Back in 1981, Roger Ebert called it one of the most intelligent thrillers he’d ever seen. James Caan considered his monologue in the film the best scene he’d ever done. Thief was not only a surprisingly confident and self-assured feature debut by the enigmatic perfectionist Michael Mann. It was also a first step in the filmmaker’s ongoing obsession with charismatic, resolute individuals determined to do their duty whatever the cost was, an archetypal hero Mann would pay respect to in many of his subsequent films. Thanks to the experience of filming the great TV prison drama The Jericho Mile, Mann was able to brilliantly shape the character of an ex-convict and proficient jewel thief Frank in a neo-noir thriller based on real-life thief John Seybold’s novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar. Mann adapted the text himself, and filled the voids behind his perfect lead James Caan with film debuts of later respected actors such as Dennis Farina, William Petersen and James Belushi. To make Thief as authentic as possible, professional thievery equipment was used, with real thieves serving as technical consultants, and Caan even had to learn how to pick a lock. In order to make Frank’s life path more of an everyman’s story, Mann chose Tangerine Dream, the German electronic music group, to create the film’s musical identity, the first of their many film collaborations during the eighties. As you can see, Thief is a collection of many firsts, and as such, it’s even more surprising that the risk paid off so well in the end.
“Thief is a GREAT film for young screenwriters to dissect. Enjoy it once—then go back and take it apart—you’ll learn A LOT!” Dear every screenwriter, read Michael Mann’s screenplay for Thief [pdf]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only). Dual-format DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Michael Mann on going back to Chicago for Thief.
The easiest guys to direct [were the real people]—here, there’s a number of thieves, a number of very tough cops in Chicago from the major crime unit. So I was determined to get what my vision was from each scene, but it was some clumsy effort on my part, depending on who the actor was at the time. Jimmy [Caan] and I had a rapport probably on most everything that we did, but it was a struggle to get it communicated. Willie Nelson [who plays Frank’s incarcerated mentor] is not an actor, he’s a musician, so he certainly has no self-consciousness and he’ll never do the same thing twice, but there’s certainly a lot of poetry. He had a real sense of the isolation and the alternate reality that constitutes life and perspective in prison. It’s the whole society compressed into a microcosm, so it’s a very brutal place and a very dynamic place. What he got from that, I don’t really know, but he really had it. —Michael Mann on going back to Chicago for Thief
James Caan on Thief.
Thief was Michael Mann’s first film.
JC: Yeah, I found Michael Mann. Literally. I was doing ‘Chapter Two,’ and this guy was sitting outside my trailer in a wooden chair, and he said, “Can I talk to you?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I wanted to show you a script I’ve written.” And at the time, I was very fortunate that I was able to do whatever the hell I wanted to do, so I put it together right away. I got Jerry Bruckheimer to produce it… along with my brother, Ronnie, which was hysterical. And Michael, he’s a workaholic, you know. I still think that’s his best picture. He brought in the forensic stuff and everything. It was a real tough picture to work on, though, because he’d work 16, 17 hours a day. I liked it, though. It was a good movie. —James Caan on The Godfather, John Wayne, and all the roles he’s done as favors
Michael Mann (writer, director), James Caan (Frank), about 22 gallons of liquid cool.
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann’s films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience.
Q: Sometimes you’ll match an image entirely to music, but you also use sound effects melodically and integrate audio textures.
A: You have no idea, it can actually get quite nuts. In Thief there’s a fire extinguisher going off in F minor. We actually found a way, in Tangerine Dream’s studio, of processing actual sound effects and rendering them into a key. This was long before digital computers. The layering can be extraordinarily intricate. During the safe-cracking sequence in Thief, the chaotic sound of the burning bar suddenly stops, and in the silence—corresponding to the bright points of light on the diamonds when the first tray is pulled out—you start hearing a high-pitched note in the key of E, and every once in awhile there’s a blast in F minor of the fire extinguisher putting out the embers. This moment happens to work for me, now, in a way that I can still look at and not cringe. It’s withstood the test of time. Other things in the film are nonsensical: ocean waves crashing in G minor—sounding big, but yielding nothing at all. —The Study of Mann
Omar Ahmed‘s video essay on Michael Mann‘s Thief.
How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?
Thanks to Will McCrabb for the photos.