Weekend Film Recommendation: Thief

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The decade of the 1970s in American film witnessed the continuation of the auteur-driven creative revival that began in the late 1960s (see prior recommendations The Kid Stays in the Picture and Bonnie and Clyde for details) as well as the beginning of the blockbuster era led by Jaws, Star Wars et al. But with the dawn of the 1980s, a new genre of slick, cool, cinematic products emerged in the theaters and on television. This week’s film recommendation is what I regard as the first movie of this new era, Michael Mann’s gripping 1981 crime drama Thief.

The plot focuses on an emotionally-walled off master thief named Frank (none of the characters in the film have last names). After 11 years in prison, Frank returns to his craft and starts to hope for a real life built around an equally damaged woman he fancies (Tuesday Weld) and the forthcoming return of his mentor from the joint (Willie Nelson). But with attachments and possessions come vulnerability, and Frank’s is exploited by a ruthless mobster (Robert Prosky) and corrupt cops who wants to profit from his scores. Frank is pushed to his emotional limit even as he plans the biggest heist of his life, which he dreams will let him start anew.

Made just a few years before his as-1980s-as-it-gets hit TV show Miami Vice, Thief highlights writer-director Michael Mann’s signature style, which blends some old time film noir themes with modern flashy camerawork, pulsating music, gritty performances, and attention to realistic details (real-life criminals were hired to consult on the film). There were many slick but stupid films in the 1980s, but Mann consistently managed to to make style serve substance rather than substitute for it. Thief is Mann’s best work in my view, though my fellow film reviewer Johann Koehler may disagree given his endorsement of Mann’s thematically-similar Heat, which I consider excellent but not quite as tightly constructed or compelling as Thief.

Putting aside a miscast Jim Belushi, the performers are all strong here, with Caan turning in what he correctly called the best work of his career. His extended scene with Weld in which he explains how prison affected him is flawless in its writing and acting, and draws the viewer into Frank’s emotional world rather than keeping us at a distance as did too many films of this era.

This is also a terrific Chicago film. It’s not just the iconic and prosaic Chicago locations employed, but also the way the actors deliver their lines in Windy City-ese. Last but certainly not least, Tangerine Dream’s score is quite memorable, and is well supplemented by Craig Safan’s closing music that riffs on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, which not incidentally is the state this film ultimately leaves its heroes.

p.s. Look fast for Dennis Farina as one of Prosky’s gunmen.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Thief”

  1. Looking forward to seeing this. Can't say I liked Heat that much. Most of it was wonderful. If he had kept the girlfriends and wives and children out it would have been a much leaner and better film.

    1. Should have mentioned that I think I saw Thief was available for free on Amazon Prime. Hope you enjoy it.

    2. But that would have reduced it to yet another crime caper cat-and-mouse film! What makes "Heat" special for me is the varying degrees to which the characters are able to leave a life—whether the score or their relationships—behind when the heat is around the corner. And besides, Lange's and Judd's performances are superb.

      1. I see your point. Sides stories in a crime film can be fine. A break in the action. But in Heat there were too many side stories. It seemed after awhile I was watching 2 different movies spliced together. The first time I watched the movie it was alright. But it's not one I want to see again.

  2. It's not on Prime but is on YouTube. Great film! The scenes in Chicago are superb. Lower Wacker Drive at the beginning…the old Blackhawk Restaurant at Randolph and Wabash…and the bar used in the film is the Green Mill on the North Side. An old Capone hangout still operating.

    'During the Prohibition era, Jack McGurn of Al Capone's Chicago Outfit became a part-owner. Singer and comedian Joe E. Lewis was attacked by McGurn's men in 1927 after he refused to take his act to the Green Mill. Lewis' throat was slashed, but he survived. The incident inspired the 1957 film The Joker Is Wild.

    Al Capone's favorite booth is still in the establishment located directly west of the short end of the bar. Capone and his men would sit here because it afforded clear views of both the front and back entrances to the establishment. It is rumored that there is still an access hatch to the tunnels located directly behind the long end of the bar that leads underneath the street to an adjacent building; this is how Capone was able to elude the authorities when he visited the Green Mill.'

  3. The use of Chicago as a film location never happened while Daley Sr. was mayor. When Lee Marvin's superb M Squad used Chicago as a setting the few exterior shots they got had to be done surreptitiously. After Jane Byrne became mayor in 1979 her loathing of the Democratic Machine was well known. Shooting the Blues Brothers in 1980 was no problem. 'You want to crash into the Daley Center? Be my guest!'

  4. Per your suggestion, I watched this on YouTube. Within minutes, I realized that I had seen it, and probably a couple of times (perhaps in the theater, and then four or five years later on VHS or Beta). Caan really is in top form. And agreed, his monologue in the diner is very near perfection. But damn, that incessant theme and bad Giorgio Moroder-esque synthesizer whine, constantly, was really distasteful to my modern palate, like fingernails on a blackboard. There are some other clunky parts to it (editing, acting, camera work) — but overall, absolutely, well worth the watch, and a great time capsule of Chicago, in much the way Fort Apache The Bronx (not quite as good a film, but not bad) is of the same era in New York.

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