank exhibits a handful of redeeming qualities, there is raw violence always simmering just beneath the surface. He doesn't hesitate to threaten innocent people or yell abusively at a social worker because he can't understand why an ex-con isn't considered a suitable parent for an adopted child.

Robert Prosky as Leo.
The supporting cast includes a number of effective performances, some of them delivered by first-time performers. John Santucci, a former jewel thief initially hired as a technical consultant, is pitch-perfect as a dirty cop. Dennis Farina, a real-life former cop, also made his film debut in Thief (as a villain). However, supporting acting honors go to Robert Prosky, who got his first major film role in Thief  at the age of 51. Prosky plays a mob kingpin who admires Frank's work and wants to make him part of his "family"--not understanding Frank's obsession with individualism.

While Thief is visually interesting, especially Mann's use of bold colors mixed with black, it lacks the style of the director's later work, such as Manhunter (1986) and the Miami Vice TV series. While the heist scenes are compelling, don't expect dripping suspense along the lines of Rififi (1955). The big safe-cracking sequence lasts a mere ten minutes.

Thief works best as an engrossing character study. And while it's clear from the outset that Frank will fail to achieve his unrealistic dream of a perfect family life, the closing shot is surprisingly optimistic--in its own downbeat kind of way.


Caftan Woman said...

This is a film I have not thought of in eons. Excellent recounting and review of a fine character study indeed. Worthy of revisiting.

Rick29 said...

This one and the poorly-titled KILLER ELITE seem much more interesting to me this time around. I had not seen either in years.

Silver Screenings said...

This sounds well worth it. I personally find James Caan a bit hit-and-miss, but I was intrigued when you said it was a meaty role for him. Thanks!

BLB said...

As I recall the film was radically recut with a happy ending by the studio for its initial release. I caught Mann's downbeat director's cut a few years ago and boy, that was jarring.

Unknown said...

Caan could have played Sonny on Mami vice but went with bigger screen hopes could have drove that fake Ferrari around!