Thief (1981)

Thief (1981)
  • Time: 122 min
  • Genre: Action | Crime | Drama
  • Director: Michael Mann
  • Cast: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi


Frank is an expert professional safecracker, specializing in high-profile diamond jobs. After having spent many years in prison, he has a very concrete picture of what he wants out of life–including a nice home, a wife, and kids. As soon as he is able to assemble the pieces of this collage, by means of his chosen profession, he intends to retire and become a model citizen. In an effort to accelerate this process, he signs on to take down a huge score for a big-time gangster. Unfortunately, Frank’s obsession for his version of the American Dream allows him to overlook his natural wariness and mistrust, when making the deal for his final job. He is thus ensnared and robbed of his freedom, his independence, and, ultimately, his dream.

One comment

  • The 1980’s seemed to define what is to be expected of a crime movie. It was an era of machine guns, tooth-picks and body oil, with little attention paid to the all-important details. Michael Mann’s Thief was an ultra-slick, ice cool and, most astonishingly, highly realistic alternative, which is very impressive given that this was Mann’s feature debut. The film revolves around James Caan’s safe-cracker Frank, a career criminal looking for one big score before retiring. We meet him mid-job, using a specially-designed drill to steal the diamonds locked within. We are given little background to his character, but, like the rest of the film, the history is embedded within every frame.

    Mann, wanting the film to be as close to real-life as possible, employs real cops and criminals as actors, reversing their roles to further blur the line between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys. John Santucci, a recently paroled jewel thief, plays a corrupt cop, and Dennis Farina, in his first movie role, was a real-life ex-cop and here plays a criminal henchman. The idea that the cops and robbers are merely two sides of the same coin was explored further in Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat. With Thief, it feels like we are thrust into this very real but secret world of crime, where Frank, who works alone when possible or employs his entrusted friend Barry (James Belushi) when necessary, agrees to work for shady crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky, who, along with Belushi and Farina, makes his film debut).

    With so much time spent with Frank (he appears in every scene), a lot rests upon Caan’s shoulders, and he thankfully delivers what is undoubtedly his greatest performance. He’s the typical tough-guy loner, but he brings so much to his character that we see much more in him than a mere brute. In the diner scene, where he seduces cashier Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and lays out his plans to start a family, Caan’s marvellous monologue further layers his character. But Thief is also an exciting thriller. Thanks to the plausibility of it’s characters, it’s easy to become concerned when a spanner is inevitably thrown into Frank’s plans. If there’s a criticism to be had, then it’s in the formulaic plot. But when a film seems to know it’s characters so well and is filmed so stylishly by cinematographer Donald E. Thorin, it’s hard to avoid becoming completely immersed.

    Rating: 4/5

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