Thief (1981)

Violence, swearing and booze are all the stuff of crime films. But when the protagonist of a crime drama isn’t smuggling drugs or pulling of a big heist he’s grappling with humanity, the frailty of life and the darkness of man, you know, all the kind of stuff that makes me happy. Michael Mann has made a career out of such films and Thief is his first feature.

Frank (James Caan) is a freelance thief with a hot temper and a tough look. He’s got a nice little enterprise going down until his fence dies, money goes missing and he makes a deal with a devil, Leo (Robert Prosky): one big heist that will net him nearly half a million dollars. That should set him up nicely with his girl, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and start a nice family. But it’s never that easy.

Thief has a problem. It’s been stolen of one crucial element: stakes. There isn’t enough on the lines or any real drama behind the crime pieces to make them exciting or tense. They just happen. The opening sequence doesn’t give us any context and the later sequences aren’t necessary for our protagonist. He doesn’t need the cash, can practically spit in the face of the cops and hasn’t much of a reason to go after it.

However, in the last act the film figures this out and lays down some real stakes that makes the last fifteen minutes of the film exciting. It’s a tense, slowly building sequence where we know why he’s after what he’s after. The momentum and build of this piece is impeccable and it’s a shame the rest of the film can’t have such a level of intensity. However, the last act ends up devolving into gratuitous violence and a quick smattering of over-the-top action. Given the tone of the rest of the film it doesn’t fit.

And to the films credit, and perhaps its failing elsewhere, the tone is set through these dark, under lit scenes with a constant haze, slightly obscuring what we are looking at. The nighttime and dusk scenes in this film are beautiful. However, when shooting the rest of the film, the energy and dynamic of those scenes doesn’t carry over, making the average looking shots seem bland and muted in comparison. It’s hard to think that the film can be so visually arresting one moment and then perfectly generic the next.

What’s not so arresting is the bombastic, grating ‘80s synth score. Most of the electronic music of the ‘80s just couldn’t compete with a proper musical score. It’s the same here. It also doesn’t help that the sound mixer often brings it up to be the key sound element in the film. The odd, otherworldly tones don’t fit in with what is a fairly typical crime drama.

But beyond the crime drama, the most fascinating part of the film is the relationship between Jessie and Frank. The way it evolves and develops throughout the film is what kept me interested in the entire film and I was far more invested in any of their conversations than I was in the heists. In the best scene of the film Frank and Jessie talk at a diner. It’s a simple, two shot scene where Frank explains why he does what he does and how it make him feel. It’s simple, but sincere and in that moment these characters won me over.

From that point on I was with the film to the end. In a lot of ways I don’t think the film “finds” itself until that moment. Before that moment it’s just a lot of mood and going through the motions of a crime drama. Tone and mood are essential to any good crime picture but once the drama kicks in we’ve got a proper film.  Before that the film is simply an exercise in technique that may or may not interest you.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing