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ICYMI: Oscar Edition - Thief (1981)


James Caan has made a career out of playing tough guys. Best known for his Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance as the hot-headed/ill-fated Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Caan’s career has also been surprisingly multi-faceted. In addition to playing other notable tough guys in Rollerball and The Killer Elite, he is equally adept at showing a softer side in films like Chapter Two and For The Boys. But even when he is playing “nice,” I have no doubt he’d rather have a gun in his hand and be beating the bloody pulp out anyone that gets in his way. But the fact that he only has one Oscar nomination for his fifty-plus years of work is truly surprising.

1981’s Thief is a sleek vehicle for James Caan’s considerable acting talent as well as the feature film directorial debut of Michael Mann. Looking back, this is a film well worthy of numerous accolades both in front of and behind the camera. As the film starts, we watch James Caan’s Frank pull off the latest in a recent string of high-end robberies, or “scores” as the film denotes. Frank’s partner Barry (Jim Belushi) is set to pick up their proceeds when he discovers that their diamond middleman has been murdered and been relieved of Frank’s haul. Frank quickly surmises who has robbed him and arranges a meeting with a local crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky, in his film debut). Leo is impressed by Frank’s skills and cajones and wants Frank to work for him.

In the meantime, Frank has fallen love with the cashier at the local diner, Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld). Their first date gets off to a rocky start when Frank is a few hours late after having to deal with Leo and his stolen loot. Once cooler heads prevail, the best scene in the film finds these two broken-hearted survivors sharing their souls over coffee at an all-night diner. Frank admits to being a thief and tells her the nasty details of how he survived eleven years in prison. The scene is beautifully acted with Caan being completely honest with no sugar coating and Weld playing the right balance of curiosity and caution has she hears everything she needs to know and then some.

Watching this scene recently, I was reminded of another similar scene from another Michael Mann movie, Manhunter. In that film, William L. Petersen plays a retired FBI agent brought back to catch an elusive serial killer. When his family is targeted, he must take them to a safe house. While buying groceries with his son, a conversation ensues where Petersen tells his son about what happened the last time he hunted a serial killer. We don’t get any cheap flashbacks or gimmicks, just a father and son talking and communicating on a deep level. In the commentary, Mann said he set the scene in a supermarket because he was always struck by the possibility that you might find people talking about anything in any public setting, you never know what you might eavesdrop on. The scene between Caan and Weld plays just like this, it’s so casual, so intimate and surprisingly believable.

After this scene, Frank decides he wants one last score so that he can settle down with Jessie and their recently adopted baby – courtesy of Leo who is happy to help. The audience is treated to classic Mann (even though it’s his first film) as Frank and his crew plan the perfect heist and execute without a hitch. There is nary a wasted moment in this beautifully filmed criminal montage. But, being a Michael Mann film, our hero does not get to go into retirement seamlessly. The last third of the film finds Frank do exactly what he has to do to survive, not unlike his prison time, after we learn that Leo doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Prosky finds just right balance of paternal interest and sinister apathy and you can see why he enjoyed a fruitful thirty-year career in TV and film.

Another pivotal character in the film is David Okla, played by none other than Willie Nelson. Okla was Frank’s prison mentor and de facto father figure. Sadly, these two only share one scene together but it’s filled which such heart and humanity that you seem to know everything you need to know about these two. Okla is proud that Frank has a chance at happiness and Frank is determined to not die in jail.

James Caan has openly proclaimed that Thief is one of his favorite films and I hope you can see why. It tells a classic tale of a masterful criminal out for one last heist who, much like Neil McCauley (from another Mann film Heat), must decide how far he is willing to go and what he is willing to walk away from. Another interesting tidbit is that as a part of his performance, Caan intentionally tried to use as few contractions as possible. In his mind, Frank is someone who already lost eleven years in prison and wants to take and enjoy as much time as humanly possible, which means using every word he can with no shortcuts.

And while Caan’s performance can be expected, it is still hard to believe this was Michael Mann’s debut film since it so refined and stylish. You can definitely see how it set the tone for future work like Miami Vice, Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral.

Additionally, there may be some divide on the score by Tangerine Dream, which actually earned a Golden Razzie Award nomination. Some found it intrusive and over-the-top. I found it moody, pulsating, and necessarily atmospheric. In other words, it’s the prefect score for a nearly perfect Michael Mann film.

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