Monday, October 27, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Thief" (1981)

"Thief" is about a man who will not bend. Frank is a professional who's very good at what he does, takes pride in it, and is very particular about the way he goes about his business. He does not cut corners. He plans everything out from beginning to end. He does not take orders from anyone.

The fact that Frank is a jewel thief as opposed to, say, an engineer is merely one key aspect of a character who is complex while also being quite simple.

By simple I don't mean that Frank, played by James Caan in perhaps his finest performance, is dull-witted or dense. He's actually quite cagey in a pugnacious, unschooled sort of way. Perhaps it would be better to say that Frank is defined by his singularity -- a particular set of skills and outlook that serve both to exalt and circumscribe him. Frank is the best there is, but is not capable of being other than what he is.

Every other smart criminal pays off the crooked cops to keep them off his back -- to "round off the corners," as they urge. Frank would rather take a beating, have his house bugged and be followed by teams of undercover police than give in.

When a high-level fence and connected boss named Leo (Robert Prosky) offers to take Frank under his wing, set up high-level scores and "make you a millionaire in four months," Frank stubbornly refuses to become his vassal, insisting on signing up for a single job and then calling it quits. Even when there appears to be mutual respect and affection growing between them -- Leo buys a baby boy for Frank when he and his wife cannot conceive -- Frank goes ballistic when Leo persists in stringing him along.

In a lot of ways "Thief" reminded me of a later film, "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling as a wheelman whose carefully ordered world goes awry when he breaks his own rules and strives for something beyond the perfection of his job. I find it hard to believe that director Nicolas Winding Refn's 2001 film wasn't heavily influenced by Michael Mann's earlier one.

They share a lot of similarities in terms of characterizations, sleek noir-ish visuals and an atypical soundscape -- which, in the case of "Thief," was the result of the work of Tangerine Dream, an electronica band that created a lot of arresting movie soundtracks during the 1980s.

It was the first film score by Tangerine Dream, in a movie that heralded many other firsts. It was Mann's first feature film after success on television. It was the debut screen role for Prosky, as well as Jim Belushi, who plays Frank's right-hand man, plus William Peterson and Dennis Farina, who have bit roles as a bouncer and gunman, respectively.

Though I wouldn't see "Thief" until years after "Drive," the kinship to Mann's work was apparent to me even then. I noted in my review that "Drive" seemed "stuck out of time."
"For at least the first 30 minutes, I was convinced the story was set in the 1980s. The plethora of vintage cars, an ’80s-ish soundtrack and the gold-on-white scorpion jacket worn by the main character seemed to spring forth from 'Miami Vice' crossed with 'Less Than Zero' ... It very much reminded me of the work of Michael Mann, whose visuals could overpower a bare-bones story."
(Mann, of course, also produced "Miami Vice," which generated a lot of interest in its day for the wardrobe and bling, but is now generating reconsideration as one of the best TV shows of the '80s.)

I also took note of both films' use of sudden, explicit violence amidst stories that are much more attuned to mood and character than exploitative action. Belushi gets seemingly his entire innards splatted against the side of a van by a shotgun blast, and Prosky enjoys a similarly gruesome demise.

In his debut outing as a director, Mann mostly constrains his visual stylization to servicing the story. His screenplay, adapted from a memoir by a real master thief employing the pen name of Frank Hohimer, uses the cliche of the skilled man performing "one last job" to explore Frank's interior journey.

After spending 11 years in prison, most of his adulthood, Frank has been out for four years and appears to be a success. He owns two businsesses -- the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where he makes and takes calls, and Rocket  Motor Sales, a higher-end used car lot. He wears silk shirts and $800 suits, changes cars frequently but favors Cadillacs, and carries himself with the sort of innate swagger that intimidates others.

Frank thinks he's got it all mapped out -- he even carries around a pastiche of photos of everything he wants for the rest of his life: a mansion, cars, a wife, kids and the companionship of "Okla," a master thief he did time with and who is played by Willie Nelson. In perhaps the film's most glaring flaw, Okla is given little screen time, really just two scenes, and Nelson is so good in them it hints at all sorts of unrealized narrative possibilities. Frank gets Okla sprung from jail so he can die a free man, which he promptly does without a real sense of denouement.

Mann gets a little too caught up in the particulars of the big heist, a "burn job" in which Frank uses a long thermal lance to melt the face of an especially challenging vault. His camera also tends to linger a little too long on objects for their visual appeal rather than their narrative purpose -- but that's been a characteristic of his entire oeuvre.

This being Mann's freshman film outing, it's certainly imperfect. I found the ending of the movie a little too Wild West-y and incongruent with what came before. Also, Frank's relationship with his wife (Tuesday Weld) is rather flat, other than an outstanding first scene at a diner, which Caan has described as the favorite of his long career. In it he essentially lays out who he is, and tells a riveting story about nearly dying after being targeted for a gangbang by a prison crew of inmates and guards.

He learned, he says, to fear nothing by valuing nothing, including his own life. Only by being willing to let go of everything important to him was he able to survive -- an ethos he takes to extremes by brutally cutting all his strings before going after Leo. But that's Frank, recognizing that he's been fooling himself with a vision he cannot have without compromising his hard inner core.

Quibbles aside, "Thief" is a moody minor masterpiece, a probing character study that disguises itself as a heist flick.

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