"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, July 23, 2010


While working in television in the 1970s, Michael Mann met Chuck Adamson through a family friend, Nate Grossman, a Chicago Police detective that worked with future Mann regulars Adamson and Dennis Farina. At the time, Adamson was Head of Investigation for the Sheriff of Clark County in Las Vegas. Adamson subsequently introduced Mann to professional thieves John Santucci and W.R. (Bill) Brown (who plays Mitch in the film) in 1975. Santucci spent over eight years as a safecracker and had cleaned up his act after spending three years in prison. He was operating a successful pawn shop and jewelry store in Denver when Mann contacted him. Brown gained notoriety by reputedly stealing London’s Marlborough Diamond, a jewel worth 400,000 pounds back in 1980. The best thieves operated in independent crews working high-line jobs in the United States from the 1940s to the '70s. Most of them came out of Chicago, in particular, a neighborhood known as the Patch. Meeting these people would prove vital to creation on Mann’s next film, Thief (1981).

Thief is Mann’s feature film debut and one that lays out a thematic blueprint for his subsequent work to follow. Frank (James Caan) is an independent safe cracker who dreams of marrying his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and starting a family. To make this happen, he needs to take on some quick, big-time scores. Frank makes a Faustian pact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime boss and soon realizes that he is bound to serve the Mob for life and this so disgusts him that he takes extreme measures to assure that he never has to deal with them again.

The dialogueless opening sequence that has become the trademark of Mann’s films is established in Thief. Frank and his crew open a safe in meticulous detail and it becomes a study of what they do. One partner monitors a police band radio while another monitors the alarms. This sequence tells us a lot about Frank. He is very efficient, wastes no time and knows exactly what he wants, finds it, and then takes it. Thief also establishes Mann’s particular color scheme. Early on, he uses green and red to represent danger and death. As Frank and his partner Barry (James Belushi) leave the score there is a low angle shot of their getaway car on the rain-slicked streets of Chicago. The red of the traffic light is reflected beautifully on the wet streets and the car door with green light also reflected on the street hinting at the possibility of danger. They could get caught at any moment.

The purpose of the opening sequence is to establish the professionalism of Frank and his crew. He is only truly complete when he is working, which is true of all the protagonists in Mann’s films. What is also true is that they are all loners and Frank is no exception. After the job, there is a shot of him walking alone along a lake at dawn with the cityscape of Chicago in the background. Then, he comes across a man fishing and they strike up a conversation. The next shot is a quintessential Mann image that will appear again in Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). Frank, his back to the camera, looks out at the lake which represents his peace of mind and contentment. He has successfully pulled off a bank job and life is good but this will be the last time he will achieve that kind of inner and outer tranquility.

Frank meets his contact to unload the diamonds he stole and is asked if he wants to meet with someone for another potential job. This only serves to antagonize Frank who replies, “If I want to meet people I’ll go to a fucking country club.” He is fiercely independent and does not need anybody else. He likes to keep his life free of complications, right down to the plain suits he often wears. It is his uniform, as it is with Neil McCauley in Heat and Vincent in Collateral (2004). Mann introduces the things that mean the most to Frank: his girlfriend Jessie and his buddy, Okla (Willie Nelson), who is in prison. The character of Okla was based on Roger Touhy, an Irish-American mob boss who, after 25 years in prison, was murdered within four weeks of his release in 1959 by the Chicago Mob. All of Frank’s dreams and aspirations are encapsulated in a postcard-sized collage he keeps in his wallet. There are images of a luxury car, a nice house, babies, children, women, Okla, and, most interestingly, two columns of skulls. As he later tells Jessie this represents his desire to die in the outside world on his own terms and not in prison which is the worst thing he can imagine.

The first foreshadowing of the trouble to come is signified by the green glass in the background of the bar Frank owns. He calls Barry on the phone to find out that the exchange of the diamonds they stole for money did not happen. Their contact has been killed by a mobster named Attaglia (Tom Signorelli). Frank pays him a visit and he denies taking his money so Frank threatens him with a gun demonstrating that he is clearly not someone to cross. Of note, the walls of Attaglia’s place are white representing authority and conformity – the antithesis to Frank’s worldview. This is carried over in the next scene where Frank visits Okla in prison. He finds out that his friend is dying and will not last the ten months he has left on his sentence. The two men also talk about Jessie and Frank asks Okla if he should tell her what he really does for a living to which is friend replies, “Lie to no one. If there’s somebody close to ya, you’re gonna ruin it with a lie. If they’re a stranger who the fuck are they you’re gonna lie to.” Frank looks up to Okla as a mentor, a father figure who dispenses sage advice.

When Frank meets a local mobster by the name of Leo to get his money it is a similar set-up to the Van Zant meeting in Heat only on a smaller scale. Both Frank and Neil have one of their crew hiding out in a sniper position in case things go bad. Leo tries to entice Frank to come work for him but he is not interested. Frank tells him, “I am self-employed. I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos. I am Joe the boss of my own body so what the fuck do I have to work for you for?” Leo offers him a very attractive deal: big scores, minimum risk, protection from the cops, and only diamonds or cash jobs. On the surface, Leo appears to agree to a limited partnership of two or three jobs but alarm bells should be going off in Frank’s head when the crime boss says that he will be his new father. That is Okla’s role. As with what happens to Neil in Heat, Frank is blinded by his desire to realize his dream of a family and he makes a decision that he would not normally do, one that goes against his personal code. It is this betrayal of his beliefs that will cause his downfall.

The centerpiece of Thief, as it is in Heat and The Insider, is a conversation between two characters in which they espouse their worldviews to each other. This is a chance for Frank and Jessie to come clean with each other, she tells him about her past and the bad relationships she has been in. She also hints at an involvement in drug trafficking but all of this is behind her now. “My life is very ordinary, very boring which is good because it’s solid.” She is tough, honest and Frank’s equal. She does not put up with any of his nonsense and is one of the strongest female protagonists in Mann’s films despite her limited screen time.

Frank then tells her about his stint in prison and the mentality he adopted in order to survive. “You’ve got to forget time. You’ve not got to give a fuck if you live or die. You got to get where nothing means nothing.” He recounts a story in prison where he endured a severe beating from a powerful gang leader but the man died as a result of messing with Frank. Once out of the prison hospital he expected to be killed in retaliation, “’Cause I don’t mean nothing to myself. I don’t care about me, I don’t care about nothing. I know from that day that I survive because I achieved that mental attitude.” These lines are crucial to what Frank does later on in the film in order to survive.

Frank shows her his postcard and how it represents his dream and the passage of time. He tells Jessie, “I have run out of time. I have lost it all. And so I can’t work fast enough. And I can’t run fast enough. And the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act. But it ends.” Being in prison took ten years of his life away. He has little time to realize his dreams and this affects his decision about Leo. Hooking up with Leo will allow Frank to realize his dreams much faster and, at first, it does. The mobster gets him bigger scores; he helps Frank adopt a baby when he and Jessie cannot get one through legal means; and the money Frank makes allows him to buy a big home in the suburbs and pay off a judge to release Okla early from prison. However, making a deal with Leo is akin to making a deal with the Devil. It seems good initially but comes with a horrible price.

Okla gets out of prison only to die in a hospital. Afterwards, Frank and Jessie eat at a Chinese restaurant and through the color scheme, Mann foreshadows the bad things to come with the deep red of the seats and in the background of the scene are green glass and walls. Sure enough, Frank is roughed up by corrupt cops because he will not pay them off. However, Mann offers a brief glimmer of happiness for Frank and his crew. After they successfully pull off a complex safe-cracking job in California, we see Frank, Barry and their families cavorting in the ocean. As is customary in all Mann films, water symbolizes safety but it will be short-lived.

Things get worse when Leo does not deliver all the money for the California score as promised because he thought that Frank would change his mind and work with him for the long haul. For the safe-cracker it is strictly a short-term gig and this causes friction between the two men. Leo resents Frank’s attitude and thinks that he should be grateful for all of the things that he has provided. So, Leo punishes Frank by beating and then killing Barry on Frank’s car lot and capturing the thief. Leo tells him to do what he is told because in effect he owns Frank and his family and he will work for the mob until he is burnt out or dead.

Frank’s only way out is to revert to his prison mentality where life means nothing for that is the only way he knows how to survive. So, he cuts himself off from everything. He sends Jessie and their child away in a cold, calculated way because he has now become dead inside – his face an impenetrable mask. Frank then blows up his home, his car dealership and the bar he owns because it has all been tainted by Leo like some kind of cancer. By destroying it all, Frank is systematically removing the virus. Before he sets out to punish Leo, Frank crumples up his postcard of dreams and throws it away. Symbolically, this represents his last shred of humanity and now he is free to perform a task that may be his last. He no longer cares if he lives or dies. Finally, Frank goes to Leo’s house and systematically kills the mobster and all of his men with a final shoot-out on Leo’s front lawn. Mann shot the climactic shoot-out at different camera speeds to create a staccato effect that he would use again in the climactic shoot-out in Manhunter. The final image of the film is Frank walking off into the night, his mission complete. He is back to square one with nothing but at least he is free.

Mann was working on the screenplay for what would become Thief, which was in fact based on the book The Home Invaders: Confessions of Cat Burglar by real-life thief, Frank Hohimer. Mann needed someone to provide him with inside details on safecracking. He was so impressed by Santucci's knowledge that he not only hired him as a technical adviser on the film, cast him in a small part as a corrupt police sergeant, but also based a significant portion of Thief on Santucci's experiences. Mann used his connections with members of the Chicago Police Department to gain access to real thieves. One man, John Bardolino, stole over $10 million in jewels, cash, rare coins, and precious metals over his career.

James Caan agreed to do Thief based on the writing of a nine-minute conversation between Frank and Jessie in a restaurant where he tells her his personal philosophy about life. Caan spent four weeks before shooting hanging around many Chicago thieves but spent most of his time with Santucci and even used most of the man's tools in the film. The actor learned how to drill through a safe and performed all the safecracking in the film himself. He was also trained to handle a gun like a professional and trained on his tools until everything became second nature.

In keeping with his documentary roots and his continuing quest for realism, Mann cast real cops and criminals in minor roles. When he began casting real life cops in his film, Chuck Adamson recommended Dennis Farina. Adamson remembers that “Michael was looking for a couple of rough, ugly guys to play henchmen and I was like, ‘I got just the guy.’ I called Dennis and said, ‘You gotta get down here.’” Farina was a detective on the local police force but was interested in acting on the side. Mann cast him in a small role near the end of the film.

Thief is perhaps the most pure and essential variation on Mann’s themes. Frank’s entire reason for existence is to create a family with Jessie. That idea was the only thing that got him through his tough stint in prison. He carries around with him a homemade postcard that is a collage of the things that are important to him. For Frank it is a physical, tangible reminder of his goals. As with all Mann protagonists, he works with single-minded determination to achieve what he wants. There is a kind of desperation to his actions; however, the deeper Frank gets in with the Mob and the tighter he tries to hold on to what is near and dear to him, the more his dream begins to slip away. The ideal of family togetherness is ultimately unattainable for Frank and so he reverts to his prison mentality where nothing matters.

While Mann was shooting Thief, he gave editor Dov Hoenig several tapes of music by German group Tangerine Dream to use as temporary cues for the film. By the time he assembled the first cut, Hoenig had produced almost a complete score based on the band’s cues with the occasional guitar piece by David Gilmour. Tangerine Dream agreed to score the film and when they arrived in the United States, Mann showed them a cut without telling them that he had used their music to score it. They were happily surprised and their final score was quite close to the temp soundtrack. Mann worked closely with the band, restructuring cues, asking for specific instrumental combinations and changing the original mixes in order to achieve a certain emotional effect.

Thief received a mixed reaction from critics of the day. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out four and wrote, “Every important performance in this movie successfully creates a plausible person, instead of the stock-company supporting characters we might have expected. And the film moves at a taut pace, creating tension and anxiety through very effective photography and a wound-up, pulsing score by Tangerine Dream.” In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel called the action sequences that came at the end of the film, ‘flashy but, empty exercises, pseudotragic searchings for a big finish. They make one tired and edgy—and dissipate the promise that has energized much of Thief.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie is loaded with so-called production values. This neonlit, nighttime Chicago is pretty enough to be framed and hung on a wall, where, of course, good movies don’t belong ... The music by Tangerine Dream sounds as if it wanted to have a life of its own, as if it were meant to be an album instead of a soundtrack score.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Mann’s compressed, profane, associative dialogue – a hyperized, stylized and poeticized stream of semi-consciousness – is integrated expertly into the High Tech of Tangerine Dream, despite the handful of lines that run awry.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Caan’s performance seems dubious in direct proportion to his attempts to sound spontaneous. There’s a studied undercurrent in his would-be casual or aggressive behavior.” He also wrote, “Tuesday Weld’s leading lady ... suggests that Mann hasn’t a clue to the thought or behavior of women. Her role is painfully arbitrary and artificial.”

Caan found the role a hard one to play because his character was not "emotionally available." This existential outlook on life bled into the actor's real life. “For three months, I was a lunatic, I had migraines 24 hours a day, I lost about 20 pounds. And then when I looked at the movie, I couldn't stand it. My eyes were like two pieces of glass. They scared me. I said, ‘That guy's a killer.’” Caan faced the same problem that William Petersen would go on to face in Manhunter. Both actors delved so deeply and intensely into their dark, brooding characters that they had a tough time letting go of the character after filming had ended. But the end results certainly speak for themselves as Thief announced Mann as an up-and-coming talent to watch who had a real understanding and knack for depicting criminal types in a gritty, urban environment.


  1. Great stuff JD. This is still in my top five Mann films and I think it is one of the truly great debut films. Also, Tangerine Dream's score is among my favorites. I never tire of listening to it and suspect I have nearly run down the grooves on my old vinyl copy.
    Reading those critics quotes reminds me of how truly clueless many of them are when it come to great films...that Canby quote in particular makes me want to strangle something.

  2. Great review of one magnificent debut film by Michael Mann, J.D.! I love the details you bring out here, my friend. Like Jeremy R. said, "Great stuff". The DVD of THIEF also has an appreciable commentary track with Michael Mann and James Caan (IIRC, done around the time of his filming his acclaimed L.A. crime saga, HEAT). One great film (and review) for the weekend! Thanks for this, J.D.

  3. I still think this is Mann's best work. Tuesday Weld is one of the most underrated actresses who never got that big "break out" role.

  4. I have no clue being a Michael Mann and James Caan fan I've never seen this film. I've gotta change that.

  5. Jeremy Richey:

    Yeah, I love this film too and the TD soundtrack which suits the film's sleek imagery to a T.

    And yeah, those critical quotes made me laugh with how out of touch they were with the merits of this film. I was never a fan of Canby's reviews, either.


    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I also enjoyed the relaxed commentary on the DVD between Mann and Caan. I wish Mann would do more commentaries with actors from his films. You can tell that these guys are friends by the way they talk to each other.


    I agree with you about Weld. I recently finally saw PRETTY POISON and loved her in it! Amazing performance. She is underrated.


    Ah, Keith you gotta check this film out. You will love it.

  6. Fantastic writeup of what is undoubtedly my favorite Mann. That's a great quote by Caan about the emotional toll, and it's a sincerely dangerous, dangerously sincere performance.

    And the Tangerine Dream score is terrific. To compare what are likely by two favorite heist scenes outside of a Melville pic: the wordless and nearly completely silent RIFIFI caper and the wordless but pulsating crescendo of Tangerine Dream in THIEF's 'Diamond Diary' sequence- one could think that love for each scene might be mutually exclusive, but I adore the both of them. Though they're both 'wordless heist scenes,' Dassin and Mann have such disparate (and yet so similar in terms of overall adrenaline rushe and attention to detail) sensibilities of suspense, editing, and how to fuse sound and image; yet each is equally stylized and ultimately valid. A great film.

  7. Great stuff JD and I can only agree that it is an awesome film,one of my very favorite in Mann's career!
    I was glad to catch a theatrical screening of this last year and it really rocks on the big screen,THIEF surely deserves a better edition on dvd and better,on Blu Ray!
    Great performance from James Caan too.

    "The final image of the film is Frank walking off into the night, his mission complete. He is back to square one with nothing but at least he is free."

    I love the final image,so desperate and bitter,an "happy end" which is not really an happy end,like in most Mann's films (the endings of "Heat","Collateral","Miami Vice"...)

  8. Sean Gill:

    Thank you for the compliments!

    Yeah, I love that Caan totally put himself out there for the film and I think that Mann really fosters that kind of commitment because he himself is completely immersed and invested in the material.

    Nice comparison to RIFIFI and you're right on the money with those observations. I also think that Mann was inspired by Melville's LE SAMOURAI as well.


    Thanks for stopping by!

    You are so lucky to be able to see this film on the big screen. I would love to have that opportunity.

    You are so right about the film's ending which is triumphant but also very bittersweet. Frank has beaten the Mob but at what cost? Now he has to rebuild his life all over again but at least he is free, which is of paramount importance to Mann protagonists, I think.

  9. Once again a solid write-up. I've always been a fan of James Caan's work, but he always seems to fly under the radar. I always sort of enjoy him when he shows up. This sounds like one of those films. Cheers.

  10. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I really dig Caan as well. I just recently watched FREEBIE & THE BEAN, an action comedy he did with Alan Arkin that is a real gem of a film!

  11. This is a rare thriller film that has a lot of character development and also retains a fast pace throughout. From the great performances to the breathtaking score by Tangerine Dream, this is a film that is full of Mann trademarks from start to finish.

  12. Free Movie:

    I couldn't agree more! TD's soundtrack is incredible - maybe my fave of theirs.