Remarks on "Thief" (1981)

As presented at East Side Easy Action Night.1

Of director Michael Mann's ten films, this is his first. I believe it's easy to cite them each in a brief introduction because Mann's scope and structural complexity have certainly expanded but the narrowness of his focus--a focus that betrays his training in filmed documentary--remains strongly connected to this feature.

His focus is on the personal code, how it relates to labor, and the artifacts of that combination.

The the possible exception of "The Keep", a common thread along all of these films is a relentless focus on the work. Their labors are often extreme ones, accompanied by behavioral and philosophical codes that bind their world.

The central subject of his remake of his own NBC television series "Miami Vice" concerns itself primarily with the logistical and psychological contortions necessary to stay within not one but two codes: that of a play-acting criminal within the bounds of the law.

Perhaps Mann's best signature is his courage to expose this code in dialogue. So many of his films turn on a fulcrum distant from violence or conflict, but in conversation, often between men of two opposing codes.

A nine minute scene, appearing relatively early in this picture, is where Caan puts everything on the table, as if we're peering through the keyhole to the mechanics of a reinforced safe.

Similarly, Al Pacino's will sit on the floor of a Japanese restaurant across from Russell Crowe, one perhaps a predator, one perhaps pray, and set the stakes for the remarkable combination of legal mechanics and familial code in "The Insider".

Then there is a riddle of realism and here I will mention one film Mann has not made. "Bullitt," the Peter Yates and Steve McQueen collaboration strongly summarizes the riddle: is the film a commitment to realism with its patience to frame police procedure and criminal economics with apparent clinical attention to detail?

Or the complex protagonist, like Frank in "Thief", or Neil McCauley in "Heat," or Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, placed as they are at the extremities of their society and their own code that they form a unity across the distance between cops and robbers, or soldiers and guerrillas (as in "The Last of the Mohicans") or a fighter (as the title figure in "Ali") and a government (the Federal Government or the Nation of Islam; take your pick).

These are strongly Romantic figures, in the technical sense of the word, and their codes are exhibited and articulated with what can only be called hyperrealistic self-awareness. Surely few criminals and cops (even as portrayed in his exclusively digital production of "Public Enemies") are so carefully calibrated and concerned with the integrity of a set of ideas.

The influence of "Bullitt" is more tangible in "Heat", but the combination of heroic forms, often shadowed by ambiguity, against an almost technocratic landscape of detail, research, and realism shines here, as it does--I would argue much more dimly--in "Collateral."

The riddle shines brightly in "Thief" and is perhaps its most impressive characteristic.

Now I encourage you to put aside these remarks and look forward to the next two hours. Wherein:

You will marvel at Caan's barrel chest, finally exhibited as an apparent totem of technological triumph.

You may enjoy two fleeting cameos by men who will many years later each carry their own prime time dramatic series for CBS.

You will witness what I posit to be the strangest most intense stare at least between two men, ever captured on film.

You will enjoy Robert Prosky's delivery what is for me perhaps the most vividly offensive and curiously indelible of threats.

And finally the many cars, shirt collars, and public phones that punctuate this film with a rhythm and reliability that perhaps bests the musical contribution herein, one provided solely by the group Tangerine Dream.

Enjoy Michael Mann's first feature film. We begin in the streets of Chicago. 1981.


1. Best read in the voice of Yale University Architecture Professor Vincent Scully.

Posted August 16, 2011.