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.
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.
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.
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.