VIRGIN TERRITORY: THIEF 1981 dir. Michael Mann


JamesCaanThiefWe all strive for something, our dream life, but what happens when we achieve that? And even more important, what do we do when it slips back out of our grasp? These questions are brought up in Michael Mann’s 1981 film THIEF, but how they are answered is up to us.

James Caan plays Frank, an extremely good safe cracker with an experienced team supporting him, and two successful cover businesses as well. He specializes in getting diamonds and ignores other flashy prizes that could distract lesser experienced jewel thieves. He maintains a cool composure throughout most instances, but is able to handle high pressure situations in a snap due to being well prepared, but his ability to improvise in a situation only adds to his skill set.

Frank is doing well in life, with a successful car dealership and a happening bar, not to mention the heist business. But his life isn’t complete. He has dreams to settle down, start a family, and to see his long time friend and mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson), home from a long stint in prison. Not only does Frank imagine this, he’s gone to the effort of creating a collage of all these facets he wants in his life. His next puzzle piece to fit in is a partner for life, and he chooses Jessie (Tuesday Weld, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, FALLING DOWN), a cashier that he’s casually dated. After advice from Okla, he decides to clue Jessie into the whole of what he does, and despite doing it in a rough and abrupt way, Jessie is intrigued and starts falling for Frank and their potential future life together.

ThiefFrank’s crew is propositioned for a string of big jobs by a local crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky, MRS. DOUBTFIRE, GREMLINS 2), who offers them a fast track to some huge scores. This all comes with a price, as it involves a much higher profile on Frank and his crew as police have been watching Leo’s operations for a while. Things build and build until the crew is moving towards their first big heist in partnership with Leo.

Caan is great as Frank, both playing him cool when in high pressure situations, but also you can see how he builds walls as emotional protection due to a lifetime in the system, both in foster care as well prison stints. Weld plays off of him well, as she is trying to coax him out for herself, but also as a way for the audience to fall in love with him, as she is. And while there is a lot going on, it is a shame that we don’t get more access to Willie Nelson’s role as Okla. He is only onscreen a small amount, yet his soul resonates throughout the film. Another unfortunate thing is that we get an almost mute performance from Dennis Farina, who plays one of Leo’s henchmen.

Besides Mann’s beautiful film work, the film is bolstered by a wonderful score by Tangerine Dream. I found myself continuously turning the film up so that I could let myself be fully drenched in the sound as it built. It is definitely a score that I want to be tracking down for further listens.

THIEF is a strong first theatrical film, and definitely showcased what Michael Mann had in store for us later in his film career. It is currently streaming on Netflix and for purchase on Criterion Blu-ray on Amazon.com

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