FRC’s Looking Back Friday – Thief (1981)
We are back again with the Looking Back Friday season. This week power commenter and great friend of FRC is here iwth a GUEST post. The Great Jack Deth looks at the 1980 classic, Thief
Greetings, all and sundry!
Since my recent forays into The Top Ten arena, I thought I’d like to unwind and regale you with a tale about a film from 1981 that brought about a near epiphany regarding its director, Michael Mann. As someone who knows his business and isn’t afraid to flex his muscles and deliver a technically concise and very memorable project his first time in the Big Leagues!
AVAILABLE ON AMAZON – DVD
The title says it all. Focusing on Frank. Magnificently played by a very tamped down, under pressure James Caan.Frank is an ex-convict who runs a rather large used car dealership in Midtown Chicago and who likes to ply his trade as a high end safe cracker. Whose area of expertise is precious stones. Cut. Uncut. Maybe some cash. It doesn’t matter to him. All that does matter to Frank is another opportunity to ply his craft and ‘Magic Act’.
The film opens with a car in an alleyway. Whose lone driver is listening to a police scanner under a heavy rain that won’t leave the city any cleaner after it abates. While on a far off rooftop, A bank of Black Boxed Volt/Ohm meters are being watched and kept out of the rain by Barry. Dutifully and believably played by Jim Belushi in one of his few dramatic roles. Inside, Frank goes to work. With the coolest looking Big Honking Drill and 2″ diameter bit suspended from a railed and magnetized dead fall I’d ever seen! Diligently boring a hole in a cabinet sized vault to the sounds of Tangerine Dream and not quite razor sharp, kind of oily, tense looking shadows. The hole is drilled. The bit and rig, retracted and put aside as Frank crouches with a foot long steel punch and heavy mallet.
Other directors would have stopped there. But Mann is confident enough to deliver a shot no one had thought of, executed or achieved before.The camera precedes the punch inside the valut’s door and shows the vault’s locking cam that needs to be punched! Succinctly telling one and all that they are not in Kansas, anymore. All within the film’s first ten minutes! Telling one and all that they are not in Kansas, anymore. While Setting the stage for a story that is more than the sum of its parts.
Doors fly open and wide, Flashlights are Duct Taped into place as shallow drawers are pilfered and quickly checked while narrow boxes envelopes full of diamonds are dumped into an open Gladstone bag. Terse, though well enunciated words are exchanged on Radio Shack radios and Frank and Barry meet at their waiting car and depart after a tense, but well executed night’s work.
The next morning life is wonderful. Frank checks in at his car lot and meets his fence for last night work at a diner.The fence, Joe Gags is so impressed with Frank’s wares that he easily agrees to taking the whole lot for a more than fair sum that Barry will pick up later that afternoon. Frank is one step closer to his dream and picks up the check for coffee to flirt with the diner’s cashier, Jessie. Impressively played by Tuesday Weld
Things start falling apart when Barry leaves several messages for Frank to call. It seems that Joe Gags did have Frank’s money, Before Joe took a header off a twelve story building to the concrete below. This does nothing for Frank’s friendly disposition as he as Barry drive out to one of Joe’s associates in the chemical plating business, Attaglia. Played with noisy bluster by Tom Signoerlli. Words are exchanged. Frank wants his money. Attaglia balks. Frank draws down on Attaglia and states a time and place where he can pick up his 185 thousand dollars.
Frank’s next step is to visit his mentor, Okla. The man who’s taught Frank everything he knows about stones and the successful punching and peeling of safes and vaults and their assorted histories and metallurgy. Played with quiet dignity by Willie Nelson, who has 18 months left on his stretch, but does not want to die in prison. Okla listens as Frank fills him in on general events. Specifically, his interest in Jessie, the Cashier. Okla gives his blessing. Telling Frank that he should be honest about what he does up front and not have problems later down the road
All of this has been prelude to a meeting with ‘The Man’. Leo. Played with wondrously laid back, Grandfatherly aplomb one moment and and violent borderline psychosis much later on by Arena Stage veteran, Robert Prosky. An absolute soft spoken joy to watch as he offers Frank the agreed to sum. Plus long and full time opportunities to ply his craft working for him under mob protection. Frank at first wants no part of this, but has no objections to pulling off the odd heist or two. An agreement is reached and a corner in Frank’s life is turned
Frank picks Jessie up for an evening that is anything but romantic at first. Sometimes resembling a verbal Blitzkrieg as Frank comments about Jessie’s ex and Jessie fires back with both barrels. A wonderful segment of loud, mature Thrust & Parry until Frank tell Jessie that he’s a thief. And a damn good one!
The rendezvous ends at a diner. As Frank explains his life as a child of the state and his time in Joliet Prison. Where he was given a two year sentence for stealing 40 dollars. That became 11 due to a Manslaughter beef that occurred within his first weeks inside. A folded and old photo mural he keeps in his wallet helps explain his tale as Frank explains life on the inside. One of the great scenes in a film with several. Ms. Weld’s Jessie shows quiet strength asking questions as Frank comes as close to pouring out his heart and dreams as he’s ever dared. Frank wants his version of the American Dream. The house. The white picket fence. The wife and kid,even if Jessie can’t conceive. But he wants them on his terms. One more big job and he’s set and can retire for life!
Things change rapidly after that. Courtesy of Leo. A house in white collar suburbia. More than enough liquid cash to arrange for (bribe) a judge to sign off on an early release for Okla. A visit with Jessie to the state adoption service that does not end well due to Frank’s less than stellar background. Local Robbery/Homicide Detectives in Armani finery with their hands out and trying to shake down Frank at every turn. An impromptu ‘trimming’ and ‘tune up’ by those and other even more greedy. In rolled shirt sleeves and easy access to Chicago phone books in a closed locked room. The exact kind of in the spotlight notoriety Frank did not want in the first place!
The final straw are the bug Frank discovers inside the kitchen phone and the homing device Frank finds tucked under his car and sends on a roundabout trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana via a waiting bus at a busy depot. Frank keeps his temper in check as the blueprints and diagrams for the next job arrive, A juicy plum nestled in an L.A. glass and steel high rise. With a secured up the wazoo, walk-in vault full of diamonds that will require some outside the box thinking and magic to challenge and conquer.
Frank’s idea takes him to the wise old men of metallurgy who listen to Franks’s idea. Nod sagely and offer advice. Items are ordered and await arrival as Frank and Barry get a closer look at the building. Aware of the office’s security system and its flaws and weaknesses. Barry waits on the fire stairs for the system’s password to be spoken and recorded. Frank returns home in time for Okla to be released and a son to be delivered to Jessie. After Okla collapses and winds up in the hospital’s Emergency Room in time to see Frank one last time and his before dying. Frank and Jessie go to a Chinese restaurant and name their child David, after Okla.
The film picks up in night time L.A. With Barry and Frank busily punching a hole in the high rise’s roof as bundled phone and alarm lines are sought and spliced. Every tool in an Auto Body repair shop is put into play. From pneumatic shears to dent pullers as debris falls through an elevator shaft. A scene that has been often repeated and has become cliche today. To the office door’s front door tumbler lock is deftly yanked out with a slide dent puller.
Now we come to the main course! The alarm system is nullified with a word spoken into a radio microphone. Furniture is rearranged by Barry and Nick. Who busy themselves with aerosol spray insulation shot into ceiling smoke and fire alarms. That done. Frank puts together his ‘Magic Trick’, Phosphorus rods that need to be lit with an Acetylene torch by Barry, who helps Frank walk the long rod to the vault door. Not to just punch a hole around the lock, but to create a door so that Frank can walk right in! The process is slow in Asbestos hoods Nomex suits. Wielding Hallligan Tools as chunks are levered and pried away and fall. While Nick douses the falling embers with CO2 fire extinguishers. A wondrously well executed scene of sparkle, smoke and swirling shadows.
The door is created and given a chance to cool before Barry steps in and fleece many, many drawers. The film shifts to a Hawaiian beach for some happy family time can be had, but Frank is preoccupied. Sensing that something may not right. Which comes to fruition when they return back to Chicago and Leo gives Frank his cut. Far less than imagined. Frank is expecting somewhere around 800,000 dollars and Leo gives Frank around one tenth of that. Leo tries to explain the rest goes to lawyers, legitimate business and expenses. Frank just wants his money and gives Leo 24 hours to pay up.
Frank goes to his car dealership to pick up Barry, but Leo’s men get there first. Beat up Barry and make him call out to Frank to get him closer. Barry bolts and gets two loads of buckshot for his efforts. Leo stands over a butt stroked Frank and embraces his inner borderline psycho to lay down the law. A wondrously vulgar soliloquy that explains that Leo OWNS Frank and everything he holds or hopes to hold dear as Barry’s corpse is dumped in a vat of acid. With a final order to “Get back to work, Frank!”.
Frank returns home to recover. Sends Jessie and David on their way. Far, far away. Frank goes back to the car lot and torches it and about two dozen car gleaming under fluorescent and neon lights. Tears up and tosses his photo collage into spreading flames. Then heads to Leo’s for a final showdown….
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
Watching a young, confident director with a distinct vision in his head that he executes beyond the scope of his abilities. Guiding a near flawless, to die for cast of stalwarts setting the pace and tone for a film with few weak spots or lags. Revealing a penchant for big American automobiles sheened in rain and mirroring neon and street lights that will return in Mann’s Crime Story television series five years later.
Also the clever use of retired cops as criminals and vice versa. With Dennis Farina playing Carl, one of Leo’s henchmen. And one time felon, John Santucci playing Detective Urizzi. Also notable is the succinct, sometimes prison slang dialogue that is near completely bereft of contractions. James Caan’s Frank makes the most of this and his words add power to his intimidation.
Now we get to the toys. Mann loves them! The bigger and louder and more dangerous, the better! The segment where Frank cuts his door in the L.A. vault is not to be missed for its sound, smoke and Phosphorus rod burn. Be thankful that stones were inside instead of cash or Bearer’s Bonds. For there would have been nothing but ash left to steal. The close in shots of Frank’s railed and magnetized drill is a dream of simplicity and engineering. Though Frank’s expertise in his ‘Magic Acts’ also leaves his trade craft as his singular fingerprint without a name. Which may be a reason Frank was not much impressed with Leo’s internal and external security.
Say what you will about Tangerine Dream. Their soundtrack works very well in this film. Highlighting the suspense and tension of the heists and the Chicago night when Frank seeks vengeance. Donald Thorin’s cinematography is hard to beat when showing the age and grime of parts of The Windy City at night that few see. Then excelling when Frank is busily plying his trade.
What Makes This Film Great?
James Caan in his prime. Given an incredibly meaty role and free rein to make his own. Immersing himself in an unique and believable character. A coiled spring of energy and attitude. Keeping a good sized chip on his shoulder under wraps as he moves quickly along. Who has a plan and wants to stick to it, but once he loses focus. The wheels slowly start to come off. Watching his face and gestures as he tries to explain himself to Jeesie. Or total lack thereof when listening to Leo offer glimpses into a very gifted, yet under rated actor.
Tuesday Weld. Once again, refreshingly playing an adult. In a role that could easily be her extension of Marge Converse in Who’ll Stop The Rain, five years earlier. A woman who has ridden the roller coaster to the bottom. Broke at the intersection Bogota and Columbia and has worked hard for what she considers ‘nice, ordinary, boring normalcy’. Her silent facial expressions as she listens to Frank tell of his past and her work opposite Caan is some of the best she’s ever performed!
Robert Prosky’s Leo is a wondrous work of under played, smiling Grandfatherly benevolence when one hand washes the other and things run smoothly. Certain that he can corral Frank and get him to see things his way. Then revealing his thuggish, psychotic upbringing when Frank rebels. All three and Willie Nelson set the bar noticeably high for a batch of fresh young talent to challenge and perform some distinct, memorable work. Specifically Jim Belush and Tom Signorelli doing a lot with their limited time on screen. You’ll have to look close and not blink to catch a scruffy, bearded William Petersen as a bouncer at Frank’s ‘Katz & Jammers’ bar. All major and minor parts of a detailed, loving sojourn into the mechanics and minutia of crime and high profit theft. Aided by a rogue’s gallery of retired cops and criminals on hand. To get not only the body language and patois down right, but what kind of Hawaiian shirt or suit and tie to wear when casing a joint in L.A.
That all come together to make one of the coolest, most technical, personal and entertaining heist films of the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. Not to be missed!
Have you seen this film? Do you agree with Jack dissection? Comment below…