Michael Mann | 1981 | 122 min | US
Thieves should really try to stop at the second-to-last big score, because that last big score always turns out terribly. James Caan's Frank is a perfect example. He's a safecracker doing every job quietly, cleanly, and professionally. He makes nary a ripple until his fencing middle man gets tossed out a window and Frank goes looking for his money. He finds his money in the hands of a syndicate that promises him everything he would need to finally get out of the game and lead a comfortable life in a comfortable family. But trying to get an honest deal out of Megacorp when you're running a local mom and pop isn't so easy.
It is impossible not to root for Caan's thief. He is a talented craftsman (a fact proven through intense, calculated robbery set pieces) and a likeable man. After too many years spent in the care of the state, Frank is trying to carve out his piece of the ol' American dream. His modest goals make him the least corrupt and corruptible man in a world of thieves. His courtship with Tuesday Weld, in which he tries to quickly explain the above through collage art, is one of the finer courtships on film.
The eclectic and remarkable supporting cast includes Weld, Willie Nelson, Robert Prosky, The Belush, and a host of easily recognizable character talent like Tom Signorelli, Dennis Farina, and William Petersen. The movie is stacked with talent from the Michael Mann Players. And while I am not a big fan of Tangerine Dream, this soundtrack sets the perfect mood, often sounding more like discordant Eno than the sonic wallpaper of Risky Business.
Best of all, Thief is not troubled by the interior decorator pretensions that I find bog down some of Mann's other films. But don't worry Mann-purists: Frank runs a Cadillac dealership, offering plenty of shots of light arrays reflected in triple-gloss paint. Thief is set in that New York City which exists exclusively in film, with permanently rain slick streets and street lights that barely illuminate anything. De rigueur for neo-noir, but I'm not complaining. Thief is the complete package, aesthetically, with the emotion and story to back it up.
Though it is a great one, Thief is only a crime procedural superficially; ultimately it is a lesson in capital, labour, corruption, and exploitation. The inevitable shootout ending isn't neatly topped with a True Romance bow. The moment before credits instead marks the beginning of a Man with No Name story, or perhaps a revised vision of The Jungle.