Thief, Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, is a fascinating cultural document for anyone interested in the auteur of alpha males. In it we find seeds of future triumphs and sprouts of lifelong obsessions—not to mention a compelling story brought to life by a first rate filmmaker still finding his footing.
Released last week by the Criterion Collection with a pristine new transfer and loaded with special features, Thief (1981) tells the tale of Frank (James Caan), a master criminal who makes his own way in the world. He takes down scores because that’s where the money is, but he’s building a normal life for himself with the proceeds.When the movie opens he has a car lot, a bar, and a girlfriend.
Jessie (Tuesday Weld) is a good fit for Frank, insofar as she’s as damaged as he is. He’s done time in the pen—what started off as a few months for stealing $40 escalated into a few years after he killed a man trying to rape him—and she’s done time on the streets of South America. Not your typical white picket fence material, but this is America. It takes all types.
When Frank’s fence is bumped off—and $185,000 of Frank’s cut from a diamond heist is stolen—he is determined to make it right. Frank learned in the pen that weakness is not an option. He finds the culprits, regains his money, and takes a walk. Leo (Robert Prosky), the Chicago boss who orchestrated the theft of his money, makes him an offer: Come work for me, and I’ll make you a millionaire in short order. Frank, ever the loner. refuses. But when Jessie agrees to make a life with him, Frank decides to make a run for the easy cash. It is a decision that Leo, Frank, and Jessie will all come to regret.
Mann is a big believer in showing and not telling, and if you can’t keep up that’s on you. Leo and Frank talk in a dense criminal patois, and you can bet Mann isn’t going to dumb it down for us. Unsure why a lawyer and a judge are grasping their faces in odd ways during a hearing regarding the potential freedom of Frank’s pal Okla (Willie Nelson)? That’s the point. Open-air bribery wouldn’t be as lucrative if every rube understood what was going on.
We can see in Thief some of the visual flourishes that will pop up in Mann’s films throughout the years. There’s a shot of Frank and one of his criminal friends, silhouetted against a dark dawn. It’s an image repeated in Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995) to slightly different effect each time. The basic idea, however, seems to be the same: Here rests the alpha male, master of all he surveys—yet a remarkable expanse of barely constrained fury lies just behind him.
Frank is the roughest of these alpha males, and the most immature. As the film ends and he discovers that he has lost control of his life’s work, he decides to blow it up. Literally blow it up. Like Howard Roark imploding his marginally altered construction project, Frank sends his woman away, bombs his nightclub, and torches his car lot. No one’s gonna tell Frank how to run his life.
Have Mann’s men matured in the years since? In some ways they are as myopic as ever. They may love their wives, as in The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001), but that love will not divert these men from the paths they have chosen. Collateral’s (2004) lesson to young lovers is about the need to man up. The most underrated and heartbreaking aspect of Miami Vice is the relationship between Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Isabella (Gong Li), a doomed love between cop and criminal that gets to the loneliness of Mann’s alphas in a way that few other of his features have.
Heat, Mann’s epic L.A. crime drama and his most fully realized feature, is also his most tragic love story. "Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner," master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) tells master cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). Coming at the halfway point in the film, after McCauley has met a woman who he wants to go away with him following one last job, we take it to mean that she is the thing he cannot be attached to.
It’s true and it isn’t. While McCauley does end up abandoning his lady after he visually spots Hanna coming, the thing that McCauley truly can’t walk away from when he feels the heat—the thing he needs most in this world—is revenge. Vengeance against the man who gave up his crew, got his friends killed, and spun his life in a different direction than the way he wanted to go. Retaliation against the nobody that would dare intrude on his territory. Like Thief’s Frank, McCauley sets his whole world on fire because he can’t live his life one hundred percent the way he wants.