Thief (1981)

Directed Michael Mann. Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky

The opening sequence of Thief is gorgeous in that sort of meretricious urban way. Neon lights blurring out the moon, dark asphalt streets, wet pockets in potholes, the lights of cars glowing: it’s all very yellow fog rubbing its back against the window-panes. Watching Thief, I was put in mind of Taxi Driver. The dingy glow of Travis’s cab sploshing through the light-reflecting water in the ugly streets is hypnotic and marvelous. Thief has some of those same qualities in its look in that opening sequence, and the allusion is so clear (and so recent) that it must be impossible to look at a Frank (Caan) in the middle of his seedy enterprise, driving off into the wee hours after having robbed someone, and not see Travis driving a car length ahead after having dropped off some slightly shell-shocked customer. It turns out that Frank is not really a Travis Bickle but more of a Jef Costello, an individualistic type, a criminal whose professional ethics are so tight that they can stand in for a more normative moral structure. Call it Le voleur instead of Thief and you’d get the picture. It’s not nice to compare a guy’s first movie—heck, it’s not nice to compare any movie—to Taxi Driver and Le samourai. Yet Thief invites those comparisons, and it can’t be any surprise that it falls well short of both in ways that I think are basically cynical. Like both of those movies, the climactic scene involves a hail of bullets. In Taxi Driver, not to wade into “WHAT REALLY HAPPENED” discourse, but if you take the movie on its face, the movie is a little amazed that a vigilante is accepted as a hero with so little blushing by the city. In Le samourai, Jef basically commits suicide because he could no longer live according to his tenets. In Thief, an aching but clearly mobile Frank leaves the scene of his showdown having freed himself from any further obligation to Leo (Prosky) and his top-heavy, strip mall approach to petty crime. Perhaps he will not join Jessie (Weld) or their adopted son David in whatever place they’ve been disappeared to, but it’s a world full of blondes and the two of them didn’t have any chemistry anyway.

Taxi Driver and Le samourai understand a simple, axiomatic fact about the world: loners can’t stay that way forever. They are either forced to change or they are forced to disappear. In Taxi Driver, I think that shot of De Niro’s face as he gets mad about something all over again proves that he cannot ever fit in, no matter how much he is (or dreams to be) feted. In Le samourai, much more simply, they kill Jef. In Thief, I think we’re meant to believe he’ll stay alone, that he’ll keep doing these jobs and making these scores without the benefit of home or family, that he’s going to provide for Jessie and David while not literally being there. I think we’re meant to believe that because it’s cooler, honestly, and that’s sort of where Thief falls apart for me in the same way Drive comes up short after you give yourself a minute to think about it. So much in Thief is governed by what’s cool as opposed to what’s effective. There’s a religiosity in those other two movies, albeit a totally different set of what that religiosity might look like. Taxi Driver is so much about venality and sin, and Travis Bickle a prophet who alone among New Yorkers can hear the mutterings of Jehovah. Le samourai is about practice, discipline, even asceticism. The movie is pulling more from bushido than Shinto, but there’s no bold line in that movie which demarcates some boundary between a heightened code of personal ethics and a kind of faith. Whether or not one is interested in religion is kind of a moot point, because that’s still something. A story can take root in that. But just being cool, looking cool, presenting cool is definitionally ephemeral. Like a MacGuffin, it is nothing at all, and it is a hard sell indeed to create a movie where cool is on the brain and anything more meaningful than that is supposed to linger.

This is still a good movie. It looks terrific, even when it’s not doing cars in neon. I love the look of that one scene in a diner, which has been washed out with a pale blue that makes me think of old jeans. James Caan is great for this part, too, living on a spectrum from peeved to mortally offended and making that level of frustration feel like part of the guy and not like part of the guy’s act. Robert Prosky is terrific in this movie too, aided by some good framing and blocking. Ever since I saw After the Rehearsal, I’ve been thinking about that line Erland Josephson has that a good actor can look thinner or taller without any physical help, and Prosky, who was short of six feet, looks enormous in this movie. Standing when others sit, leering over people (even when the camera isn’t upside-down and looking up at him), with body language that suggests command and that he’s a bigger guy than he actually is, makes him seem like a colossus among regular men. In Broadcast News, for example, this is a schlubby little guy who is not any bigger than vaguely schlubby Albert Brooks and who is bigger than Holly Hunter but who isn’t. In Thief, he seems much bigger than James Caan, something of a hairy-chested he-man in his own right; Caan is a little shorter than Prosky, but Thief finds a way to make wealthy, practically cosmopolitan Leo a giant compared to diamond thief Frank. I’m also really taken with the unimpugnable strength of Leo’s organization that he talks up in his sales pitch to Frank. It is crime without risk. Prison is out of the question; do your job right, shut up, and the lawyer will get you off. Leo makes a heckuva pitch to Frank in that first meeting on the water, and it is not surprising that Frank, despite his individualistic instincts, decides to do a job for Leo. It’s an organization which also seems to reward people primarily in something like stock options; these criminals are all part of the same game as your average broker, which is something we can’t say enough. When this movie is humming, it’s really humming. When it takes some time off the job and Frank’s crescendo concerns about the organization, the quality dips accordingly.

There’s a lot that works here, but the movie is less interested in speaking to its influences, or riding with this incredibly unusual crime family, than it is in presenting Frank, a dude who is cooler than you but still wants that American Dream just like you and the cast of Happy Days do. Thief does not even have the luck that a blind drunk at darts would have; nothing it tries out to make Frank seem more like a real person who you can sympathize with hits the target. Giving Frank a father figure with limited screen time, Okla (Willie Nelson), is a whiff. Giving us Frank’s prison history via monologue is interesting enough in the moment, but it’s not changing our understanding of the man any further. He’s used to being a target, and he’s used to fighting it out. Neither of those feels revelatory, certainly not for the amount of time it takes to punch through that yarn; seeing Frank cut off his nose to spite his face in that movie-ending shootout makes sense for this headstrong character even without the knowledge that he’s done this kind of thing before. The movie might have something in Frank’s hopes for having a child—despite myself, I kind of liked that scene where he hits up an adoption agency with Jessie and rants in language that clarifies how inept he is at playing by the rules that normies like us play—but we barely get to see him parent at all before the kid is, so he says, out of his life. The movie is simply more interested in the sparks that fly from a specially made handheld tool that cuts at 8,000 degrees, or the way that a hood of a car in the darkness reflects the neon lights above.

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