In Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), James Caan plays Frank, a skilled and successful Chicago safecracker who only steals diamonds and cash. With his trusted friend and partner Barry (Jim Belushi), he’s worked up from being a broke ex-con to wearing silk shirts, expensive suits, a gold watch and diamond ring, and since he owns a used car lot he changes rides like “some people change their shoes.” But Frank’s recent divorce and the prospect of losing his best buddy has left him emotionally empty, so he decides it’s time to create the happy ending he’s always dreamed of.
In prison he made a little collage he keeps in his wallet, a criminal’s version of an empowering dream board, and it includes a wife and kids, so he approaches his pretty coffee shop cashier Jessie (Tuesday Weld). Their date starts off badly when a payoff negotiation makes him late, but it turns into a stunning display of emotional honesty as Frank opens up to her about what he’s been, where he is right now and what he wants for the future. Secrets and lies destroyed his marriage so he lays it all out and proposes to Jessie. These are amazing scenes in which the streetwise Jessie listens and warms to him, recognizes a kindred spirit and reveals her own checkered past as a drug dealer’s moll. In minutes Frank acquires his new wife like he’s making a deal, but it’s not cold or cheap, it’s the way he is and the crossroads he’s at.
To make this new life a reality, Frank plots one last big heist (we all know that’s the one that goes bad). On that date night payoff, Frank met the city’s main money man, the fence and crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky) who invites Frank to join the organization and work his magic on bigger heists. In one night, the independent, self-employed Frank suddenly has a wife and boss and all those complicated ties he always avoided. The robbery goes smoothly but it’s followed by deadly double crosses, and when Leo tells Frank he can never leave the mob and retire on his own terms, Frank reverts to his loner ways, cuts all ties and destroys both his newfound domestic dream and Leo’s gang.
Every detail of image and character, every gear in the story and element of the style and atmosphere, all of it clicks into place and make crime and people compelling (yes, even that frolicking on the beach scene). Mann’s good at crime procedurals that show you the art in the criminal’s skill, and make the smallest parts of prep fascinating (even circuits and code in his otherwise disappointing Blackhat). Here, to break into the “perfect” diamond vault, we need the master machinist who painstakingly creates special tools which we then see in action as Frank and Barry drill, slice and sever lines and make their way to the gems.
Balancing out the job is a look into the thief’s personal life, and Caan is so good playing out both those sides and the two sides of his own nature, the conflict between what he is and what he wants. Turned down at the adoption agency because of his prison record, Frank offers to take the most undesirable kids, and ends up buying a baby through Leo. As an orphan raised by the state Frank taught himself that having nothing to lose was the secret to freedom and survival but that’s incompatible with the white picket fence part of his dream. So as he buys and builds a “normal” life and family, he also makes decisions that are bound to destroy that happiness. He’s torn between two father figures, his beloved criminal mentor Okla (Willie Nelson), a warm and wise man who advises Frank to live honestly. Okla’s dying of a heart condition and his request for a pardon pays off in a fun courtroom scene where judge and attorney work out a bribe by touching fingers to their faces. When Okla dies Frank’s left under the control of his other father figure Leo, who’s kindly offered to “take care” of him and intends to in more ways than one.
I love these 80s films and their synth scores, big boxy cars, bold colors, neon-lit slick city streets and simple, clean action. Thief has all that and goes well beyond to become a great, authentic crime classic.