The early morning glow of the oncoming sunrise shimmers over the waters of Lake Michigan. Framed in silhouette, Chicago safecracker Frank sits next to a fisherman, early to rise to catch mackerel on a cool Midwestern morning. As the two men gaze out at the dawn before them, they marvel at the possibility it seems to represent. Something so simple. “That’s magic, man,” the fisherman says.
The stunning composition of the image lends this quiet moment in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) a serenity that the rest of the film will struggle to find again. Frank embodies the film’s central theme: the search for a better tomorrow, no matter how far away it might be. He carries with him a self-generated collage of images, gathered from newspapers and magazines, which offer a vision of an aspirational future. When Frank needs a reminder of what he is working towards, he looks at the collage’s as-yet unfulfilled promises: a wife, a house, children, a reunion with his mentor, and above all, independence. However, Frank knows that those things come at a price. The collage lives in his wallet, a prisoner of the demands of capital.
Michael Mann’s cinema is about the surfaces of the world his characters inhabit: an iconic shot of another of his thieves in Heat (1995), come home to an empty house in the icy blue space between night and the following day with a gun laid on a glass table, might effortlessly stand in for the whole of the director’s filmography. Thief was Mann’s debut feature, and his vision was already firmly in place. The opening sequence, as Frank breaks into a safe to retrieve a collection of diamonds, is all cold blues and incandescent greens, set to the driving electronica of Tangerine Dream, an overwhelming musical score that expresses Frank’s duality: efficient professionalism and passionate commitment to a life fully realized.
As Frank, James Caan oscillates between the hard-earned reputation of a man who had to fight his way through an eleven-year prison term, all cynicism, distrust, and masculine posturing, and the sensitive dreamer who commits totally to honesty. Both sides of Frank are on display in the film’s most important scene, an extended conversation at a highway overpass diner during which he tries to convince the skeptical checkout girl Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to become the wife he has only imagined in his collage. He tells her a harrowing story about fighting his way through a pack of angry convicts with a pipe in one moment, and in the next, he assures her that they can adopt a child when she tearfully confesses that she cannot have one of her own. Throughout the scene and the rest of the film, Frank rarely uses a contraction in dialogue; in a recent interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast, Caan said the choice was motivated by Frank’s desire never to have to repeat himself. The effect is a staccato punch in each of Frank’s lines that shows the character’s struggle to keep his vulnerabilities at bay—in one moment in the diner, after Frank shows Jessie his collage, Caan seems to be fighting a cracking in his voice, suppressing the emotion that roils beneath his cool exterior.
Narratively, Thief yields a procession of precisely controlled scenes defined by Frank’s goals. After reluctantly agreeing to work for mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky) to take down a massive score in California, Frank begins to achieve his dreams. He and Jessie buy a house and get married. The couple’s efforts to adopt a child are stymied by a state bureaucracy that has no confidence in Frank’s ability to raise one, a frustrating moment that leads him to Leo, who secures a black market boy for him. Leo is no godfather, however; the double-cross eventually comes, with Leo withholding some of Frank’s earnings for an investment the thief wants no part of. The melee that concludes the film, a slow-motion gunfight at Leo’s house that leaves several gangsters dead, scored to a particularly rousing, propulsive track from Tangerine Dream, is a manifestation of Frank’s self-destructive tendency towards total immolation. His sense of pride violated, his wife and child threatened, his dream of independence negated, all by the domineering, corporatized gangland honcho, leads him to burn it all down. He sends Jessie and their son away, bombs their house and his front businesses, and most importantly, crumples his collage and tosses it in the street.
A dream can be two contradictory things at once: an idealized future and an impossible one. So too can a film. In Thief, Mann constructs a film of remarkably overt style that has spawned a number of imitators drawn to the director’s exacting control of the image, predilection for bold colors, and interventionist musical scores. However, he also opens his heart by letting Frank imagine a future—a risky endeavor. Plans, once made, become real in some sense. Gone unfulfilled, though, that version of reality can go necrotic. No amount of surface can mask the pain left behind. Frank’s self-satisfied nod after his plan to crack a safe yields a fortune in diamonds is the reassurance of a job well done, one step closer to the tomorrow he sees in his mind. His scorched-earth dismantling of the life he worked so hard to build is borne out of disappointment in the world that denied it to him, but mostly, in himself. Though he survives the final gunfight with only a few minor wounds, the film refuses to portray his defiant walk into the night as any kind of triumph.
He will have to start again. Each day, he will have to imagine a future, and then contend with his failure to realize it. Thief, now itself middle aged, finds one of its most poignant moments in the quiet appreciation of a sunrise—but it cannot shake the sunsets on its mind.
“Thief” is currently streaming on HBO Max.