The Art of Cracking a Safe


While the rest of us were eating hot dogs in puff pastry, popping champagne corks, or wearing goofy 2017 sunglasses, two intrepid thieves hammered their way into a diamond merchant’s digs on 36th street in Manhattan, blocks away from phalanxes of NYPD officers, and opened two safes, cleaning them out of $6 million in merchandise:

“a team of burglars broke into a jeweler’s office on West 36th Street on New Year’s Eve. The crime was widely reported for its scope — the thieves made off with $6 million in diamonds and other gems — and its brazen timing, occurring as the ball dropped six blocks away in a neighborhood teeming with police officers. Surveillance video showing two people hitting a sixth-floor door with hammers was taken immediately after midnight, the police said, when the sound of cheers would have most likely drowned out any banging.”

I love a good safe cracker story. After reading Agatha Christie Ms. Marple novels on my English teacher’s spinner rack, my introduction to crime fiction was Michael Mann’s movie THIEF, starring James Caan as a professional burglar dueling with the mob. Loosely based on criminal Jean Seybold’s (pseud. Frank Hohimer) memoir The Home Invaders, it is rough and flashy like an uncut diamond. The book is much different. Mostly they broke into rich homes and stuck a gun in people’s face. It all fell apart when a Senator’s daughter was the victim and was assaulted. So don’t buy the honor among thieves line. (Save that for Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s bookstore-owning burglar.)


There’s many ways to open a safe. Nitroglycerin, drills, sledgehammers. In THIEF, James Caan’s Frank famously cuts open a bank vault with a thermal lance. Our daring safe crackers, according to this fine article by the NY Times’s crime beat reporter Michael Wilson, did not force their way into the safes. Investigators think they got the combinations from the installer (or that’s what they’re telling the press). Another theory, mine, is that they just cracked the safes. This isn’t something every Joe can do, but check out fellow Jersey boy Jeff Sitar. Here he is, cracking a bank vault in five minutes:


Jeff is the best public figure who cracks safes. He offers his skills to people who have lost their combinations, with proper documentation. But how many can do what he does, or close to it, who have chosen a different career path?

It makes one wonder, and appeals to the desire for “hidden knowledge” that drives much of my favorite crime fiction: where we get a tour into the dangerous outlaw world from the cozy confines of our safe European homes. If you like books about safecrackers, I can recommend two of my favorites: The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and Young Americans, by Josh Stallings. Two short, great reads.

Do you have a favorite novel about a safe cracker? Share it below!


Criminal Element

My comparison of Michael Mann and William Friedkin, and details on their battle for the heart of the gritty crime film in the ’80s, is up at Criminal Element.

Two of my favorite films: To Live and Die in L.A. and Thief, compared and dissected for your obsessive internet reading pleasure.


Friedkin vs. Mann in the 80’s

It looks like William Friedkin and Michael Mann had a little tiff in the ’80s. After the gritty crime thriller The French Connection, Friedkin made an aimless remake of Wages of Fear called Sorcerer, the daring but squirm-inducing flick Cruising, where Pacino goes undercover in the gay BDSM scene, and then the disastrous arms dealer comedy The Deal of the Century. He needed something to get him back in his element, and ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Petievich’s thrilling novel Money Men was just the ticket. Retitled as To Live and Die in L.A., which would be incredibly apt once viewed, he made an ’80s crime classic that may not top the tale of Popeye Doyle, but it comes close, and gives us one of cinema’s unforgettable car chases.
Michael Mann was elbow deep in “Miami Vice” while this was made, and actually tried to sue Friedkin for plagiarism over this film; the script differs greatly from the novel and the colorful style is certainly influenced by the popular TV series. He lost, but he got his revenge by beating Friedkin out for the right to direct Thomas Harris’s excellent serial killer novel Red Dragon, which became Manhunter. William Petersen would get his start as a bartender in Mann’s debut, Thief (full review) and then as Chance in To Live and Die in L.A.; Mann got him back for Will Graham in Manhunter, which is perhaps his best role. Now he’s a star of “CSI,” but he had a great start with a pair of the best crime thrillers of the ’80s.

L.A. begins much like Thief, showing us the details of counterfeiting as a paper man named Masters (Willem Dafoe) makes counterfeit plates and then bills from them. He’s working out in the desert and before he can destroy all his evidence, he finds a Secret Service man digging through his dumpster and executes him brutally. Shotguns to the face. Later when the man’s partner- Chance- follows his leads, they find the body in the dumpster. He wants revenge, of course; Masters has evaded the law for years, operates boldly in plain sight, and is a high profile target. Drives a black Ferrari and flaunts his money and flouts the law. He’s a walking middle finger to the Secret Service. Willem Dafoe has always played an excellent villain and this is no exception. Chance gets partnered with the more straight-laced Vukovich (John Pankow), and as the saying goes, all it takes is one bad apple.

“Let me tell you something, amigo. I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it.”
Chance, however, is a man who’ll do anything for his job. He’s sleeping with an informant; he takes an informer (John Turturro) out of prison to lean on him, and loses him.When his boss won’t get them $30,000 in front money to put a sting on Masters, he decides to rob another crook to get it. And when he does, all hell breaks loose- leading to a chase that begins in a truck and warehouse district full of forklifts, goes alongside a diesel train, into the concrete culverts of the L.A. River, and finally, and infamously, the wrong way down a freeway. They get their money. And the next day, they find out they hit an undercover FBI Agent. Oops.
Friedkin took a lot of pages from Mann’s playbook for this movie. He used contemporary rock band Wang Chung for the soundtrack, which suits the film and era well. The song “Dance Hall Days” originates here. He used real counterfeiters as consultants, and the actors were concerned they’d be arrested once the opening scene was made public. Author Gerry Petievich has a cameo as an agent, and the film lusts over the mechanics of the criminal enterprise. Willem Dafoe’s characterization of Masters resembles a Mann protagonist like James Caan in Thief, or Neil Cauley in Heat; a man driven by perfection of his work, with rigid codes. Except Friedkin leaves things too vague with his characters. Perhaps as residue from Cruising, people are owned by other people; Masters gifts a girl named Serena to his consort, Bianca; Chance may be sleeping with his informant Ruthie, but there is no love. The relationship is purely one of power; she informs, sleeps with him, and can operate without interference from the law. When Vukovich assumes the role of Chance, he tells her that he’s essentially her new owner. “You’re working for me, now.”
John Pankow’s performance as Vukovich is oft overlooked, but I found it more interesting than Petersen’s emotional live wire as Chance. Oh, he’s well played and very memorable, it’s just a character type we’ve seen before- in both Friedkin and Mann’s films. He brings great energy to it, and we never know just how far he’ll go. For example, Vincent Hanna (Pacino) in Heat is bombastic, but we know he won’t break the law to get Cauley. Bend it, sure. Ignore his family, definitely. Chance, on the other hand, is capable of anything, and they don’t try to sugar coat it or make him likeable. Vukovich is what grounds us. He freaks out. He’s panicking in the back seat as Chance barrels the wrong way down the freeway, looking like a jonesing cokehead racing toward his man. We get to see him worn down both by the invincibility of the criminal targets and Chance’s disregard for the rules, as he slowly sees what made his new partner that way.

Pankow has an innocence to him, but by the end, he’s had it burned out of him. And we know why. We’ve gone through hell with him, and can accept how he’s changed. That’s something I haven’t seen in a Mann film. His men are unwavering, and often die for it. I’ve always felt that Mann’s world was a noir fantasy. As much as I love his films, they are essentially Westerns modernized and given a biting film noir edge. We have the lone killer, the hero with his code, which can be his salvation or his undoing. Friedkin, on the other hand, makes tragic heroes out of his driven men. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, instead of behind cold eyes. Friedkin’s films have a dirty reality behind them that makes them interesting vicarious interludes, but you wouldn’t want to live there; Mann brings such style and glamour to his tales that we like to think we could swim along his sharks, when we’d be cut to pieces. They are quite alike and quite different, and two of my favorite film makers.

Public Enemies

Warning: Mild Spoilers ahead. Because the story is rather well-known, I will be a little free with facts here. If you don’t know how Dillinger’s story ends, you might not want to read this yet.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies delivers a strong character drama that further romanticizes the myth of John Dillinger, but doesn’t live up to the reputation of either the bank robber or the director, who’s given us much better films such as Heat and Thief. The story of Dillinger and his pursuer Melvin Purvis is gritty and gripping, but lacks emotional punch and thematic consistence. And in the end, both men remain a mystery. I found the same problem with Miami Vice, which drops us in to the lives of undercover cops and takes a long time before making us care about them. So we have a good film, but not a great one. Like with Ali, he faces the familiar question of ‘how do you make a story everyone knows compelling?’
Mann went to extraordinary lengths to use the real locations for the scenes they re-enact. The Biograph Theater. The Ohio prison that they restored, for Dillinger’s infamous breakout. And the shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge, filmed at the original lodges still pockmarked with bullet holes from the original battle. This does give the film an unmistakable aura of authenticity, coupled with the excellent performances by Depp, Bale, Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, and even Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. The script plays around a little with order of events and minor details, but is mostly true to form. But what it chooses to concentrate on seemed to interest Michael Mann more than myself.

Purvis and Hoover- hints at a great story.

Which was odd. I’m a sucker for a gritty crime film and authenticity can substitute for substance for me; maybe that’s why I like Thief (full review) so much. But consider the emotional power in that film’s diner scene, or when James Caan is berating the woman at the adoption agency. Reflect on Heat, with Pacino’s bombastic explosions constrasted with his quiet face-off with DeNiro in … a diner. Depp and Purvis meet early in the film, when Dillinger is locked up in an Ohio jail, but we get little interplay except that we have two Mann heroes- driven men, whose work defines them, clashing once again.
What little emotional power the film has centers around Billie Frechette, a coatcheck girl that Dillinger fancies, and takes along with him on his 18 month crime spree. They meet; he wins her over with the line, “I like baseball, fast cars, nice clothes, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?” and next thing you know they’re at a Miami horse race. Bonnie and Clyde (full review) it’s not. Later, when she is captured by the FBI- who have taken to brutal tactics at the urging of Director Hoover, who needs a high profile bust to get the Congressional funding he wants- we are relived at Purvis’s moral authority as he intervenes during her interrogation. However, he’s let off the hook for the civilian slaughter at the botched Little Bohemia raid, which like the famous bank heist shootout in Heat, gives the end of the second act a much-needed shot of adrenaline.

Marion Cotillard, exuding class and beauty as always

The script tries to make Dillinger and Frechette’s relationship into a tragic romnance, but here it veers from its Bible of authenticity to give us an emotional handhold, and we can feel its fakery. Dillinger was not a romantic, and his desire to live fast and not think about the future precluded love stories; he was with a prostitute shortly after Billie’s capture. The poetic license doesn’t end there; Baby Face Nelson, properly portrayed as the psychotic loose cannon he was, met a much less dramatic end in reality. The FBI led by Purvis gets a surprisingly improved portrayal, even though Mann takes pains to compare Hoover’s demands for results leading to the torture of wounded suspects and their molls. Illegal wiretapping is constantly on view, in the tangled switchboard operator dens. Perhaps the title Public Enemies doesn’t just refer to Dillinger, but also to Hoover? Mann is quite subtle with this, but teases us with a much more interesting subtext.
But in the end, we’re denied. Purvis’s story, the South Carolina lawman who brought in Texas police with gunfight cred to put the final nail in the coffin of Depression-Era flashy bankrobbers, is just as interesting as Dillinger’s, but it gets short shrift. Purvis’s tragic end is given a mere epitaph before the credits, but I wanted to see more of his internal battle with Hoover. Bale plays the film with laconic moral authority, from the opening scene that shows him as a hunter of men, as he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd with a sporting rifle. Depp’s performance captures the essence of Dillinger with that sly grin, cold eyes, and snappy movements. He was called “the Jackrabbit” for his agile movements in robberies, and Depp leaps over counters with ease. You can’t fault the performances in this movie. In fact, lookout for character actor Stephen Lang to make a big splash in Cameron’s Avatar; he steals a lot of scenes as Agent Winstead here. He’s best known for playing Sherman in Gettysburg but damn if he doesn’t remind you of late-career Sterling Hayden and a bit of Lee Marvin.

Stephen Lang flanked by two lawmen

Perhaps the story lies on the cutting room floor. We also get a small subplot about the Chicago mob, led by Frank Nitti, who’ve taken to bookmaking and illegal gambling and given up the wild street shootouts now that Prohibition is long gone. To them, Dillinger and his ilk are heat they don’t need, and they make it clear. Sure, it’s an interesting footnote to history, but it fits better in a movie like The Godfather than here. In the end, we get a solid drama but one that leaves much of the mystery intact. Dillinger spent ten years in prison after pleading guilty to a grocery store robbery after he couldn’t find a job in ’29; the long sentence soured him against society. That’s left completely unexplored. But I must admit that for two and a half hours, Mann had me riveted with his stunning cinematography, sharply directed action scenes that never confuse, and excellent performances from his cast (I’d also like to thank Mr. Mann for NOT using desaturated colors and going digital. Hollywood- people still saw in full color in oldtimey days). Perhaps I’ll glean more from future viewings. Perhaps.
I’d like to thank my pal Ian Fisher for details on Dillinger, and for recommending the Lawrence Tierney film from 1945, which I plan on watching soon. That, the John Milius film with Warren Oates as Dillinger, and the movie he & the Lady in Red saw at the Biograph, Manhattan Melodrama, are the next 3 films in my Netflix Queue. Watch for a comparison of the three coming soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5 tommyguns

Michael "the" Mann – Thief

This is part of the Michael Mann blogathon being held at J.D.’s excellent Radiator Heaven movie blog, in anticipation for the upcoming film Public Enemies.

“I am the last guy in the world that you wanna fuck with.”

The first movie by Michael Mann that I watched was Thief, starring James Caan. I was young and unsure of why I liked it; it’s grittiness, the technical aspect of the safe-cracking and high-end burglaries. The spellbinding soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The complete lack of spoon-feeding or pandering to the audience.

The film opens with a man in listening to a police scanner in a parked car, while another in a jumpsuit hoists a huge drill to a safe and begins opening it. As the bit screws through the metal and reveals the workings inside, the camera zips in, and we watch the gears smashed to bits with a chisel. The cracker is masked with goggles, working diligently. He speaks to his quiet compatriots in quick staccato questions, utter minimalism. Another man works a bevy of volt meters on the security system. Quickly, diamonds are looted, they leave the scene with such precision that calling it “military” would seem insulting, and drive off in separate cars into the rain-puddled night streets.
With barely a word spoken, Mann has already gripped us. Audiences have always loved seeing criminals pull off a heist, and no frills are needed. With characteristic laconic style we’re introduced to Frank the jewel thief’s “normal life,” owner of a car dealership. The perfect job for a criminal who sees civilians, those outside “the life,” as marks and suckers. The entirety of the film is set in this shadow world, one we love to flirt with in the movies. And Mann, like Scorsese would in Goodfellas, perfectly portrays a world of villains who want to cobble together a life that mimics our boring suburban existence, while we go to movies to take a trip into theirs.

The film is partly based on the book The Home Invaders: The Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Chicago jewel thief Frank Hohimer. “Frank” was the pen name of real-life crook Jean Seybold, who served as a consultant on the set along with John Santucci, another thief who also played the crooked cop Urizzi. The book is set mostly in the ’50s and ’60s, so the movie modernized the criminal techniques, and changed Frank’s modus operandi; instead of a home invader stealing rich women’s jewelry collections, he seems to strike jewel distribution houses. This was a wise choice, for it anonymizes the victim and makes it easier for us to like Frank. In the book, he was often holding homeowners at gunpoint for the safe combinations, and the author was long suspected of taking part in the murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of an Illinois Senator. Not quite as glamorous. But the best parts of the book make it to the screen.
Their fence gets whacked by the mob before they get paid; this and continual police harassment by crooked cops wanting a bite of the take lead Frank to consider mobbing up with crime boss Leo, played by Robert Prosky. Like the real crime boss Leo Rugendorf, he doesn’t look the part, but is a ruthless autocrat who uses people up and throws them away when he’s done with them. Frank doesn’t want to join, because he cares about nothing, and that makes him impossible to pressure or hurt. But soon, he will.
Michael Mann’s films often figure on men with a personal code of ethics that leads to their downfall, and Thief is no different. Frank feels a great personal debt to his mentor Okie, based on a real jewel thief who taught Seybold the ropes in prison. He also wants to get back with his estranged girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and have children. His feelings for them lead him to break his stringent code of working freelance. Okie is played by Willie Nelson; Mann continues to use musicians in small roles, and this is one of the best. Okie urges Frank to tell Jessie about his real profession. Lifted right from the book, he tells him “Lie to no one. If there ‘s somebody close to you, you’ll ruin it with a lie. If they’re a stranger, who the fuck are they you gotta lie to them?”
Okie is dying, and wants to spend one day on the outside; it’s Frank’s desire to pay back his mentor, and save a child lost in the juvie system like he was, that leads him to join Leo’s crew. In the diner scene with Weld, we learn everything we need to know about Frank. Caan is known for his anger in the Godfather, but his vulnerability in this scene is palpable. It sets the tone for the film’s grand ending. He explains that you can only be fearless when you care about nothing. This would later transform into Neil McCauley’s more Zen-like “when the heat’s around the corner” ethos in the epic Heat. DeNiro would also take his Yojimbo-like simplicity of action and clear speech from Frank. His desire for a normal life. Frank’s a tough as nails man; we’ve seen him stare down mobsters and pull his .45, but his weakness, his desire to have a family with his wife cuts through all that, and makes him seem almost like a young boy.
As he plans the job for Leo, he begins to reap the benefits. A new house. Strings pulled to get his mentor Okla released due to his age and health. A baby adopted, despite his 10 year conviction. Frank’s background as a juvenile delinquent makes him yearn to save an orphaned child from the same fate. He says, “I was state raised! You see 8 by 4 green walls long enough, you tell ’em “my life is yours!” Reminiscent of Andrew Vachss‘s Burke character, Caan embodies the hard-edged, serious ex-con who values every second of his time outside prison. Caan explains in the DVD commentary, “I don’t use a single contraction in the entire film.” This makes Frank feel like a man who doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean to the core of his being. “If you don’t use contractions, you are less likely to be misunderstood. You never have to repeat yourself.”

It was filmed in Mann’s hometown of Chicago and laden with its locations and jazz; many of the best jewel snatching crews of the time came from Chicago, specifically the Smith Park neighborhood called “the Patch.” He used his connections to consult with real professional thieves and Chicago police; Dennis Farina was ex-Chicago PD, and though he barely says a word- something bizarre to imagine, for an actor who’d become so memorable for his outbursts- his presence helps add gritty realism to Mann’s style. For example the attention to detail with the firearms- Frank uses an expensive custom long slide .45; Dennis Farina carries a rare HiStandard bullpup semi-auto shotgun, which really can fire as fast as it does. It’s not quick cuts of a single shot, it’s all 5 shells when he teaches Frank a lesson. James Caan was sent to Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite Ranch for two days to go through combat pistol training; you can see it in his rigid isosceles shooting stance.
The centerpiece of the film is the West Coast heist, based on a real job pulled by consultant Joe Santucci. The planning takes weeks, beginning with procuring the “oxy lance” that will be used to cut a door in the front of the custom built safe. All the tools are real, and the first safe we see Caan crack was purchased for him to make his bones on. Even when they pull the cylinder out of a door lock, you can recognize the buster they use, if you’ve ever needed a locksmith. The oxygen lance is real as well, requiring fire extinguishing foam all over the set to keep the sparks from igniting everything. We get a welder’s mask view of the door melting under its 6,000 degree barrage. It’s oddly beautiful, a sparkle shower of diamonds, like the loot inside.
Santucci also plays Sgt. Urizzi, one of the crooked cops who shakes Frank down with a relish that only someone who’s been on the other side of such a conversation can have. He’s the guy Frank continually taunts, mistaking his Italian heritage for Puerto Rican.

You’re a stand-up guy. You’re a real stand-up guy. You got a mouth, you can take a trimming. You could make things easy for everybody. But no. You gotta be a goof. You’re real good. No violence. Strictly professional. I’d probably like you. I’d like to go to the track, ball games. Stuff like that, you know? Frank, there’s ways of doing things that round off the corners, make life easy for everybody. What’s wrong with that? There’s plenty to go around. We know what you take down. We know you got something major coming down soon. But no, you gotta come on like a stiff prick. Who the fuck do you think you are? What’s the matter with you? You got something to say or are you waiting for me to ask you to dance?

Even James Belushi is good here, lacking his later smart-ass demeanor and sneer, playing it very cool. Then again, the comic actor is surrounded by tough guys- ex-cons and ex-cops, and James Caan in a role that makes his iconic appearance as Sonny in The Godfather seem warm and inviting. It was Belushi’s first film, and the debuts of William Petersen, Dennis Farina, John Kapelos, and Robert Prosky; Farina would return in Mann’s “Crime Story” TV series that made his career, and opened the door for “Miami Vice;” William Petersen would star in Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, Manhunter.
The excellent Tangerine Dream soundtrack is what drew me back to this film in the 90’s after I saw Heat. I still have it on vinyl; it’s some of their best work, and “Confrontation,” which plays over the final gunfight and end credits, is an electronic blues lament for a man who threw it all away so he could destroy the man holding his chain. The film is dedicated to Chicago bluesmen Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young, and the film does have the fleeting joy and inevitable sadness of a blues song. Young appears in the club scene where we first meet Jessie.
Tuesday Weld’s role is easily overlooked, but she perfectly captures the moll look and attitude. In a film about men, we’re reminded of James Brown’s pearl of wisdom, “It’s a man’s world, but he made that world for woman.” As soon as Frank and Jessie- and I’m sure naming the characters after the James Gang was no accident- hook up, he calls Leo and says he’ll do a job for him. But he wants to play by his rules, and doesn’t realize that in a Faustian bargain, only one guy sets the rules in the end.
There are three ranting monologues that give Alec Baldwin’s infamous Glengarry Glen Ross “watch” speech a run for its money. When Frank comes out as a criminal to Jessie; When the crooked detective pulls Urizzi off him and tells him why he has to pay up to the cops, and when Leo tells Frank that he owns him, at his plating factory. This last particular scene is quite brutal and Mann films Leo’s face upside down, as Frank sees it, passing on his disorientation to us.

Look. I said fuckin’ look at ‘im! Look at what happened to ya friend ’cause you gotta go against the way the things go down. You treat what I try to do for you like shit? You don’t wanna work for me, what’s wrong with you? And then, you carry a piece, in my house! You one of those burned-out demolished wackos in the joint? You’re scary, because you don’t give a fuck. But don’t come onto me now with your jailhouse bullshit ’cause you are not that guy, dont’chu get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, n’ I own the paper on ya whole fuckin’ life. I’ll put ya cunt wife on the street to be fucked in the ass by niggers and Puerto Ricans. Ya kids mine because I bought ‘it. You got ‘im on loan, he is leased, you are renting him. I’ll whack out ya whole family. People’ll be eatin’ ’em in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say, I run you, there is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned-out, you are busted, or you’re dead… you get it? You got responsibilities – tighten up n’ do it. Clean this mess up, get ‘im outta here. Back to work, Frank.

And to punctuate things, they dump a body in the nitric acid tanks of the electroplating factory. Mann has since trimmed his dialogue down, but he’s also made his stories a lot tighter. Thief is sometimes a bit too obvious, and too quick; as soon as Frank signs up with Leo, he’s walking streets paved with gold. And while his grittiness is solidified, his style is not yet in full flower. Frank’s immediate coldness as he disassembles everything he once cared about is almost too much to bear. The slow-motion explosions may lack panache, but the lack of dialogue as he destroys it all is perfect. The sequence is still one of the most memorable of the film, as Frank writes large his Zen koan about your possessions owning you in fire across the screen. When he confronts Leo at his home, he is a man with nothing; he has thrown Jessie out of his life, and burned everything he owns.
The final confrontation is as brutal and stylized as that of Taxi Driver, as Frank’s singularity of purpose makes him a swift instrument of vengeance. We don’t get a single word from him; he does what he must do, and Mann expertly shows and does not tell. There are little touches; Dennis Farina’s character can’t aim the bullpup shotgun after he’s wounded; Frank wears a protective vest, and tears his shirt to take a look at how it worked. And when it’s over, he walks silently into the night, down the lonely road he finds himself on again. Will he go back to Jessie and his son? We don’t know. Yet we are curiously satisfied, as the Tangerine Dream guitar lament drones through the speakers.
Thief is a singular film that portrays the life of the high-end burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and local Chicago characters, Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. Mann’s style mirrors the blues- a man with nothing, who has something, has it taken away, and sacrifices everything to get it back. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder’s torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, meet night people who come home as the sun rises, who steal riches while we sleep, and get to know an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Mann would go on to more epic tales, but would always return to the American archetype of the lone killer, the man with his code. Hawkeye; Marlowe; the Man with No Name. It’s no mistake that Michael Mann would direct The Last of the Mohicans, which has a long shadow over American literature with the iconic character of Hawkeye. Frank was the mold from which Neil McCauley was made, but you’ll see the same obsession in Will Graham, Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice, Mike Torello of Crime Story, and even in his biopic of Ali. Heat and Manhunter– and certainly Public Enemies with the Dillinger/Purvis face-off- show how similar cops and crooks are, but Thief is the one purely from the crook’s point of view, where there are no good guys. His next film in development, Frankie Machine, is based on a novel by Don Winslow (full review) is a mob picture starring DeNiro as a retired hitter dragged back into the life, when he’d rather surf the morning waves and run his bait shop. Another perfect Mann protagonist, he has old school values and has to ram them through the throats of some new blood who won’t let sleeping dogs lie. I’m pumped to see some ’30s gangster action next weekend, but I wouldn’t mind seeing DeNiro stop treading water and work with a director like Mann again.

Public Enemies Featurette and Interview with Michael Mann

Trailer Addict has this nice teaser showing how Michael Mann got Johnny Depp and Christian Bale to the same places their characters Dillinger and Purvis escaped and hunted from. The same hotel rooms, the same prison rebuilt… a rather amazing attention to detail that can only inspire great performances from these two actors. For one, it will be great seeing Depp outside of a Burton crazy role and back to stuff like his forgotten, excellent turn in Donnie Brasco; and Bale outside of the action superstar he’s quickly become, to something like The Prestige.

And for good reading, fellow Chi-town boy Roger Ebert picks Mann’s brain about the upcoming film here:

Michael Mann: Seeing history through Dillinger’s eyes
by Roger Ebert

a taste: Michael Mann saw the Biograph Theatre at 2433 N. Lincoln for the first time while riding past it on a streetcar when he was 8 or 9. His mother Esther told him, “That’s the old Biograph Theatre where they killed Dillinger.” She took a bow from the audience at the Chicago premiere of his movie “Public Enemies,” which ends with a corpse on the Biograph sidewalk.

Don’t forget the Michael Mann blogathon at Radiator Heaven that begins tomorrow!

Movies with Mom

I asked my Mom, in honor of Mother’s Day and after taking a hint from The Dark of the Matinee, to name her five favorite movies. That turned into the 5 movies she can watch over and over. You never know with Mom. She likes Bad Lieutenant (full review)- something I never expected. She can’t stand Lifetime, but can’t “get” the humor in one of my favorite recent comedies, Role Models; she’s more of a Mel Brooks fan.

Tommy Salami was just a L’il Smokey then, and Mom looked like she was in Thelma & Louise.

She introduced me to a lot of movies that formed the foundation for my love of film, and Mel Brooks is just one facet. I’m surprised History of the World Part 1 or Blazing Saddles isn’t on her list, but when you ask people their faves, sometimes they want to pick the important ones. Another surprise is that Night of the Hunter isn’t here- she introduced me to that excellent film, only recently appreciated for its daring and greatness. Also Harvey with Jimmy Stewart, or any number of Alfred Hitchcock films that we watched together- Strangers on a Train being the one we probably agree on most. Here’s her top 5:

1. Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece- what’s not to like? It’s one of those movies I can watch again and again, too. Not just for the story, but the direction- everyone remembers the long shot of them entering the Copa, but the one that always got me was the court scene- we smoothly cut from the judge sustaining an objection, to Henry Hill lounging in an empty courtroom, narrating to us directly. Everything else has been voiceover, and we barely notice. Nice move, Scorsese. I love The Godfather and Part II, and so does Mom, but Goodfellas is both more fun, and removes any glamorization. Everyone betrays each other and goes to jail.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird
I love this movie, too. The book is great, but the movie really encapsulates everything about it, and puts us in magical childhood time where Scout learns some very adult things. It’s one of those perfect movies, where Gregory Peck exudes admirable righteousness as Atticus Finch, without being a jackass. Scout and Jem are believable children, and while the story is pretty black and white- no pun intended- Finch’s daring and fruitless stand against his townfolk is even more memorable to me than Gary Cooper in High Noon.

3. Dances with Wolves
I still hold a grudge against this movie for getting the Oscar over Goodfellas, but it’s an enjoyable enough epic. Sure, it buys into the noble savage crap about the American Indian, it’s a fine Hollywood historical fantasy. And after being villains in countless westerns, they earned it. I found the movie overlong and a little contrived- Costner just happens to find a white love interest?- but it’s not horrible, and Wes Studi is pretty amazing as the bad guy in his small role. Which he got him an even better part in…

4. The Last of the Mohicans
My mom and I saw Heat in the now-gone Franklin Theater; I know she liked The Insider and Ali. So being a fan of Michael Mann runs in the family. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I’m hoping the upcoming Public Enemies makes up for the flop of Miami Vice (which I liked). Mohicans caught a bit of flack, but I think he was true to the novel and removed all the twigs and other thinks that Mark Twain found infuriating. It’s got romance for the gals and plenty of tomahawk and musket mayhem for the guys, it’s filmed beautifully, and if Daniel Day Lewis isn’t at his absolute best, Wes Studi’s evil Magua is just incredible. Okay, the shots that follow the cannonballs were a bad choice, but it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to watch than Costner’s movie. Silent Russell Means as Chingachook and Clannad’s incredible soundtrack sure help.

5. Love, Actually
I wrote this off as a silly chick flick with no evidence until Mom, Sis and Firecracker all said to watch it. And when I did, I was surprised. It weaves many romances together, 8 of them in fact. That’s a tough act. But it works. It begins with Hugh Grant as the British PM, sparring with U.S. President Billy Bob Thornton- a hilarious bit of casting- and spirals off with the PM’s sister, and unfolds to include a dozen characters that it keeps track of well. It jumps from Colin Firth with writer’s block and a language barrier, to two stand-ins in a movie doing a sex scene. Bill Nighy is fantastic as a washed up rock star forced to write a carol. Written by the fellow who gave us Four Weddings and a Funeral, bigger may be better in this case. It’s a Christmas film, and no one likes being lonely around the holidays; no one played it in December on cable last year, but Comcast wanted $4.99 to watch it On Demand. Bastards!

Overall, a pretty good list. Her love of movies helped make me who I am today. Watching Blazing Saddles when you’re 11 is pretty awesome. Laughing at Cloris Leachman’s prehensile boobs in High Anxiety, and the wordplay in History of the World, definitely shaped me at a tender age. I still ask her if she flunked flank any time there’s any alliteration around. She let me watch Alien on HBO, still one of my favorites of all time, and didn’t mind too much when I had to RUN from my bedroom to the bathroom at night because the alien might get me. We had a VCR (thanks to my Uncle Paul) when they still cost a small fortune, and we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner over and over. And she waited in line around the block with me when I wanted to see The Empire Strikes Back.

What can I say? Thanks, Mom. And Happy Mother’s Day!

These are the honorable mentions that didn’t make the top 5:
This is tough because there are a lot that I like… Moonstruck ,The Color Purple, Gone with the WindAlmost any Bette Davis movie; The Godfather I and II, A Bronx Tale, An Affair to Remember (the original), Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath.