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.
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.