Saturday, November 10, 2018

Movie Reviews: Thief

directed by Michael Mann
This was Michael Mann's first feature film. It's a modern noir that was a precursor and template to later Mann creations such as Miami Vice, Crime Story, and Heat. In fact Heat's iconic coffee shop discussion between De Niro and Pacino is something that Mann did first in Thief. Like Heat, Thief stars a Godfather alumnus, James Caan. It seems to me that male American actors from the seventies and eighties were more comfortable expressing traditional masculinity than their modern day counterparts. 

Caan is in full bada$$ swagger mode, wide shoulders and all, throughout this film. This movie shows Mann's eye for glossy nighttime colors, modern haunting synth music (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), well dressed albeit morally compromised heroes (Caan is often in Armani suits), and tough guys from both sides of the law. Chicago Detective Dennis Farina made his acting debut here as a mob hitman while real life Chicago thief and mobster John Santucci convinced as a greedy and corrupt cop. Both actors went on to greater acclaim in Crime Story.

Traditionally the classic Chicago Outfit maintained oversight over the most successful professional burglars, auto thieves, safe crackers, and armed robbers in the greater Chicago area. These criminals were usually independent, not formal Mob members. However the Mob often demanded that such thieves pay a flat street tax or percentage of their take to the local Mob representative. Refusal was considered disrespectful. This "disrespect" could be an excellent way for recalcitrant thieves to wind up arrested by a Mob affiliated cop, if they were lucky, or appear in a car trunk, if they weren't. One might wonder why criminals would agree to surrender any of their take to or accept orders from mobsters. That's a good question. 

In real life, a renegade group of thieves, angered at being peremptorily ordered not to rob a jeweler who was good friends with Chicago Outfit Boss Anthony "Joe Batters" Accardo, showed their displeasure with Accardo's commands by robbing his home. Well that proved to be a very bad idea. You don't get a nickname like Joe Batters from Capone himself by turning the other cheek.

Shortly after Accardo's return from vacation all of the thieves, some of their friends and relatives, and even a few people who were simply unfortunate enough to know them, were murdered in horrifically gruesome ways. The Mob doesn't forget and doesn't forgive. It often has the numbers and power to enforce its dictates. Thief is about an independent Chicago criminal.

Frank (Caan) is a thief with a certain integrity. He's a working guy. Frank spent a long time in prison. He's not planning on returning. He's Chicago's most skilled thief. Frank meticulously plans his capers, eschews violence and rarely carries a gun. Frank doesn't do home invasions or anything where he'll have to hurt civilians. Frank owns a used car dealership and bar, two businesses which also help him launder his illegal earnings. Occasionally high strung (this is James Caan after all), Frank is planning his exit from the criminal world. Frank will leave once he gets a certain level of cash saved. He's very close. Frank doesn't trust any men besides his partner Barry (James Belushi) and his dying criminal mentor/father figure Okla (Willie Nelson). 

Frank does have some halting and eventually real(?) tenderness for the cashier he's fallen in love with and marries, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). Perhaps the names were shout outs to the James Gang, also an independent group that ran afoul of law and order. 

However, as Frank has been institutionalized for most of his life it's an open question as to whether Frank really loves Jessie or he's in love with the idea of loving Jessie. But it doesn't matter; the two treat each other very well. Caan is such a good actor here that the viewer can take either impression.

But good times never last. After a score Frank hands over the loot to his fence Joe Gags (Hal Frank). But unknown to Frank Joe Gags has always been "owned" by the false affably evil mob chieftain Leo (Robert Prosky). Joe Gags became a little greedy so Leo had him removed from the planet. But Leo likes Frank. Leo has watched Frank from afar. Leo appreciates Frank's skill, expertise and ability to avoid detection. Leo has lined up a West Coast heist for Frank and his crew. 

Frank's cut will be just under a million dollars, enough for him to retire. Frank is wary. He doesn't like bullies. He doesn't like the mob. Frank hates organizations. But this money is too good to turn down. Frank wants to leave this work behind and provide a safe legal life for Jessie and their son. So Frank agrees. One Last Job.

Frank keeps his word and lives up to deals. He expects others to do the same. Frank won't bend on that. Frank doesn't scare easy or back down from confrontation. If Frank has to fight the whole world then that is what he will do. This is one of Caan's best films. It is amusing to see Caan employ many of the same mannerisms, hand gestures and verbal tics that I associate with his Sonny Corleone. Everyone is extremely well cast, particularly Robert Proksy, who can radiate chilling contempt and grandfatherly affection in the same scene. Like many movies from days gone by, this movie doesn't mind taking its time showing people at work or giving actors a chance to well, act. It can be refreshing to go back and watch films before special effects and short attention spans became the dominant expectations. All of the primary actors and actresses say a lot with silence and facial expressions.

The neon, shiny cars, and sense of dread and loss will appeal to anyone who likes noir or neo-noir films. The only way for Frank to survive could be to give up his dream. Frank, perhaps since childhood, has always carried around a collage of happy pictures that show who he aspires to be. This is as much or more a character drama as it is an action/thriller movie. The music and the seeming authenticity of the safe breaking methods combine to make this a dreamy and yet very realistic movie. It's not as violent as you might expect, given the subject matter.
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