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October 4, 2016

Thief

by Franz Patrick


Thief (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Frank (James Caan) is a professional thief with dreams of retirement and finally marrying Jessie (Tuesday Weld), the love of his life. The last job was supposed yield enough money for Frank to move forward with his life, but the profitable exchange is thwarted by Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss who hopes to persuade Frank to be a part of his team. Initially, Frank resists the offer because he suspects that once he is in, there is no way he can be free. But the profit is so big that anybody with that kind of money will be set for life. It just might be the decision that will derail Frank’s long-term plans.

“Thief,” based on the screenplay and directed by Michael Mann, is a stylish, confident modern noir thriller that simmers with excitement during the first fifteen minutes and last hour. It is most frustrating that it is ultimately limited by the romance between the central character and the woman he loves. Though the two share some nice dialogue, especially when Frank goes into great detail about what kept him going through eleven years of incarceration, Caan and Weld do not share a strong enough chemistry so I did not care about them as a couple.

The middle section is filled with thick fatty tissue that dampens the wildfire thrills. Though the script is ambitious enough to create character development and establish a defined arc, I must admit that felt bored the more I focused on the romance. We understand why Jessie likes Frank because he has substance. On the other hand, we do not know much about Jessie other than she looks good physically. The difference is near impossible to ignore. In addition, the relationship stuffings are tonally awkward at times, the sweetness consistently lodged between tough guy talk and tough guy silence.

But the picture is so willing to get into the details of the heists that its shortcomings fade slightly—or at least for some time. We see the sorts of machines used to break into a vault, which buttons must be pushed at the right time, and get a sense of how long it takes to break through the defenses. Once inside, there are more details. We can tell a lot about a thief by the sorts of things he takes with him. Clearly, Frank has been a thief for a long time. He moves quickly but it feels like his mind works at a faster rate. It is a joy to watch him in his element and Caan prevents from allowing his character to become a caricature.

Equally involving are the dialogues shared between Frank and Leo. Leo may appear old but there is a confidence about him that only hints at his level of power. The intimidating crime boss has a speech near the end about ownership. I watched wide-eyed. Prosky has a way of looking into the camera and allowing us to feel the thorns of his character without necessarily going for the pinprick. It is the tease that magnifies the danger.

We know how these types of stories go: a reluctant man accepts a job, it is accomplished, and the man tries to leave. And yet despite the template, the material successfully rises above being generic because the characters are specific and we are made to understand why they choose to traverse certain courses of action. Based on a novel by Frank Hohimer, a nom de plume, “Thief” has the high level of control from behind the camera to match the fluctuating moods. The romance just needed to be written a little smarter.

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