Videodrome :: Thief (1981)

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

During an early scene in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), ace safecracker Frank (James Caan) visits his best friend Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison. Okla is serving out the last ten months of his sentence, and he fears he may die behind bars. With his mortality looming over his head, Okla advices Frank, “Lie to no one. If there’s somebody close to you, you’ll ruin it with a lie.” 

Although this is the only scene where Frank and Okla engage in conversation, there’s enough of a lived-in comfortability between them to inform us of a deep-rooted friendship, one that has most likely included a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. As his mentor and confidant, Okla is seemingly the only person in Frank’s life to instill the importance of honesty and forming relationships — something that has evaded Frank his whole life. Frank takes Okla’s words to heart; he begins planning a new life as a family man and doesn’t lie to anyone. Well, almost anyone. 

Frank is the anti-hero at the center of Thief, an orphan raised by the state who has spent most of his life in and out of prison. Frank is brash and headstrong with a short fuse, a product of the shortcomings of institutionalization and the failures of the system that shaped him. Behind the scenes, Frank nighttimes as a professional safecracker and jewel thief. But by the light of day, he’s the business owner of a used car dealership and a bar (which any Chicagoan will automatically recognize as the historic Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown). He navigates the straight and criminal worlds with the same kind of working-class, no-bullshit mentality. Whether he’s cracking safes or selling cars, Frank is simply doing his job. He works for no one, and any business he does is a direct investment back into himself.

In a 2014 interview with Kevin Jagernauth of Indiewire, Mann would say, “The idea of creating Frank was to have somebody who has been outside of society. He’s an outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music people listen to, how you talk to a girl, what you want with your life, and how you go about getting it. Everything that’s normal development that we experience he was excluded from, by design.”

When Frank finds himself mixed up with the mob, forced to forego his cherished autonomy, he begins to defy his strict ethical codes. A high-level boss of the Chicago Outfit, Leo (Robert Prosky), is impressed by Frank’s professionalism. Leo wants Frank to work directly for him. At first, Frank is reluctant, but Leo tempts him with a large share of profits — the kind of money Frank could never garnish as a lone wolf. This is further complicated by Frank’s love interest, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), whom he plans to start a family with. Although getting into bed with the mob directly opposes Frank’s entrepreneurial spirit, working underneath Leo will afford him the life he’s always envisioned. It’s the same life Frank has mapped out as a collage of magazine clippings and photographs that he carries around in his back pocket, which displays a suburban house, a car, a mother holding her child, and his old buddy, Okla. He agrees to do one last big score for Leo, deciding it’ll be his final job as a safecracker. The rest of his life — the simple, quiet life — awaits him. 

Per Okla’s advice, Frank tells the truth to the few people he’s closest with. Instead of trying to lead a double life, Frank immediately tells Jessie he’s a criminal. He informs his business associate Barry (James Belushi) that he’s retiring from safecracking. He even confesses to Leo that he and Jessie are struggling to adopt a child; Leo assures him he can procure a baby boy off the black market. Yes, Frank may be a loose cannon with a violent temperament, but Frank isn’t a liar. However, in his aspirations to settle down and become a family man — to leave crime behind and become a reputable citizen — Frank comes to realize that he’s lying to the person closest to him: Frank is lying to himself. By the film’s end, Frank coldly accepts who he’s always been and will always be. Frank is an undesirable. Frank is a thief. 

Released in March of 1981, Thief marks Michael Mann’s theatrical debut as a director. Inspired by the memoir The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer, the film received widespread critical acclaim, prompting Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times to call Thief “one of the most intelligent thrillers I’ve seen.” It’s considered not only one of Mann’s best films, but one of the best directorial debuts of all time. It’s cited as a key influence on films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and television series such as True Detective and Better Call Saul. Although not often discussed, Thief also shares connective tissue with David Chase’s The Sopranos. Both Frank and Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) are emotionally immature hot-heads, crude anti-heroes who exist within and outside of conventional society, grappling with achieving their perception of the American dream.

Over the past forty years, Thief has been hailed as a Marxist neo-noir classic, a cinematic bridge between the gritty realism of the crime-dramas of the 1970s and the hyper-stylized action films of the 1980s. But besides being a genre bedrock, Thief is a nuanced character study that serves as an allegory for the trappings of capitalism. It’s no surprise that — despite David E. Thorin’s tenebrous cinematography and Mann’s meticulously sculpted action sequences — one of Thief’s most iconic scenes is a low-key, ten-minute-long conversation between Frank and Jessie at a brightly lit fluorescent diner. 

As they talk over coffee, Jessie reveals her checkered past spent drifting from city to city with her drug dealer ex, a life she describes as “twisted and ugly and empty.” Frank relays his experience in prison while serving an eleven-year sentence in which he attacked guards and beat other prisoners to death in order to survive. “You got to forget time. You got to not give a fuck if you live or die,” Frank tells Jessie. “You got to get to where nothing means nothing.” Frank credits his survival to his ability to bury his emotions and subscribe to the “nothing means nothing” mindset. But in this same nihilistic breath, Frank shows Jessie his vision-board collage, handing it to her with the proud smile of a young boy. As Tangerine Dream’s synth-laden score drifts into the scene, Jessie looks over the collage, asking what it is. “That is my life, and nothing — nobody — can stop me from making that happen,” Frank tells her, pointing at the collage. “And right there — that’d be you.” 

The scene ends with Jessie tearing up as Frank pleads, “I was just thinking, you know, that maybe between the two of us, we could make something happen — something special, something really nice.” At this moment, we realize that Frank and Jessie aren’t ex-cons or former prostitutes, business owners or cashiers. They’re two broken people looking for love and acceptance in a cruel, indifferent world.

The scene plays out beautifully, a testament to Caan and Weld as actors (Caan would later cite this scene as one of his favorite performances). Frank is a mess of thoughts and emotions — angry and depressed, evasive and forthright, macho and scared. Caan manages to alternate between a cold-blooded criminal and a heartbreaking romantic from one moment to the next. On the other side of the table, Weld is just as competent, texturing Jessie with a sincerity that radiates empathy. 

Beginning with a wide two-shot and then gradually closing in on Frank and Jessie in long to medium shots, Mann ends the scene with a closeup of the two star-crossed lovers holding hands across the table. The camerawork is subtle, the editing unhurried, building in emotional intensity until we are left to linger on their clasped hands. With each frame, we are being pulled further into the relationship between Frank and Jessie and getting closer insight into who they are. While it’s far from the most exciting scene, it serves as the film’s emotional core. It speaks to everything Thief is about: ambition and sacrifice, aspirations and dreams, and the cost of it all.

The diner scene also propels the plot forward. With his vision-board collage slowly coming to life, Frank agrees to pull one last job for Leo as a means to an end. At this juncture, Thief begins to sway away from genre formulas, becoming something far greater than a standard heist film. In the hands of another writer and director, Thief would most likely follow the conventional beats: planning the heist, raising the stakes, building suspense, and then blasting into the climatic execution of the heist at the film’s coda. But Mann places the jewelry heist near the end of the Act II break, directing the sequence with an austere approach that insists on process depiction over stylized montage editing. This unhurried method gives verisimilitude to the heist, making what should be the most exhilarating scene a laborious play-by-play that ends with thirty minutes left in the film. 

In Thief’s last half-hour, whatever light is at the end of the tunnel — whatever sparkle of hope there is for Frank to reform — completely vanishes. Against their original agreement, Leo withholds the majority of Frank’s payment and informs him of another heist job in Palm Beach. Naturally, Frank tells him to fuck off and demands his payment in full — he’s not doing any more jobs; this is it. But Frank is in too deep, and his situation quickly spirals out of control. 

The gravity of Frank’s situation crystalizes during a chilling monologue by Leo (Caan and Weld’s performances are excellent, but Prosky almost steals the whole movie in this scene) when he threatens Frank’s life and family after murdering Frank’s partner, Barry: “Don’t come on to me now with your jailhouse bullshit. You are not that guy. Don’t you get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, and I own the paper on your whole fucking life. I’ll put your cunt wife on the street … your kid’s mine because I bought it. You got him on loan. He is leased. You are renting him. I’ll whack out your whole family. People will be eating them for lunch tomorrow in their hamburgers, not knowing it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say. I run you. There is no discussion. I want your work until you are burned out, busted, or you’re dead. Do you get it?” And all at once, Frank’s castle in the sand — his home in the suburbs, his wife and son — is washed away by the tide of reality. He’ll never be free. He’ll never be anything but a safecracker. In Thief’s final act, Frank abandons all his rose-tinted plans and does the exact opposite of what he told Leo he would never do during their first meeting (“No cowboy shit, no home invasions”).

Thief establishes one of the prominent thematic motifs in Mann’s filmography: the consummate professional forced to choose between their code of honor and their future. While it’s undoubtedly a crime film, Thief isn’t about jewelry heists or being shaken down by the mob. It’s about the pursuit of the American dream; the desperation that a capitalistic society creates in people when they realize that there is no such thing as upward mobility — the system is stacked against them. Doing good, honest work will only get you so far, even in criminality. To get ahead in life, you must exploit yourself or others, sacrificing your individuality for capital gains. In the end, Thief proposes that capitalism makes criminals of us all. 

Frank naively believes that he can rise above the system and carve out a path in life on his own terms. In the process, he sacrifices his sovereignty. Without realizing it until it’s too late, Frank becomes another pawn in Leo’s criminal empire, and everything he has belongs to the mob. For Frank, the only vestige of liberation lies in becoming the person he’s trying so hard to get away from; the person he’s been lying to himself about; the person who doesn’t care about anything or anyone; the person who doesn’t give a fuck if he lives or dies; the person who can light it all up and watch it burn because “nothing means nothing.”

Films have conditioned us to expect that good will triumph over evil. In return, we anticipate a moral paragon: the cowboy will ride off into the sunset, the cop will catch the killer, and the princess will be saved from the castle. In screenwriting, this is referred to as “the hero’s journey,” which is the protagonist’s struggle to overcome obstacles to achieve their goal. But in Thief, Mann subverts this narrative blueprint, giving us a protagonist who succumbs to his obstacles and gives up on his goals. Thief isn’t about revenge or redemption, winning or losing, but accepting the cards society deals us. Frank may walk away alive, momentarily a free man on the quiet streets of suburban Chicago, but he walks away a criminal with a dead dream. 

For Frank, it’s a spiritual death, culminating in a scene where he gives his enshrined vision-board collage one last look before crumpling it up and tossing it onto the pavement. The external reality of Frank’s lot in life overrides his internal ambitions. He gives up on his perception of self as an average-Joe American and everything that comes with it: the house, the family, the secure job, and the comfortable middle-class existence. Frank will never achieve his goal of being a well-adjusted citizen; he’ll never be the doting husband and father he wants to be. He’s been lying to himself about who he really is all along. This lie gives way to the truth between his ideals and his reality, which are ultimately incompatible. In its final frames, Thief concludes itself not as a stylish neo-noir or sexy crime-thriller, but as a blue-collared tragedy. | e hehr

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