At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Thief “81”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Thriller/ Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky, Tom Signorelli, Dennis Farina, Nick Nickeas, W.R. Bill Brown, Norm Tobin, William Petersen, John Santucci, Gavin MacFadyen, Chuck Adamson, Sam Cirone, Spero Anast, Hal Frank, Patti Ross/ Runtime: 122 minutes

Right off the bat I think it should be said that iconic film helmer Michael Mann’s 1981 theatrical debut slice of cinematic pie Thief is one that by and large brilliantly gives off the illusion of appearing fairly routine of a distinct strain of taut and riveting 80s cinema style and flair. A feat made possible by its gorgeous cinematography, lighting that deals in a lot of primary colors and is quite expressionist in nature, and a riveting musical accompaniment courtesy of Tangerine Dream to say nothing of top-flight performances from its fantastic cast. At the same time, while the legacy of this slice of cinematic pie may be due by and large to its superficial ingredients, it should be said that its most iconic component would have to be how devoted this film was to being as realistic as possible. Of course, this should come as no surprise seeing as virtually of film helmer Michael Mann’s film catalogue from this one to Blackhat in 2015 is Mann’s literal fixation on his movies being as detailed and accurate to the real world as humanely possible. I mean the tales of this fixation are almost as iconic as the movies themselves. Stories like Mann literally having Jamie Foxx get the feel of a cab by driving it around a racetrack for his turn in 2004’s Collateral, and having Colin Farrell go along with law enforcement on actual drug raids to prepare for 2006’s big screen adaptation of iconic 80s television series Miami Vice to name but a couple of examples there is no denying that Mann is fairly devoted to making the worlds of his films as realistic as possible. With that being the case, it should come as no surprise therefore to learn that for a movie about a thief who is trying to go down the straight and narrow in order to get out of this life, Mann was willing to actually hire legit members of the criminal element in order to give this narrative a wonderfully authentic degree of realism to it. Along with that we see that, the camera being utilized by Mann, though quite expressive in its own right, was also fairly aware of the complexities of the career it was shining a distinct spotlight on. As such, this slice of cinematic pie is one that operates under a pair of parallel impulses. On one side of the coin, this movie gives off the vibe and appearance of being an idyllic world that slowly but surely transforms itself into a horrific nightmare that our tough as nails yet still quite sympathetic protagonist can’t seem to shake himself awake from. On the other side of the coin however, this is also as visceral a crime saga as you can get. When put together however, you not only get an incredible slice of 80s cinematic pie, but one that is a true must-see in every sense of the word.

The plot is as follows: Thief opens its riveting yarn as we witness a man by the name of Frank in the middle of his day at work with his co-worker/ close associate Barry helping him out. Of course, I guess I should mention that (unless the title already somehow spoiled this) that Frank’s career of choice is being a highly skilled thief. However when he is not engaged in breaking into people’s vaults and taking their valuables (usually diamonds or cash), we see that our hero makes his way in the world in operating a used car dealership as well as a bar or at the very least utilizing these businesses as a pair of fronts for his various illegal activities. Of course, we soon see that Frank’s latest score soon sees his longtime fence meeting a tragic and horrific end and the money he owed Frank winding up in a plating company operator’s hands that soon requires a firearm aimed at his head in order to set up a meeting which will see Frank’s money returned to him. However when this set of circumstances leads to a meet and greet with a seemingly upstanding and amiable crime lord by the name of Leo, Frank finds himself working on a highly risky and potentially quite profitable score that could be the one to finally enable Frank to leave this life for good. It is also with Leo’s aid that we see Frank not only start to settle down with his new waitress girlfriend Jessie, but also do everything he can to help his imprisoned mentor Okla who’s going through his own complications. However upon completion of the assignment and demanding his cut, Frank will not only learn just how dangerous the man he’s decided to start working for truly can be, but also find himself forced into a perilous corner where the only way out may require him to put no more and no less than his life on the line if he wants a chance at the ultimate score: his freedom.

Now right off the bat, it should be noted that scribe/helmer Mann, with this adaptation of a novel by a writer named Frank Hohimer (huh…so THAT’s why the main character is named Frank) manages in virtually every aspect to feel as genuinely authentic to the “wonderful world of thievery” as it possibly can and even manages to outshine a lot of contemporary crime thrillers in that respect. Indeed not only does every shot feel like it was filmed on the genuine streets and not a soundstage, but every single cast member, with particular regard for the supporting cast, are phenomenally selected and actually look like “part of the world” rather than Hollywood talent fresh out of the makeup trailer in the morning and the dialogue that they are given to play in this sandbox with feels genuinely and refreshingly realistic to what people in this line of work might actually say to one another in conversation be it relaxed, heated, or a bit of both. Along with that, it should be noted the iconic heist in this film which deals with the skilled break-in of a advanced vault at the Bank of California does provide a degree of gravitas and novelty though it still is quite hard for it to square off against a lot of the more character-driven moments this slice of cinematic pie manages to possess with particular regard to one where Frank and his lady love Jessie really get to know one another over a cup of coffee at a late night diner. Going back to this proverbial score, it should also be noted that it does an ingenuous job of giving us no dialogue or musical accompaniment to take away from what is going on with the only noise occurring being that of the necessary tools being utilized to complete the job. Yet even when the alluring and hypnotic musical accompaniment kicks back up again, Mann still brilliantly lets it operate as a worthy replacement for any run of the mill dialogue we’ve heard a million times before in films like this and letting it deceptively make us think all is going to turn out great for our hero before the inevitable rug is tragically pulled out from under him. Finally, it should also be said that yes the finale to this film is where we see our hero get his much-deserved sense of righteous vengeance and although some might see it as a step down for a film as immersed in realism as this one is, I on the other hand felt it wasn’t that terrible plus Mann to his credit does keep the violence on display realistic and nowhere near as gratuitous as other filmmakers would have made it.

Now, as previously touched on a little bit in the earlier section of this review, this slice of cinematic pie is also in possession of a collection of truly top-flight and riveting performances. This starts with one of my favorite albeit highly underrated screen talents James Caan in the lead role and he is terrific. Indeed Caan does a wonderful job of playing this bullheaded, unapologetic, highly skilled yet also oddly worthy of sympathy antihero with such wonderful degrees of devotion, charm, and ferociousness that he literally captivates you from the first moment he appears on screen. Not content with that however we also see Mann, who in addition to helming the movie also penned the screenplay, provide the character with a pair of key moments involving the character talking about his time behind bars as well as a very brutally honest moment whilst he and his lady love are trying to adopt a child that not only further flesh the character out, but are wonderfully genuine and sincere. We also get terrific work here from Tuesday Weld who also gives us a fairly three-dimensional performance to say nothing of wonderful chemistry with Caan in their scenes together in her role of his lady love Jessie, Jim Belushi in a delightfully non-goofy debut role as Caan’s closest and most loyal partner in his various capers Barry, and Willie Nelson of all people in a terrific extended cameo as Frank’s mentor Okla respectively. Perhaps the biggest surprise however, and not in a bad way, is Robert Prosky in his astonishing (especially since he was already 51 when he made this) credited cinematic debut as crime boss Leo. Indeed Prosky really does a wonderful job at selling us on a man who may seem to be a amiable and decent grandfatherly sort who genuinely cares about Frank, but who when things don’t go his way transforms into a truly terrifying and quite ruthless monster who has no limits to what he will do in order to make sure the new top heist man he has under his thumb stays there indefinitely. Indeed it’s one heck of a performance and Prosky sells both sides phenomenally well.

All in all I think it can be quite easily said that the 1981 slice of cinematic pie that is Thief is one that is made up of equal parts phenomenally casting in front of the camera, stylistic work behind the camera , a riveting narrative, a hypnotically alluring noir-esque score from Tangerine Dream, and visceral pathos that all managed to come together in a perfect storm and construct one of the more brilliant crime thrillers that I have had the pleasure of seeing from that iconic decade that is the 1980s. More than that, this is the kind of movie where you feel the degree of skill of the people who made this film. Indeed this is one film that truly comprehends its cast of characters, its narrative, and is able to comprehend just what we need to know about both as well as where both are headed and then take us on quite the riveting journey. Suffice it to say that when taking into account how quite a few thrillers seem to be fixated on giving audiences as much bullets, sex, car chases, and blood as possible, Thief is one slice of cinematic pie that completely goes against all of that in favor of giving us something with a bit more intelligence and that in and out of itself should be more than enough for us as movie goers to be thankful for it being around in the first place. On a scale of 1-5 I give Thief “81” a solid 4 out of 5.