Frank: You are making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat. But that is okay, because I elected to make that deal. But now, the deal is over. I want my end, and I am out.
Leo: Why don't you join a labor union?
Frank: I am wearing it.
Continuing my fascination for all things Michael Mann, here we have the director’s debut feature film, after achieving success with made-for-tv The Jericho Mile. James Caan, as professional thief Frank, has said this is his favourite role of his career. More like Heat than Miami Vice, from the side of the criminal. Film does feature cops, but they are shakedown artists. Depicted realistically, Mann doesn’t pull any punches in letting us know that absolutely everybody is out for themselves. The cops know that Caan and his crew are operating big, and they want a piece of the action. They can’t be seen to condone, so they extort, allowing professional criminals like Frank to continue their illegal activities in exchange for a cut. The success that Frank's crew achieve not only attracts attention from the law but also the Mob. They want in. Do a job for us, we’ll provide back up, cars, expenses, equipment. Frank has been working well with his team for years. He doesn’t need any help and vows to never go back to jail. It’s a tempting offer and he reluctantly agrees – to one job only. The mob however, has other plans.
As usual, the film has the director’s mark all over it. A very assured debut, Mann was only 30 years old when this was made. Complicated, technically proficient, authentic – its clear Mann did his homework and I wouldn’t be surprised if he spoke to the criminal fraternity in order to research these characters, showing an intelligent and insight beyond his years, and setting the standard for the rest of his career. Caan is fantastic, you truly believe him as a heist man. The scene where he explains his cynical world view to his on/off girlfriend (played by Tuesday weld – Once Upon a Time in America) is quite poignant. Stunning performance from the late Robert Prosky as Leo, the low-level mob boss who initially approaches Frank. Thief was Prosky’s feature film debut as well, coming from a theatre background, much like John Vernon in Point Blank.
Frank is true to his word, but tragedy befalls him as soon as he tries to quit the mob link. In a truly intense scene, Leo delivers a terrifying monologue to Frank, torturing him, explaining to him how its going to be. Frank is told that he can never leave, that everything Leo has given him will be taken away and destroyed. Never has a spoken threat seemed more real on film. To Frank, that means his family, and he can not let that happen.
Thief features an early role for James Belushi, as Frank’s right hand man, and folksinger Willie Nelson appears briefly as his terminally ill jailbird buddy Okla. Frank’s love and respect for Okla epitomises his character and beliefs. Also look for a bushy-haired Dennis Farina (Midnight Run, Get Shorty, Snatch) as a mob henchman. Interestingly Farina was still a policeman at the time of filming. It’s easy to see from this debut that Mann has always had his own unique style. Add to this a great central performance from Caan, a scary turn from Prosky and perfectly chosen minimal electro score from Tangerine Dream, and the tone is set. Tangerine Dream would seem a strange choice at first, but they add a haunting element, bringing cool and credibility in much the same way as they did with Risky Business.
Fans of Mann’s later work should check this one immediately. When I saw it I kicked myself for not having seen it before. Realistic heist scenes and authentic dialogue convinces, like Heat does, that Mann’s protagonists have lived the criminal life. If you like crime movies in general, go out and buy this one now. I promise you will not be disappointed.