Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thief - That Toddlin' Town

Lately, it seems I'm in a Chicago frame of mind. And even though I have relatives there, I've never been there in my entire life. [note to self: must fix that some day] This is likely due my current enjoyment of author Sean Chercover's debut novel, Big City Bad Blood (finally available in audio form--more on that after I'm done with it). However, that one novel is not the sole impetus. Right before this, I had just finished Jason Kerten's very good true story work, The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, and Eric Larson's wonderful (and also non-fiction) The Devil in the White City from a couple of months back. So you see, The Second City is occupying some space in the front of my mind. And if you're counting, the Chercover and Larson books came by way of blogger Corey Wilde's recommendations. [your thanks is in the mail, you ol' Buckeye].

Add to this, one of my favorite directors came out this summer with another of his fine films, Public Enemies. Besides being its own distinct character in these literary and film works, Chicago is also the birthplace of said filmmaker, Michael Mann. So in honor of him and Chi-town, I'm resurrecting and dusting off a review of mine for Mann's inaugural film (and where again, the city of big shoulders is more than just a location). I hope you enjoy.

(dictionary definition)

thief |θēf|
noun ( pl. thieves |θēvz| )
a person who steals another person's property, esp. by stealth and without using force or violence.

For a major theatrical motion picture, director Michael Mann could not have asked for a better one in a movie debut. The year was 1981 when he brought us the spellbinding film, Thief, starring James Cann. And, it has always been a favorite of Mann afficionados (include me in that group), and a foretelling of things to come. Not only did this signal the arrival of a talented director-writer-producer, it changed the look, feel, and texture of the crime drama genre from that point forward. And though it's approaching the 30 year mark, it remains an enthralling examination of a world few had explored as thoroughly as this new filmmaker. The film incorporated a solid cast, with more than one actor making their own screen debuts. It's a gritty, authentic story - one that has a mesmerizing atmosphere and soundtrack in tune with this director's now trademark visual style.

Though it is now considered the talent pool to draw from for motion pictures, Mann (like another great director, Ridley Scott) did his prerequisite work in TV commercials. Both were the vanguard for today's directors. However, though Michael's gift for stunning, even artistic, visuals developed there, it really blossomed once he started directing and producing movies. I include the great TV movie The Jericho Mile here (another film that truly demands a good U.S. Region 1 DVD release - especially if you don't have access to a region-less disc player). But, Michael Mann has always been underrated in his ability to tell a story and develop characters. Many of his films were also written for the screen and executive-produced by him. He is in that rarified air of directors who are also great screenwriters and film producers in their own right.

Public Enemies UK Premiere - Michael Mann intr...Image by Craig Grobler via Flickr

Veteran actor James Caan was in his 'street' element when he undertook the role of Frank, the movie title's high-line, independent thief. And, he's as hard a individual as the diamonds he steals. The character of Frank is somewhat a throwback to the pantheon of 70's film anti-heroes. A flawed, dangerous man who draws the audience to him as he attempts to play catch-up from a prison-shortened life. Caan wonderfully portrays him as a man, though expert and skilled in his illegal trade, self-taught and woefully unprepared for any kind of normal (family) life on the outside. His directness (with his collage postcard as a less than adequate roadmap) is one of not wanting to waste any more of the time he has to construct a normalcy he's never experienced. He's a nihilist incongruently trying to meld (fulfill) his dreams of a life wished upon him by his prison mentor/father-figure. Unfortunately, Frank's dreams become his downfall (and another remnant example of a 70's protagonist).

Cover of Cover of Thief

Being state-raised (by the prison system) and with little to no parenting to bolster himself on, Frank's nature is gravitationally pulled toward father-figures. Easily, the other stirring character performances in the film are from them: the too-little seen Willie Nelson as Okla, and especially, Robert Prosky as the displacing entity, Leo. In a remarkable screen debut, Prosky is startling as the syndicate leader seeking to tempt Frank with a Faustian deal. His paternal stalking and entrapment of Frank (and the audience) is hypnotic. And when it's realized, he gives one of the most chilling and vile culminating speeches spoken on film, ever (and all of this by a sweet looking old man, at that). The other very touching performance is by Tuesday Weld as Frank's love interest, Jessie. Hers is one that makes Frank's decisions late in the film that much more heartbreaking. The supporting cast members are more than solid, with Jim Belushi (in his first prominent role), retired cop Dennis Farina, and John Santucci (in another debut) standing out in their minor roles.

For those who've yet to have seen one, if there's another earmark of a Michael Mann film, it is in its authenticity of story and trade craft. The basis for the story is the 1975 book, The Home Invaders, by Frank Hohimer. Thief also makes use of real-life thieves as technical advisors (and as cast members). In fact, real-life Chicago cops also dot the cast and lend their experience in the proceedings (and makes one wonder what it was like with that mix on those sets and shooting locations). The terms and dialogue, tools and techniques used in the film ring true because they are (and director Mann wouldn't have it any other way). The safes disected up on the screen are real, too (no props here). All of the tools and guns are genuine (and have real histories). Another point is the combat pistol craft on display, especially by Caan's Frank character. Nothing here is Hollywood fake or flash. All of this adds to the undisputed credibility in the film and only enhances the direction and actor's performances.

heat1Image by le0pard13 via Flickr

Michael Mann created a memorable major film and directorial debut that's brimming with visuals and technique that would be copied throughout the 80's by others. But, besides its style and atmosphere, it's a more character-driven movie than many give it credit. And, as Amazon's Jim Gay writes, beautifully photographed by Donald Thorin and enhanced by the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. This DVD is the director's cut, not the theatrical version shown on screens in '81. It has some minor scene additions to the theatrical release. I'm also in complete agreement with other reviewers and bloggers that this was the precursor to Mann's more realized film, 1995's Heat (which I touched on earlier in the year). In fact, if you listen to the very fun commentary track by Mann and James Caan (which was probably done for the earlier laser disc release of the film), you'll learn it was recorded while the director was filming that later, great work. They are both worthy and remarkable films for each of their decades, and their fans (like me).

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  1. An excellent review. I'm one of Mann's Fans. I'd forgot Jericho Mile, or rather, I'd forgot that Mann's name was attached to it.

    And THANK YOU for the Ninth Configuration dvd. It's going to be fun watching this one over and over and picking up on all the little things I know I missed on this first viewing.

  2. I'm a Mann Fan, too...can we start a club? I have more great Chicago crime fiction for you when you're ready!! ;)

  3. Corey: The Jericho Mile is the head scratcher. I wonder what's tying it up for U.S. distribution? And you're welcome.

    Jen: I love it! Send me your Windy City crime fic recommendations, Jen.

    Thank you much to the both of you (and yes, we should start a MM club).

  4. Another Mann fan here!

    Posts like these make me wonder if I should rename myself Pop Culture Person Who Only Knows a Little Compared to le0pard13.

    Your knowledge of film is truly impressive.

  5. Praise like that will always go straight to my head (ego), and grant you my undying appreciation and loyalty ;-). However, there are a bunch of highly knowledgeable bloggers and Mann aficionados out there (like J.D. over at Radiator Heaven, for one) who know a heck of a lot more than I ever will about film (and this director).

    But, you're still the best Nerd among the Pop Cultured, Elyse. And being a Michael Mann fan, too, elevates you even further up the charts. It's no wonder our favorite author, Robert Crais, has you do his video interviews! He'd be a fool not to. Thanks for the comment, Pop Cultured One.

  6. Wow! Now you've all got me thinking. Just finished season 4 Miami Vice the Amnesia episode. I love to watch film, but do not often delve into the particulars. Low and behold, a Mann film that is in my all time top 5, Last of the Mohicans. I remember Theif, only because Caan was the tough anti hero. So now I have a new appreciation for the director.
    I haven't seen this but uncovered it at Netflix .......... Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River.
    Oh yes, one thing does lead to another, don't ya think?

  7. I'm happy to feed your ego. I think everyone should get at least 3 servings a day.

    Thanks, lp13, for your kind words. I think Crais lets me interview him because I promise to ask inappropriate questions :-).

  8. HnL: yes, I do agree. Thanks for comment and DVD recommendation.

    PCN: I need to review his video interviews, again ;-). Thanks.

  9. Nice review! I love this film and it really laid out all of Mann's thematic preoccupations and stylistic motifs that his future films would adhere to. Not to mention, as you point out, the film really shows off the city... so much so that it almost becomes another character in the film.

    I've never read the book that inspired it... it's kinda hard to track down.

    Also, Tuesday Weld is fantastic in this film, particularly in the scene between her and Caan in the diner. Her character proves that Mann can write strong female characters, something that he is often criticized for not doing so well.

    Anyways, excellent review!

  10. J.D.: Yes, Tuesday Weld's character in the film is quite stirring. I think it's through her character the audience makes a solid connection to Frank (and naturally, to Jessie). With female characters like this one, Justine and Eady from Heat, Isabella from Miami Vice, and Billie from Public Enemies, hopefully they'll help to disprove the notion Mann can't write strong female characters.

    And thank you for your visit, comment and kind words, and for running one of my favorite blogs for film (and Michael Mann).