‘Thief’: How Michael Mann’s Cinema Debut Stole the World’s Attention

When Michael Mann’s Thief hit theaters in March 1981, the critics rushed to praise the filmmaker’s feature debut, expressing surprise at the fact such an inexperienced director could deliver a movie so intelligent and mature, with a clear vision brought to life by a steady, assured hand. But the one thing that should not be overlooked here is this: even at this starting point of his filmmaking career, even at the beginning of the eighties, Mann was anything but inexperienced. Having received a graduate degree at the London Film School, he spent the next seven years going to film school and honing his craft and skills in the commercial-making business, alongside the likes of such filmmakers as Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott. His short film Jaunpuri, inspired by Mann’s experiences at the Paris student revolt he shot a documentary about in 1968, got him the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1970, upon which he came back to the States and soon started working on television. Mann wrote several episodes of Starsky and Hutch, the pilot episode of Vega$, worked on Police Story with a former cop Joseph Wambaugh, and then in 1979 won an Emmy for The Jericho Mile, a television special that would have a great impact on his future career. It is exactly this film that led Mann to Thief, the project that would work as a stepping stone to the big stage. In technical terms, Thief really was Mann’s feature film debut, but it was made by a man all too familiar with the skill of high-quality storytelling. A neo-noir crime thriller set in Chicago, Thief tells 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 a family. Played by the nothing short of brilliant James Caan, Frank is one of those larger-than-life anti-heroes we immediately connect and sympathize with, but as numerous other films that came after Thief 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 leave his original plans in shambles. Based on a biographical novel called The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar published in 1975 by a real-life jewel thief John Seybold under the pen name of Frank Hohimer, Thief experienced a very warm welcome from the critics’ circles and resulted in a modest box-office success. Celebrated as one of the best films Mann ever made, it’s especially interesting from the film scholars’ perspective, as the film exhibits themes, style and preoccupations that would later become the filmmaker’s trademarks. At the time of its release, Thief was hailed by Roger Ebert as one of the most intelligent thrillers the great critic had seen.

As stated earlier, Mann’s 1979 TV drama The Jericho Mile greatly influenced the conception of Thief. During the making of The Jericho Mile, the story of a prison convict who finds sense and a will to live through running and potentially participating in the Olympics, Mann learned a lot about life behind bars. “It probably informed by the ability to imagine what Frank’s life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him”, Mann explained. “The idea of creating his character was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what you want with your life and how you go about getting it.” Mann saw this exclusion as the pivotal idea in the process of building the central character. During the decade spent in isolation, the protagonist developed his own idea of what his dream life would look like. When released, he started putting all the pieces together, but having been locked up for a large part of his youth, his process of forming a picture-perfect middle-class life he envisioned is hasty, mechanical, as though he’s merely creating a collage in some middle school art class. When he literally puts his chosen girl into his car and tells her his story, he says, “I am a straight arrow. I am a true blue kind of a guy. I’ve been cool. I am now unmarried. So let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit, and get on with this big romance.”

The screenplay was written by Mann himself, who claimed not to have used The Home Invaders novel as anything more than a starting point. However, the main characters and the story arc were admittedly inspired by Frank Hohimer’s memoir. Mann’s storytelling is impeccable, and the sheer attention to detail he invested into making Thief is astonishing. From the very opening scene, it’s clear Mann’s intention is to strive 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 instructed James Caan to do his homework as well. “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. Moreover, the tools used in Thief are real, with some drills weighing as much as 200 pounds. With this kind of dedication to detail, and sticking to a praise-worthy notion that the audience doesn’t need to be explained the complicated procedures in order to believe they are complicated, Mann achieved authenticity and there isn’t a single moment when the audience doubts Frank is as good at his job as the story presents him to be.

Thief marks the feature film debut not only of Mann, but of a good deal of the cast members as well: James Belushi, Dennis Farina, Robert Prosky and William Petersen all appear here for the first time. What’s especially good about Thief and its screenplay is the fact that supporting roles feel not as cardboard extras used for decoration and to keep the plot moving, but as real people whose life stories we become interested 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, lies mostly on Caan’s shoulders, and the now veteran actor recalled it was a very challenging part to play. More than a couple of decades after the film was made, Caan admitted his scene in the diner with Tuesday Weld, the actress playing his love interest, is his favorite scene of his entire career.

Shot by cinematographers Donald E. Thorin and Don Cahill, exhibiting characteristically Mann’s playful utilization of light and shade, with the unforgettable moody tunes of Tangerine Dream, Thief is a perfect thriller: neat, tense, completely believable and inhabited by full-blooded characters. “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,” stated Mann, as a response to people pointing out Thief’s abundance in images and motifs characteristic of his future work. “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.” As clear as it is that Thief might be seen as the original source that allowed Mann to demonstrate the modus operandi of his whole career, what makes this film a great one has nothing to do with the larger picture. Had Mann never made anything after 1981, he’d go down in history as a filmmaker who managed to deliver a perfect thriller.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Michael Mann’s screenplay for Thief [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“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.” —Michael Mann, The Study of Mann

 

JAMES CAAN ON ‘THIEF’

For his leading role in Michael Mann’s Thief, James Caan had a lot more to do than just embody perfect cool. His character, Frank, is an ex-con with a particular aptitude for breaking into hard-to-crack safes. Unbeknownst to the actor when he took on the part, this was a difficult skill that he would need to actually acquire for the film. In this excerpt from a new interview with Caan on the Criterion Collection special edition of the film, the star reveals the process by which he quickly mastered the art of the magnetic drill, and describes the catharsis he felt afterward.

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Well, kind of. I liked the picture Thief a lot. But it did pretty well. There’s always a couple that came out at the wrong time or were up against something. There’s a lot of nice little movies out there, like Cinderella Liberty, that for one reason or another didn’t take off. Like, Thief came out with The Omen or something stupid like that.

Thief was Michael Mann’s first film.
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

 
Omar Ahmed’s video essay on Michael Mann’s Thief.

 

MICHAEL MANN ON FILMMAKING

How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?

 
“The US one sheet for Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature Thief is an unusual design for its era. The colorful script title treatment is echt 80s of course, but the posterized monochrome portrait of James Caan overlaid over a photographic image of sparks from blowtorches (the titular character’s tool of choice) is something I haven’t seen before. It gives the poster an unusual three dimensional look, though at first glance those glowing goggles make it look more like a sci-fi film.” —Adrian Curry, Movie Poster of the Week: Michael Mann’s Thief

 

AN EVENING WITH MICHAEL MANN

Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and New York magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s Thief. Photographed by James Zenk © Mann/Caan Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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