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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Thief” (1981) – The 40th Anniversary

Any new film from Michael Mann is a cause for celebration, whether it’s one of his masterpieces (“Heat”) or one that flies under the radar (“Manhunter”, “Public Enemies”). While he earns the term filmmaking god, just from directing one movie alone. His  magnum opus “Heat”, that saw screen legends Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino go head to head for the first time on screen together (“Godfather II” they were never on screen together). However one film that should be praised the most of his is the 1981 thriller “Thief”, with James Cann.

After serving five years as the show runner, executive producer, writer and director on the classic Don Johnson series “Miami Vice”. Michael Mann’s feature film debut as a director, screenwriter and executive producer would be “Thief” (originally titles “Violent Streets”). When the film hit theaters on March 25th 1981, the critics rushed to praise the filmmaker’s feature debut. Many expressing surprise at the fact that such an inexperienced director could deliver a movie so intelligent and mature, with a clear vision brought to life by his steady and assured hand. 

Mann had moved to London in the mid 60s to graduate majoring in cinema. He went on to receive a graduate degree at the London Film School in 1967. He spent a total of seven years going to film school and working on commercials along with future contemporary filmmakers Alan Parker (“Midnight Express), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and Adrian Lyne (“Fatal Attraction”). In 1968, Mann shot footage of the Paris student revolt for a documentary, that aired on NBC’s First Tuesday news program. He took the footage and developed his experiences into the short film “Jaunpuri” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1970.

Michael Mann’s film career consists of: “Manhunter”, “Collateral”, “BlackHat”, “Ali”, “The Insider”, “Miami Vice” (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) and “The Last Of The Mohicans”. Total Film Magazine ranked Michael Mann No. 28 on their list of the 100 Greatest Directors, Sight and Sound ranked him No. 5 on their list of the 10 Best Directors of the Last 25 Years and Entertainment Weekly ranked him as No. 8 on their 25 Greatest Active Film Directors list.

“Thief” is produced by mega blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who is best known for producing nearly half of Michael Bay’s films including: “Bad Boys”, “Armageddon”, “The Rock” and “Pearl Harbor”. Bruckheimer has also produced “Beverly Hills Cop 1 & 2”, “Pirates Of The Caribbean” franchise, “National Treasure”, “Con Air”, “Days Of Thunder”, “Top Gun” and countless other film and tv credits. “Thief” would be Bruckheimer’s second major film production after producing “American Gigolo” the previous year. His next big producing credit came two years after the release of “Thief” with the highly successful “Flashdance”. 

Michael Mann’s “Thief” is a neo-noir crime thriller set in Chicago. It’s the story of an ex-convict Frank who has been out of jail for four years and established a reputation for being a highly professional, world-class burglar specialized in top-level thefts. Frank is a loner, a man dedicated to his work who trusts only his small team of associates, a social outcast with a strict moral code who dreams of retiring from the risky business and creating a peaceful, ordinary life with his girlfriend. 

Played by the nothing short of brilliant James Caan (“Misery”), Frank is one of those larger-than-life anti-heroes we immediately connect and sympathize with. But as “Thief” and numerous other films that came after it had taught us, the “one last big gig before retirement” plan doesn’t quite work out for him, as the mob and all other big and small fish crowding the dark, wet streets of Chicago complicate the situation and ruin his original plans of calling it quits. 

The screenplay was written by Mann himself, who said not to have used the novel “The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar” as anything more than a starting point. The biographical novel was published in 1975 by real-life jewel thief John Seybold under the pen name of Frank Hohimer. However, the main characters and the story arc were admittedly inspired by the memoir. Hohimer was serving time in prison at the time the film was in production

Mann’s storytelling is impeccable (as it always is) and the sheer attention to detail he invested into making “Thief” is astonishing by striving for authenticity. Not only did he do extensive research before making the film, Mann even hired real-life thieves to work as technical advisors during the shoot and was the instructor to James Caan. “As part of the curriculum designed for an actor getting into character, I try to imagine what’s going to really help bring this actor more fully into character. And so I try to imagine what experiences are going to make more dimensional his intake of Frank, so that he is Frank spontaneously when I’m shooting. So one of the most obvious things is it’d be pretty good if James was as good at doing what Frank does as is Frank”, said Mann, explaining why Caan had to learn his character’s safe-drilling skills. 

There were no false props used in the film. To keep in it’s authenticity, the tools used in “Thief” were very much real, with some drills weighing as much as 200 pounds. Every piece of machinery used during the heists were the actual tools that would have been used in real-life situations. Likewise, most of the tools and guns used in the film had actually been used in real-life heists. A technical adviser was on set to instruct Caan and he got so well versed in learning the craft of being a master thief that when one of the “technical advisers” was asked in an interview on “Good Morning America” after the film was released of how well Caan did, he joked that he didn’t know what he had been wasting his time on set for.

Michael Mann always has a dedication to detail on his films and “Thief” is no exception. His script sticks to the notion that the audience doesn’t need to be explained any of the complicated procedures in order for them to believe they are complicated. Mann achieves authenticity and there isn’t a single moment when the audience doubts Frank, is as good at his job as Mann’s story presents him to be.

As we’ve already established, James Caan is the films star and in fact wasn’t Michael Mann’s first choice. Jeff Bridges was Michael Mann’s first choice to play Frank, but was rejected due to the fact he was too young and wasn’t experienced enough to play a hardened criminal. Al Pacino had turned down the role of Frank, due to scheduling conflicts filming William Friedkin’s “Cruising”. Gene Hackman and “Jaws” star, Roy Scheider were also considered for the leading role. After starting in “The Godfather” (1972). James Caan himself said that this is his favorite film of his own other than “The Godfather”. He has stated that his monologue in the diner, is the scene of which he is most proud if in his career.

James Caan also went to Gunsite (then known as the American Pistol Institute) in Paulden, AZ to learn proper gun handling. Its owner, retired Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, did not hold the belief that a professional thief would take the time and discipline to learn to use firearms, clear rooms and properly handle weapons. So he had his chief instructor, Chuck Taylor, teach Caan as much as he could in 3 days. The training stuck and Caan has shown similar gun handling in “Alien Nation” (1988) and “The Way of the Gun” (2000).

“Thief” marks the feature film debut not only of director Michael Mann, but of a good deal of the cast members as well: James Belushi (“K9”), Dennis Farina (who was a Chicago policeman at the time of filming), Robert Prosky (who was a late starter, having already been fifty years old when he appeared in the film as his debut) and William Petersen (“CSI”) all appear here for the first time. 

What’s especially great about “Thief” and its screenplay is that the supporting roles don’t feel like cardboard cutouts, but as real people who we also become invested in. This has a lot to do with the quality of the cast, as all of them delivered memorable performances, including the legendary Willie Nelson as Frank’s imprisoned mentor and father figure. “Thief”, however all lies mostly on Caan’s shoulders and the now veteran actor recalled it was a very challenging part to play.

Shot by cinematographers Donald E. Thorin and Don Cahill. “Thief” exhibits Mann’s characteristically playful utilization of lighting and shading. He has been especially influential in the way he employs cool colors with shades of blue, green and purple. Mann is drawn to conventionally masculine color palettes laden with blues and greens. Of all of Michael Mann’s films and neon nocturnal odysseys. “Thief” might just hold the title for best cinematography, or at least tied with “Miami Vice” for having the most vivid colors.

His images are lavishly shot, in the only film he shot that is presented in a 1.85:1 standard widescreen ratio. After this “Thief”, he shot all of his movies in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio. Mann ordered truckloads of water to repeatedly hose down the streets of Chicago to keep the ground constantly wet. It was a stroke of impressionist genius having the blotted blue and green lighting bounce off the wet pavement to give the sharp hues a highly saturated but contrast look with the darkness.

In film there is a term known as associative color schemes. It’s in which specific colors are used throughout a film to convey certain moods or themes. This is one of Michael Mann’s trademarks and likes to use this technique in most of his films. In “Thief”, greens represents an ominous mood, corruption, crime, danger and darkness. While the blues are deeper and more subtle, but contribute to the greens to help establish the overarching coldness of the film.

Michael Mann followed “Thief” up with one of his most underrated films “Manhunter”. It gave “Thief” co-star William Peterson a leading role as Agent Will Graham and Brian Cox as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. “Manhunter” is the prequel novel to author Thomas Harris’ “Silence Of The Lambs”, which was remade in 2002 as “Red Dragon” starring Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins. 

“Thief” experienced a very warm welcome from the critics and resulted in a modest box-office success, grossing nearly $12 million from a $5.5 million budget. At the time of its release, “Thief” was hailed by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, as one of the most intelligent thrillers he had ever seen. “Thief” embodied many of the earmarks of what we now recognize as ’80s cinema. With its unwavering focus on character, lived-in performances and having the tools, the craft and the effort to transcend its time period to becoming something close to a classic. 

“Thief” is celebrated to be one of the best films Michael Mann has ever made. It’s especially celebrated by his fans and film scholars, as the film exhibits the themes and style that would later become the filmmaker’s trademarks. Mann, responded in a past interview in pointing out “Thief’s” characteristics that would shadow his future work. “I’m not conscious of, ‘This is my style, this is not my style.’ If there’s anything I’m aware of, it’s that whatever I did last, is not what I want to do next. Whatever it is that outside observers say, I’m not conscious of signature and it would be a bad exercise in vanity if one was.” 

In 2014, prestigious home video company, The Criterion Collection added “Thief” to its catalog of titles as Spine #691. The movie has been digitally restored from a 4K master of the director’s cut approved by director Michael Mann with a newly remastered 5.1 surround DTS-HD audio soundtrack. This is the best possible edition of “Thief” we will probably ever get and thankfully it’s done by Criterion, who cares and appreciates not just great films, but the art of film.

Michael Mann is a contemporary American auteur who only makes a movie every few years because he likes to wait on the right project. Mann is the kind of director who holds complete films in his head before he begins making them. He is a rare breed of an auteur and in the scope of his filmography, his producing (he has produced films for other directors that includes Peter Berg) and screenwriting are no less significant than his directing. 

It’s rare that with a filmmaker’s first theatrical feature we get to stare straight into an iteration of what that filmmaker will become in the future, but that’s the case with Michael Mann and his terrific film “Thief.” Even having been this early in his career, Mann shows his uncanny knack for creating something cinematic and sweepingly dramatic. There’s a straightforwardness about Michael Mann to be admired. 

He’s found outstanding moments between his characters by injecting stories with dramatic irony and the crime element in his films, is almost always natural for increasing tension. What’s really impressive is his patience and confidence in allowing his moments to breathe. He reveals themselves in different ways slowly without losing overall momentum. That’s the genius of a prepared filmmaker who knows every inch of every element of filmmaking inside and out.

“Thief” is a perfect thriller. It’s neat, tense, completely believable and inhabited by full-blooded characters. “Thief” is as gritty a crime picture as they come, dead set on getting even the smallest touches right. It’s a philosophical thriller filled with modernist cool and a movie unlike any other. A tough and intense crime thriller, with James Caan giving one of his finest performances in an absolutely brilliant and masterful film. While  I could never imagine a world without his magnum opus, that is “Heat”. But if Michael Mann had never made anything after “Thief”, he’d still go down in history as a filmmaker who managed to deliver a perfect thriller.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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