In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.
Rare is the directing debut that is so immaculately put together, the filmmaker’s voice feels full formed right out the gate. But in 1981 — with only a handful of television credits under his belt — Michael Mann released Thief, and contained within the movie’s neon-noir vision of Chicago were all the hallmarks that would later come to define his work: the lonely machismo, the career criminal with dreams of domestic bliss, the battle between morality and criminality in a man’s soul and, of course, that sweet, sweet style. Although you’d miss out on Tangerine Dream’s woozy synthesizers, to watch Thief on mute would be mesmerizing enough on its own thanks to Donald Thorin’s cinematography; candy-colored street signs reflect and shimmer off rain-slicked city streets, while even mundane locales are drenched in deep shades of blue.
So yeah, on a visual level alone, Mann’s first movie was already more impressive than most directors’ tenth. But all that style isn’t a substitute for compelling characters; instead, they mirror the essence of Thief’s antihero, Frank (James Caan), a professional safe-cracker whose cool demeanor masks real sorrow. Similarly, Tangerine Dream’s score is appropriately moody and sleek for an 1980s crime-thriller, but distinct touches — a note from a warbly synth that lingers a couple seconds longer than you expect — instill the film with a melancholy that only intensifies as we learn more about Frank.
Frank is, like virtually all of Mann’s protagonists, the absolute best at his job. The opening-credits montage of a diamond robbery, where he’s using high-powered drilling equipment to break into a highly secure safe, show every step of the safe-cracking process to key viewers in on two details: 1) Frank is a consummate professional whose vast knowledge of his craft and calm reserve allow him to pull off jobs with stunning efficiency; and 2) these heists are quite badass. No one likes a well-executed piece of competence porn as much as Mann does, and Frank is beyond competent. By no means does Mann want us to view Frank as an aspirational figure, but there’s also an immense pleasure in watching someone carry off wild and dangerous shit with total aplomb.
Naturally, Frank’s criminal lifestyle eventually puts him in the crosshairs of some dangerous people, chief among them being his new employer — an aging but ruthless mob boss named Leo (Robert Prosky) — and it becomes clear pretty early on that things are headed toward a gruesome climax. Nonetheless, before any blood starts spilling, Thief’s plot is primarily concerned with setting up Frank’s big shot at finding happiness.
Those familiar with Mann’s 1995 classic Heat may notice that Frank is nearly identical to Neil McCauley, Robert De Niro’s character in that film. Like McCauley, Frank’s prospects of retirement involve a hastily formed romance with a woman who’s all but unaware that she’s this man’s last-ditch attempt at normalcy. Unlike McCauley, when Frank meets his dream girl, a waitress named Jessie (Tuesday Weld), he shocks both her and the audience by being completely upfront about his troubling past. That scene — the two of them in a diner on their first date (to which Frank almost literally drags Jessie, confirming that he doesn’t really care about her so much as the role she plays in his plan for a new life) — is not only the movie’s strongest, it’s among the standout sequences of Mann’s career.
Sitting across from Jessie, Frank delivers a lengthy monologue about his work, his hopes and his past — including a stretch in prison that ended with him hospitalized after killing several inmates in self-defense as well as a newfound attitude for self-preservation: “I don’t care about me … I don’t care about nothin’.” He even has his ideas for the future mapped out in a photo collage he carries with him that includes pictures of a secluded home for him and his one-day family. Up until now, Frank has come across as a person who would view sentimentality as an occupational liability. He’s incredibly selective of which heists he’ll agree to and navigates a social circle that’s borderline non-existent. His closed-off world and cold practicality are so well-established by this point that his sudden vulnerability is disarming.
Those with less-favorable opinions on Mann as a director often complain that he treats his (always male) lead characters in an overly solemn fashion. The fact that he frequently shoots these movies like they’re arthouse cinema probably doesn’t help with all the accusations of being pretentious either. Sure, Thief is ultimately a shoot-’em-up crime flick that asks you to sympathize with a bad person who arguably deserves all the bad things coming to him, but its emotional potency is impossible to ignore in moments like the diner monologue or Frank’s visits to his old mentor in prison (played by a zen-like Willie Nelson) that make these figures of absurd masculinity feel tangible. That aching sincerity will stay with you well after the echoes of Frank’s gun blasts have died down.