USA 1981, 123 mins
Director: Michael Mann

On paper, Michael Mann’s feature debut Thief is nothing groundbreaking, fit to be consigned to that vague category of ‘neo-noir’. Certainly the basic materials of the plot – the hood looking for a last big score before he goes straight – are older than High Sierra (1941).

Thief’s protagonist Frank (James Caan, 41 years old here) spent his youth in Joliet Prison. He’s only been back on the street for a few years but he’s already acquired an ex-wife, alimony payments, a car dealership and a bar – all cover for his real money-making career, that of a professional safecracker. Despite his unconventional upbringing and lifestyle, Frank wants the ‘regular-type life’, to quote Mann’s Heat (1995). Frank’s vision of the future is a dream of middle-class normalcy that’s literally right out of glossy magazines: he carries around a collage of wife, kids and a big suburban house that he put together back in prison. In a whirlwind courtship that’s urgent, over-assertive and utterly sincere, Frank recruits a diner cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), to be his wife. He is ludicrously to-the-point and matter-of-fact. As Caan points out, he doesn’t use one contraction while playing Frank, who says what he means once, clearly, and to be understood.

Largely shot on the streets, alleys and industrial fringes of Mann’s hometown Chicago, Thief is grounded in authenticity and first-hand knowhow – a solid relationship to the physical facts of the world that was then the hallmark of American action films. The dialogue is criminal argot and shop talk, the characters drawn from Chicagoland lore, police blotters and direct experience. Mann conceived of the character of Frank, a man who has spent his formative years as a ward of the state and comes out desperate to make up for lost time, when he was working with Folsom Prison inmates on an earlier project, the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile. Real-life Chicago Police Department detective sergeant Chuck Adamson plays one of the plainclothes cops trying to shake Frank down for a cut of his scores, alongside John Santucci, the professional burglar who acted as the film’s ‘technical adviser’. Santucci later appeared in the Mann-produced television shows Miami Vice and the Adamson-created Crime Story – although he returned to his first love after the acting gigs dried up. (Another Mann discovery, Dennis Farina, appears as a thug enforcer in Thief, though he was still on the force during filming.)

‘You couldn’t grow up on a farm and play this guy,’ Mann says of casting Queens-raised Caan as Frank. ‘You had to have grown up in the city.’ Caan cribbed his Chicago accent from Mann and learnt how to handle a .45 from a CIA trainer, while Santucci and his crew taught him how to pick locks. The centrepiece heist, which has Frank and his guys using a thermal lance to cut through a wholesale diamond dealer’s safe, was filmed at Zoetrope Studios with a documentary-like scrutiny of process, using a real safe and real tools, exactly as it would have been done on-site by a crew. ‘There were no props on the film,’ Mann says. ‘If you picked up a lock pull, that lock pull had been on scores. Alarm bypasses were alarm bypasses, they’d taken down scores. Half the guns we used had been used.’

Thief is 100 per cent legit – but that’s only one aspect of the movie. The successful heist is followed immediately by Frank and Jessie cavorting in the Pacific surf as a fade-in of polyphonic synths, provided by the West Berlin-based electronic group Tangerine Dream, builds to a triumphal stride. The side-by-side proximity of these two scenes shows the two poles that, in an uneasy synthesis, make up Mann’s style: a hard pragmatism and a rather florid romanticism.

Thief was Tangerine Dream’s second movie score, their first having been for William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, a film resplendent in apocalyptic masculinity. Like Mann, Friedkin is a native of Chicago, home of Hemingway, City of Broad Shoulders – and one of the main incubators of the conception of American machismo as it was popularly defined in the 20th century. In Thief, Mann buys into and perpetuates that Hemingway idea of self-possessed, grimly determined, can-do manhood, with its unbreakable personal codes and sullen pride, but he complicates it as he does so.

With his documentary impulse and emphasis on capturing process, Mann was in line with the American action film’s traditional orientation towards realism, but he welded this to a presentational approach more usually associated with, say, Japanese cinema. In the blue-collar actioner, overt stylisation was regarded as suspect and sissifed, something to be consigned to the musical comedy. But those walls had slowly been eroding: Scorsese’s enquiries into male pathology, for example, were conducted under the influence of Minnelli and Michael Powell’s razzle-dazzle. Along with Japanophile Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, released the previous year – and of course the launch of MTV, to which Thief’s appearance was almost exactly contemporary – Mann’s film exemplified a sea change in how style was accepted in American popular culture.

In Thief, Mann’s style appears more or less fully formed – he gravitates to neon like a moth to a flame and revels in complex, multipart crane shots (through the sign in Frank’s car dealership, alongside and in front of a Des Moines-bound bus on the freeway). The basic precepts of Mann’s personal philosophy are also in place. ‘I am self-employed,’ Frank tells the deceptively grandfatherly syndicate boss Leo (Robert Prosky) who tries to hire him. ‘I am doing fine. I don’t deal with egos, I am Joe the boss of my own body. So what the fuck do I have to work for you for?’ From here it is a very short hop to Mann’s 1992 Last of the Mohicans and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Leatherstocking rebuffing a British recruiter’s question: ‘You call yourself a patriot, and loyal subject to the crown?’ ‘I don’t call myself subject to much at all.’ All of which is in line with the credo of self-reliance that can be found in much American action filmmaking, from the works of Howard Hawks to those of Mann’s fellow Chicagoan Don Siegel, in whose Charley Varrick (1973) the protagonist bills himself as ‘The Last of the Independents’. And if the bad press surrounding the release of Mann’s most recent films – 2006’s Miami Vice and 2009’s Public Enemies – is to be taken as any indication, this isn’t just posturing. Caan describes Mann, with his 18-hour shooting days, as a ‘workaholic’ and ‘a loon’, and the number of people pulling for the director to fail with each new project suggests that he’s made his share of enemies. ‘There’s ways of doing things that round off the corners,’ says Adamson’s detective after laying into Frank in an interrogation room, sounding like nothing so much as a pleading producer.

Earlier I mentioned the ‘uneasy synthesis’ at the centre of Mann’s style, between pragmatism and romanticism (which just happen to be the two major strains of Native American philosophy). This volatile mixture isn’t a weakness but rather a natural outgrowth of Mann’s subject matter, a tension reflected within the films. Time and again Mann deals with the incompatibility of balancing professional dedication and affairs of the heart. Attachments of any kind, as irresistible as they may be, are also a liability, something that can be used as leverage against you. At the close of Thief, we see Frank destroy every asset that he has, both emotional and financial. He is enacting the formula for survival that is memorably outlined in Heat: ‘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.’

Mann shares this monastic prescription for survival with his contemporary Walter Hill, but where Hill maintains a cool, stoic surface marked by quiet ruefulness, Mann’s films erupt with passion and pulsating longing. The final eruption in Thief, however, is purely retributive, a scorched-earth settling of scores that ends with the last of those crane-shot flourishes. It’s the last word on a first film that announces clearly, and to be understood: ‘I am not here to play around.’
Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound, April 2014

Directed by: Michael Mann
©: United Artists Corporation
Production Companies: Michael Mann Company, Caan Productions
Executive Producer: Michael Mann
Produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Ronnie Caan
Associate Producer: Richard Brams
Production Accountant: Art Schaeffer
Assistant Accountants: Larry Hand, Florian Schereck
Michael Mann Company/Caan Productions Accountant: Lillian Neidenberg
Production Co-ordinator: Lisbeth Wynn-Owen
Production Manager: Gene Levy
Location Managers: Patrick Markey, Julie Chandler, Larry Rapaport, Michael Maschio
Production Assistants: Larry Farber, Anita Weiss, Ruth Rutledge, Danae Walczak, Kellie Lattanzio
Assistant to Michael Mann: Theresa Curtin
Secretaries to Michael Mann: Kathy Landig, Christine Vertosick
Assistant to the Producers: Patti Kailing Bosworth
Assistant to James Caan: Barbara Licker-Cann
1st Assistant Directors: Peter Bogart, Scott Maitland
2nd Assistant Director: Richard N. Graves
Script Supervisor: Sandy King
Casting: Vic Ramos
Additional Casting by: Stanzi Stokes
Extra Casting by: Lisa Clarkson, Independent Casting
Screenstory & Screenplay by: Michael Mann
Based on the book ‘The Home Invaders’ by: Frank Hohimer
Director of Photography: Donald Thorin
Additional Photography by: Don Cahill
Camera Operators: Craig Denault, Frank Miller
Camera Assistants: James Blanford, Jack Gary, Michael Genne, Alan Disler
Key Grip: Danny Jordan
2nd Grip: Robin Knight
Gaffer: Richard Hart
[Gaffer’s] Best Boy: Larry Whitehead
Special Photographer: Gusmano Cesaretti
Still Photographer: James Zenik
Special Effects: Russel Hessey
Editor: Dov Hoenig
Assistant Film Editors: Richard Bernstein, John Stagnitta
Chicago Assistant Film Editor: Carol Eastman
Production Designer: Mel Bourne
Art Director: Mary Dodson
Assistant Art Director: Michael Molly
Set Decorator: John Dwyer
Lead Person: Bart Susman
Property Master: Bill MacSems
Assistant Property: Wendell Powell
Paint Foreman: John Lattanzio
Construction Co-ordinator: Joe Acord
Costume Supervisor: Jodie Tillen
Costumers: Paula Cain, Dennis Fill
Selected Wardrobe of James Caan by: Giorgio Armani
Make-up Artist: Frank Griffin
Hairstyles: Edie Panda, Kathe Swanson
Titles by: Arnold Goodwin
Titles/Opticals: Pacific Title
Timer: Aubrey Head
Music by: Tangerine Dream
Additional Music by: Craig Safan
Music Editor: Robert Badami
Sound Mixer: David Ronne
Boom Operator: John Schuyler
Cableman: Dan Gianneschi
Re-recording Mixers: Robert Knudson, Don MacDougall, Robert Glass, Chris Jenkins
Neg Cutter: Donah Bassett
Sound Effects Supervisor: Robert T. Rutledge
Sound Effects Processing: Craig Harris
Sound Effects Editors: Scott Heckers, Jerry Stanford, David B. Cohn, Larry Carow, Samuel C. Crutcher
Assistant Sound Effects Editors: Joe Ippolito, George Anderson, Craig Jaeger, Duffy Rutledge
Looping Editor: Paul Huntsman
Technical Consultants: John Santucci, Chuck Adamson
Security: Sam Cirone
Special Projects: Gavin MacFadyen
Transportation Co-ordinators: Ronnie Baker, Bo Falck
Transportation Co-captains: Billy Martin, James Sharp
Chicago Craft Service: Wilbur Hopp
LA Craft Service: Joanne Rutledge
Stunt Co-ordinator: Walter Scott
Stuntmen: Norman Blankenship, H.P. Evetts
Hand Guns: Hong Gun Works
Unit Publicist: Robert Werden

James Caan (Frank)
Tuesday Weld (Jessie)
Robert Prosky (Leo)
James Belushi (Barry)
Tom Signorelli (Attaglia)
Willie Nelson (Okla)
Dennis Farina (Carl, Leo’s people)
Nick Nickeas (Nick, Leo’s people)
W.R. (Bill) Brown (Mitch, Leo’s people)
Norm Tobin (Guido, Leo’s people)
John Santucci (Urizzi, police)
Gavin MacFadyen (Boreksco, police)
Chuck Adamson (Ancell, police)
Sam Cirone (Martello, police)
Spero Anast (Bukowski, police)
Walter Scott (D. Simpson, police)
Sam T. Louis (large detective in suit)
William LaValley (Joseph)
Lora Staley (Paula)
Hal Frank (Joe Gags)
Del Close, Bruce Young, John Kapelos (mechanics)
Mike Genovese (bartender at Green Mill)
Joan Lazzerini (Attaglia’s receptionist)
Beverly Somerman (secretary with cup)
Enrico R. Cannataro (salesman at L & A Plating)
Mary Louise Wade (deli waitress 1)
Donna J. Fenton (deli waitress 2)
Thomas Giblin, Willie Hayes, Conrad Mocarski, Benny Turner (members of Mighty Joe Young Band)
William L. Peterson (Katz & Jammer bartender)
Steve Randolph (bouncer at Katz & Jammer)
Nancy Santucci (waitress at Hojo’s)
Nathan Davis (Grossman)
Thomas O. Erhart Jr (judge)
Fredric Stone (Attorney Garner)
Robert J. Kuper (bailiff)
Joene Hanhardt (court recorder)
Marge Kotlisky (Mrs Knowles)
J.J. Saunders (doctor)
Susan McCormick (nurse)
Karen Bercovici (Ruthie)
Michael Paul Chan (waiter at Chinese restaurant)
Tom Howard, Richard Karie (jewellery salesmen)
Oscar Di Lorenzo (customer at Green Mill)
Patti Ross (Marie)
Margot Charlior (Rosa)

USA 1981©
123 mins

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Wed 1 Jun 18:10 (+ intro); Sat 11 Jun 20:30
Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detsvo)
Thu 2 Jun 14:30; Mon 20 Jun 20:50
The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter)
Fri 3 Jun 20:50; Mon 13 Jun 18:10; Fri 24 Jun 20:45
Taxi Driver
Sat 4 Jun 20:45; Wed 15 Jun 20:40; Sun 26 Jun 18:20
The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena)
Sun 5 Jun 13:10; Tue 14 Jun 20:45; Wed 29 Jun 20:40
Escape from Alcatraz
Mon 6 Jun 20:45; Sat 25 Jun 17:50
Tue 7 Jun 20:30; Thu 16 Jun 18:00; Sat 18 Jun 20:30; Thu 30 Jun 20:30
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls)
Wed 8 Jun 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer at Large); Mon 27 Jun 21:00
Fri 10 Jun 20:50; Wed 22 Jun 18:15 (+ intro)
Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)
Sun 12 Jun 18:10; Wed 15 Jun 18:10; Tue 28 Jun 20:40
Down by Law
Fri 17 Jun 20:45; Tue 21 Jun 20:45
Certain Women
Sun 19 Jun 13:10; Thu 23 Jun 20:50; Wed 29 Jun 18:10 (+ intro by BFI Director of Public Programme and Audiences, Jason Wood)

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