Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thief (1981): "I'm the last guy in the world that you wanna to fuck with."

Thief (1981) is the first feature film from Michael Mann (Director of Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004), to name a few), up to this point he'd directed a few documentary shorts and a TV movie called The Jericho Mile (1979), but this put him on the map. It's a flat out masterpiece, a subtle crime film that amplifies the inherent drama in the life of a jewel thief till it explodes. Literally.

Thief follows Frank (James Caan in a magnificent performance), an existential loner, recalling those from the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, with a single-minded drive to make up for lost time, by starting a family and earning enough to retire.  The film opens with Frank drilling a safe and making off with $550,000 in uncut diamonds.  His partners, Barry (James Belushi, in his film debut) and Joseph (William LaValley) listen in on the police band and keep a lookout.

The next morning, Frank meets with Joe Gags, his fence, at a diner.  They set a meet later to exchange the diamonds for cash.  Meanwhile, Frank has had his eye on the hostess, Jessie (Tuesday Weld).  He asks her to dinner.  She says yes.  He will pick her up at 8.  But back at Frank's used car lot, a front to launder the money from his heists, he gets a call that there's a problem.  Joe Gags took a dive from 12th story of a high rise.  He was skimming from the mob.  They found out and were none too happy.  Problem is Frank's money for the diamonds was in Joe Gags pocket when he died and now the money's gone.  In an intense scene, Frank pays a visit to Attaglia (Tom Signorelli), a connected guy, and scares the shit out of him, ensuring a meet and that he will get the money owed him.  At the meet is Leo (Robert Prosky, also in his film debut), the mob boss, and he proposes that Frank work for them and take down scores that have already been cased, nothing less than 500-600K.  Eventually, Frank agrees.

For Mann, the devil is in the details.  The film is based on a novel, "The Home Invaders" written by Frank Hohimer, a real life thief, who was incarcerated at the time of filming.  All the tools used for drilling, welding and safe cracking were real and the actors were trained to use them by a real jewel thief, John Santucci, who was a technical consultant on the film and played the small role of Detective Urizzi.  Santucci was more or less the model for the character of Frank.

For my money this James Caan's best performance, particularly the scene in the diner with Tuesday Weld where Frank talks about doing time, it's phenomenal.  And apparently James Caan concurs, he considers it his finest work after The Godfather.  Weld also gives a great performance as Frank's wife, a woman who's been down this road before, but can't turn away from the vulenrability in his eyes. Robert Prosky speaks with a sinister politeness throughout that masks his desire to control Frank, until he reaches the boiling point and shows just how vicious he really is.  Willie Nelson, of all people, turns in a good little performance too, as Okla, a big brother figure for Frank; they were in prison together and he taught Frank how to be a thief.  The film is also notable for having the film debuts of Dennis Farina, as one of Leo's henchman, and William Peterson, as a bouncer, along with Belushi and Prosky.

The color palette is a variety of blues, greys and greens, with some red mixed in.  The Chicago streets are perpetually rain-slicked throughout to reflect the street lamps and neon signs, giving it a sleek, yet gritty feel.  Chicago is not disguised here, but it's made to feel like any other metropolis with no overt shots of the iconic skyline, though the accents and the attitudes are pure Chicago.  Tangerine Dream's brilliant synthesizer score, (which was nominated for a Razzy, I don't know how), adds tremendously to the mood of the piece and charges the climax with an unforgettable energy.  If you haven't seen this film, you absolutely should, especially if you're a fan of Michael Mann's work.  I cannot recommend it more highly.

My Rating:  5 OUT OF 5!

The Trailer:

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