Thief: Michael Mann’s Strong Directorial Debut

By Matthew Pizana · December 31, 2014

Greed might be good on Wall Street, but it can lead to some precarious situations in the underworld of criminals. Short cuts can be profitable, but still cost a hefty price.  James Caan stars in Thief as Frank, a convict that knows the magic number of dollars it will take for him to have the perfect life and is willing to do whatever it takes with whoever it takes to reach his goal. His biggest problem is he now owes a debt to men that never feel it is fully paid.   

After a decade spent in the can, Frank (James Caan) is ready to be somebody and he wants to be that someone now. After four years, Frank has set up two successful businesses on the back of his lucrative career as a master thief. Now, Frank decides he needs a woman to complete his life so he volunteers a waitress in a local restaurant (Tuesday Weld) to come be his bride. With a pocket full of Frank’s money from a recent score, Frank’s fence is murdered after he is caught skimming money.  Frank goes to get his money back, but when he ends up meeting with another fence named Leo (Robert Prosky) who offers Frank a business opportunity working directly for him doing scores across the country which could lead to Frank becoming richer faster than he could ever manage on his own. Frank is leery about the offer, but wants to start his new life with his girl now so he accepts Leo’s offer of one big takedown. After Frank robs a large Los Angeles diamond company, he goes to Leo to get paid and get out, but Leo has other ideas giving Frank only a partial payment from his cut telling Frank that there are more jobs on the horizon that he expects him to fulfill. Frank explodes, disposing of everything that means anything to him in his life including his family and his business. 

Frank has a multitude of layers that make him tick. He’s a loner, but feels his life will not be complete without a family. He keeps the same criminal partner for many years never trusting anyone else to bring into the fold. He is a man defined by his time in prison. He learned to never care about anything otherwise. When Frank feels like he’s made himself too vulnerable, he burns it all down including sending his family away and literally burning down his car lot. 


There is no denying the action in the film feels completely realistic and that’s how Michael Mann works. He hired convicts to be on the set at all times to make sure that nothing looked faked. 10,000 dollars of production flow went to the budget of a safe for James Caan to legitimately break into. The drill that he uses to drill into the safe feels genuinely heavy as the actor seems to struggle to hold it up during the process. The oxylance, a long sparkler type tool, the team uses to melt the front of the safe off with feels, at points, like the screen is going to melt from high temperatures it produces.

Thief is Michael Mann’s directorial debut, but his skills were that of a director that had been working for years. The elements that would come to define Mann as a director, the stylized visual aesthetic, the seedy underworld of criminals and a club thumping soundtrack are all present. Made in 1981, Thief mixes elements of past gritty crime films like Riffi and The Red Circle with the new aesthetics of modern cinema from Miami Vice to Heat (both Michael Mann productions).   

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