Michael Mann’s Thief (1948) begins with a ten-minute scene depicting a bank heist. Frank (James Caan), a master safecracker, breaks into a vault and steals a set of priceless diamonds. He doesn’t trip any alarms, he doesn’t leave any trace. He and his cohorts disappear into the night undetected. Cut to the next morning; a tranquil pier by the harbor. Frank’s fence is waiting for him. He is fishing. Frank arrives with a cup of coffee in hand and a take-out breakfast order. As he delivers the stolen goods, he offers his colleague a danish.
This is the beauty of Michael Mann’s films. He takes characters and situations that have been done to death and laces them with personal details. They are crime stories, but they are intimate ones. Michael Mann pays more attention to the personal lives of his heroes than their criminal enterprises. They become human. We get to know the main character of Thief as a friend, not a case file.
From the beginning, the story is unusual. Frank is a successful thief, but he wants to quit and adopt a kid with his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). However, they value his skills too much to let him go. Who are they? It’s difficult to say. The face of the opposition is Leo (Robert Prosky), a mob boss who communicates directly to Frank, but there are always faceless monsters lurking in the corner of the screen. During one meeting, a sniper hides behind a billboard with his gun trained on Frank. It never goes off, but we are reminded that Frank is being watched at every moment. He is more valuable than he realizes, and this will ultimately make his retirement impossible.
At its core, Thief is a mood-piece. There is beautiful cinematography throughout; steely shades of blue that reflect off the windshields, rainy streets and gunmetal to give the film a crisp, fluid sheen. A futuristic soundtrack by electronic band Tangerine Dream interlocks seamlessly with every scene. Michael Mann shoots the solitary tradecraft of the safecracker with glaring intensity. Thief steers away from flashy set-pieces, focusing more on the suspenseful and romantic elements of the story. Most of the scenes take place in relative seclusion.
The performances are strong throughout. Robert Prosky is sly and sinister as the Chicago gang leader. Willie Nelson is touching as the father figure, even from behind glass. Tuesday Weld gives a shattered, thoughtful turn as the girlfriend. However, James Caan steals the show. His hair-trigger machismo is completely compatible with the character, and he can play it to any tone. It is scary when he threatens the gangsters, heartbreaking when he threatens the adoption agency that won’t give him a child. His depiction of Frank is lively, charismatic and sympathetic, even with the character’s trademark aggression.
The story is driven by the main character, who has a lot of dimension. He’s intimidating, but there’s a sensitivity to him. He wants to be a husband and a father, for example. He loves his mentor (Willie Nelson), whom he visits frequently in prison. In a ten-minute long dialogue scene (the best in the film) he explains to Jessie how he got to be so tough. The character is also impatient and headstrong, which gets him into trouble. When Jessie plays dumb about his business, he responds, “I am cruising day and night in a brand new Caddy convertible. I am wearing $150 slacks, silk suits, $800 shirts, a watch loaded with diamonds and a perfect 3 karat ring with no visible means of support, and you ask me how I make a living? Baby, I am a thief.” He doesn’t know how right he is. Driven as Frank might be to build a new life, there is no escape for him. He cannot be a husband or a father. He can only be a thief.