Thief (1981) Retrospective

Frank is a jewel thief and ex-convict who has a set structure to his life. With a pair of successful Chicago businesses (a bar and a car dealership) as fronts for his criminal enterprise, Frank sets out to fulfill the missing part of his life vision: a family with Jessie, a cashier he has begun dating.

After taking down a major diamond score, Frank gives the diamonds to his fence, Joe Gags. However, before Frank can collect his share, Gags is murdered for skimming from the mob collection money. Barry, Frank’s friend and associate making the pick-up, discovers that a plating company executive Gags was working for, Mr. Attaglia, is responsible for Gags’ murder and stealing Frank’s payoff. In a confrontation at Attaglia’s plating company, Frank demands his money back.

This leads to a meeting with Attaglia’s employer Leo, a high-level fence and Chicago Outfit boss. Unknown to Frank, Leo has been receiving Frank’s goods from Gags for some time. He admires Frank’s eye for quality fenced goods and professionalism, and wants him working directly for him, offering Frank large profits. Their meeting is monitored from a distance by police surveillance.

At first Frank is reluctant, not wanting to the added exposure or complications. But later that night, conversation with Jessie changes his mind when she agrees to be part of his life, after he relates a tale of prison survival by way of a toughened mental attitude. Frank now agrees to do just one big score for Leo, telling Barry that this will be their last job. After being rejected at the state adoption agency, with Leo’s help Frank is able to acquire a baby boy on the black market, whom he names David after his mentor also known as Okla.


After resisting a shakedown from a group of corrupt police detectives, and then subsequently ditching their surveillance, Frank and his crew are involved in a large-scale West Coast diamond heist organized by Leo. All goes well with Frank’s “burn job” and he is expecting the agreed-upon sum of $830,000 on $4 million wholesale of unmounted stones. But when Frank returns from the job, Leo gives him less than $100,000. This is all that Frank will receive in cash part according to Leo, who says he invested the rest of Frank’s cut in shopping centers, an idea Frank had previously rejected. In addition, Leo sets up a Palm Beach score for Frank in six weeks without consulting him. Frank tells Leo that their deal is over, takes the cash as leaves, demanding the rest of his money in 24 hours.


Frank drives to his car lot unaware that Leo’s henchmen have already beaten and captured Barry, and are waiting in ambush. Frank is knocked out and Barry is killed by Carl, one of Leo’s enforcers. Frank awakens with Leo staring down at him, surrounded by his henchmen. Leo informs him that he, Jessie, their child, and everything he owns are Leo’s property. He threatens Franks family if he does not continue working for him. Leo warns Frank to focus on his responsibilities. Frank returns home. He orders an uncomprehending Jessie out of their house, telling her their marriage is over. He instructs an associate to drive her, the baby and $410,000 in cash to somewhere where they cannot be found, informing Jessie more money will be coming at regular intervals, but that he will not be joining her.

With nothing to lose, Frank blows up their home using high-explosive charges. He then drives to his business establishments and does the same. Armed with a pistol, he quietly breaks into Leo’s house in a peaceful neighborhood and pistol whips Attaglia in the kitchen. Frank hunts for Leo, who is hiding, finding him and killing him. Frank then pursues Attaglia as he tries to escape from the house, but is confronted in the front yard by Carl and another henchman. In the ensuing gunfight, Frank is shot, but manages to kill the trio. Frank loosens what appears to be a ballistic vest he was wearing beneath his jacket, and walks away into the night.


Financed by a United Artists reeling from the highly public failure of Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), a strong argument can be made that Thief represents one of the last embers of 70s New Hollywood expressionism. 1981 was a record year for auteur-driven studio films going into general release and generally being neglected by audiences and maligned by mainstream critics. Joining such films as Wolfen (Michael Wadleigh), Excalibur (John Boorman), Cutter’s Way/Cutter and Bone (Ivan Passer), the film version of Pennies From Heaven (Herbert Ross), Reds (Warren Beatty) and Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet), Thief was part of a dying counterpoint to a growing audience and studio preference for genre oriented and high concept fare such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg), Arthur (Steve Gordon) and sequels like the Halloween and Friday The 13th series. At the same time, Caan’s star power, which was primarily due to his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), was diminishing due to Caan’s own disillusionment with acting, a distaste for most of the scripts offered to him and his quixotic decision to pursue a career as a professional rodeo rider for several years. Turning down offers to be in films like Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Caan’s choices in the seventies were both inspired – The Gambler (Karel Reisz, 1974), Slither (Howard Zieff, 1973) and The Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah, 1975) – if not exactly popular, or indifferent and cynical – Harry and Walter Go To New York (Mark Rydell, 1976), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975) and the highly lucrative, multi-star blockbuster, A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977).

Mann wrote several episodes of Starsky and Hutch, the pilot episode of Vega$, worked on Police Story with a former cop Joseph Wambaugh, and then in 1979 won an Emmy for The Jericho Mile, a television special that would have a great impact on his future career. It is exactly this film that led Mann to Thief, the project that would work as a stepping stone to the big stage. In technical terms, Thief really was Mann’s feature film debut, but it was made by a man all too familiar with the skill of high-quality storytelling. Based on a biographical novel called The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar published in 1975 by a real-life jewel thief John Seybold under the pen name of Frank Hohimer.

But one can’t really start talking about “Thief,” without at least considering it in the context of “The Jericho Mile.” The 1979 drama, set within the walls of Folsom Prison and shot on location, which tells the story of Rain Murphy, a lifer convicted for murder, surviving his time on the inside by keeping mostly to himself while focusing on one thing that keeps him literally moving: running. And in fact, he’s gotten so good, he could potentially qualify for the Olympic team. And in speaking with Mann, he revealed that “The Jericho Mile” helped him gain insight into the character of ex-con Frank in “Thief.”

“It probably informed by the ability to imagine what Frank’s life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him”, Mann explained.

Something that had intrigued Mann when he went to do research at Folsom Prison in California for his work on the screenplay for “Straight Time” or the made-for-television “The Jericho Mile.” Mann would talk to inmates who had no more than a sixth or seventh grade education and yet were quoting Immanuel Kant to him, having used the library as their only avenue to remake themselves.

“The idea of creating his character was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what you want with your life and how you go about getting it.” Mann saw this exclusion as the pivotal idea in the process of building the central character. During the decade spent in isolation, the protagonist developed his own idea of what his dream life would look like. When released, he started putting all the pieces together, but having been locked up for a large part of his youth, his process of forming a picture-perfect middle-class life he envisioned is hasty, mechanical, as though he’s merely creating a collage in some middle school art class. When he literally puts his chosen girl into his car and tells her his story, he says, “I am a straight arrow. I am a true blue kind of a guy. I’ve been cool. I am now unmarried. So let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit, and get on with this big romance.”

The screenplay was written by Mann himself, who claimed not to have used The Home Invaders novel as anything more than a starting point. However, the main characters and the story arc were admittedly inspired by Frank Hohimer’s memoir. Mann’s storytelling is impeccable, and the sheer attention to detail he invested into making Thief is astonishing. From the very opening scene, it’s clear Mann’s intention is to strive for authenticity. Not only did he do extensive research before making the film, Mann even hired real-life thieves to work as technical advisors during the shoot, and instructed James Caan to do his homework as well.


“The idea of creating his character, was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it,” Mann said. “Everything that’s normal development, that we experience, he was excluded from, by design. In the design of the character and the engineering of the character, that was the idea.”

However, in the absence of social growth, Frank has become the consummate professional in his job cracking safes. And he would be the first in a series of men in Mann’s films who are obsessively focused on their work, and getting the job done with an exacting perfection, defined by their own personal code of conduct. The result are characters that are utterly compelling, but do they also reflect the personal qualities of Mann himself, or are these details borne out of research?

“It probably informed my ability to imagine what Frank’s life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him,” he explained. Indeed, Frank has spent much of his twenties in prison, and back on the streets of Chicago, he’s somewhat a man out of time, trying with desperate determination to make up for the years he’s lost, and build a respectable life for himself, with a house, wife and child.

The result is the creation of a character that feels authentic, but helping to fully flesh out Frank is the milieu in which he carries on with his life. While Frank has a straight job during the day selling cars, he lives by night, with “Thief” portraying Chicago as a place that comes alive after dark, with excitement and menace lurking in the shadows in equal measure. And for Mann, the neon punctuated evenings are also a reflection of Frank’s interior.

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“As part of the curriculum designed for an actor getting into character, I try to imagine what’s going to really help bring this actor more fully into character. And so I try to imagine what experiences are going to make more dimensional his intake of Frank, so that he is Frank spontaneously when I’m shooting. So one of the most obvious things is it’d be pretty good if James was as good at doing what Frank does as is Frank”, said Mann, explaining why Caan had to learn his character’s safe-drilling skills. Moreover, the tools used in Thief are real, with some drills weighing as much as 200 pounds. With this kind of dedication to detail, and sticking to a praise-worthy notion that the audience doesn’t need to be explained the complicated procedures in order to believe they are complicated, Mann achieved authenticity and there isn’t a single moment when the audience doubts Frank is as good at his job as the story presents him to be.

Caan’s preparation for Frank involved the actor hanging with many of the thieves from Chicago. He also had hands-on experience with the tools and weapons that would be used in the film. Regarding the weapons, Caan went through a training program that Navy SEALs and CIA agents go through to learn how to make handling his gun second nature so that everything appears as natural as can be.

Caan comments on Frank’s manner of speaking and how he never uses contractions. He and Mann determined Frank was a man who was trying to make up for lost time, and his way of speaking slowly, methodically, and clear makes it such that he never has to repeat himself. Mann also comments on how people speak to each other in prison, how “What’s up” and “What is up” are two phrases that have totally different meanings. “You knew he didn’t say anything he didn’t mean,” Caan says regarding Frank.

Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
James Caan: Well, kind of. I liked the picture Thief a lot. But it did pretty well. There’s always a couple that came out at the wrong time or were up against something. There’s a lot of nice little movies out there, like Cinderella Liberty, that for one reason or another didn’t take off. Like, Thief came out with The Omen or something stupid like that.

Thief was Michael Mann’s first film.
James Caan: Yeah, I found Michael Mann. Literally. I was doing Chapter Two, and this guy was sitting outside my trailer in a wooden chair, and he said, “Can I talk to you?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I wanted to show you a script I’ve written.” And at the time, I was very fortunate that I was able to do whatever the hell I wanted to do, so I put it together right away. I got Jerry Bruckheimer to produce it… along with my brother, Ronnie, which was hysterical. And Michael, he’s a workaholic, you know. I still think that’s his best picture. He brought in the forensic stuff and everything. It was a real tough picture to work on, though, because he’d work 16, 17 hours a day. I liked it, though. It was a good movie.

Caan remembers one night where all the cops working security on the film and “technical advisers” were hanging out together before shooting. A lot of members from both sides had grown up together or had married into each other’s families. “It’s just like in my neighborhood. People don’t realize it’s not uncommon for one brother to be a thief and another brother to be a policeman,” remarks Caan. Since the statute of limitations had already been up on most of the crimes the “advisers” had committed, they would brag to the cops about how they had done it.

Caan almost got himself arrested in Chicago while preparing for his role. Caan was observed by federal surveillance units cavorting with then-Outfit lieutenants and well-known thieves, John (Johnny No Nose) DiFronzo, Joseph (Joey the Clown) Lombardo, Louis (Louie the Mooch) Eboli, James (Jimmy I) Inendino, James (Jimmy Legs) D’Antonio and Ronnie Jarrett in the months before he started shooting the movie.

In one instance, according a agent, Caan was caught on a wiretap planted in a Westside Chicago social club telling some of his Midwest gangland tour guides that he planned on joining them that evening on a heist. A pair of Cook County Sherriff’s Department vice squad detectives made sure he didn’t. Cann was staying at the ritzy Drake Hotel, located on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. As he left that night around 8:30 to meet up with the Westside robbery crew, he was stopped by two men flashing CCSD shields.


James Caan’s emotional several-minute monologue with Weld in a coffee shop is often cited as the film’s high point, and Caan has long considered the scene his favorite of his career. The actor liked the movie although he found the part challenging to play. “I like to be emotionally available but this guy is available to nothing.”

Thief marks the feature film debut not only of Mann, but of a good deal of the cast members as well: James Belushi, Dennis Farina, Robert Prosky and William Petersen all appear here for the first time. What’s especially good about Thief and its screenplay is the fact that supporting roles feel not as cardboard extras used for decoration and to keep the plot moving, but as real people whose life stories we become interested in. This has a lot to do with the quality of the cast, as all of them delivered memorable performances, including the legendary Willie Nelson as Frank’s imprisoned mentor and father figure. Thief, however, lies mostly on Caan’s shoulders, and the now veteran actor recalled it was a very challenging part to play. More than a couple of decades after the film was made, Caan admitted his scene in the diner with Tuesday Weld, the actress playing his love interest, is his favorite scene of his entire career.


But Mann didn’t come by this reasoning easily. Admitting that working with actors didn’t come naturally at first, he said, “I was laboring under the apprehension when I was doing this that you directed actors in a certain way and there was one way. What I came to learn after this film and some other films is that’s not the case.”

“The easiest guys to direct were the real people here, there’s a number of thieves, a number of very tough cops in Chicago from the major crime unit,” Mann said. “So I was determined to get what my vision was from each scene, but it was some clumsy effort on my part, depending on who the actor was at the time. Jimmy and I had a rapport probably on most everything that we did, but it was a struggle to get it communicated. Willie Nelson [who plays Frank’s incarcerated mentor] is not an actor, he’s a musician, so he certainly has no self-consciousness and he’ll never do the same thing twice, but there’s certainly a lot of poetry.”

James Caan and Robert Prosky in “Thief” Mann recalls casting Nelson because “he had a real sense of the isolation and the alternate reality that constitutes life and perspective in prison. It’s the whole society compressed into a microcosm, so it’s a very brutal place and a very dynamic place. What he got from that, I don’t really know, but he really had it.”

Mann also spoke of how difficult it was to cast the equally critical role of Leo, the father-like crime lord who enlists Caan’s ex-con for a job and credited his producer Jerry Bruckheimer on giving him one of the best pieces of advice for his career. Based on real-life hoods “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf, Mann estimates seeing at least 70 different actors for the part with no luck, leading him to lament to Bruckheimer, “Is something wrong with my criteria for Leo? I’m not finding anyone I want to put in the picture.” says, ‘The guy just hasn’t walked through the door yet.’”

That patience led to the counter intuitive casting of Robert Prosky, the veteran stage actor who hadn’t done a film before, but yet brought to the role what Mann described as “avuncular, a paternalism with intellect and a sinister quality of exploitation underneath.”


Shot by cinematographers Donald E. Thorin and Don Cahill, exhibiting characteristically Mann’s playful utilization of light and shade, with the unforgettable moody tunes of Tangerine Dream, Thief is a perfect thriller: neat, tense, completely believable and inhabited by full-blooded characters. “I’m not conscious of, ‘This is my style, this is not my style.’ If there’s anything I’m aware of, it’s that whatever I did last, is not what I want to do next,” stated Mann, as a response to people pointing out Thief’s abundance in images and motifs characteristic of his future work. “Whatever it is that outside observers say, I’m not conscious of signature and it would be a bad exercise in vanity if one was.” As clear as it is that Thief might be seen as the original source that allowed Mann to demonstrate the modus operandi of his whole career, what makes this film a great one has nothing to do with the larger picture. Had Mann never made anything after 1981, he’d go down in history as a filmmaker who managed to deliver a perfect thriller.

Mann mentions right off the bat that the first day of shooting involved getting the central tool made to cut the Los Angeles safe. It’s called an oxy-lance, but Caan and Mann refer to it as the “burning bar.” If you’ve seen Thief, you know exactly what they’re talking about.

In the scene where Frank goes to Grossman to have the burning bar made, dialogue is delivered regarding copper and titanium being found in the steel door they have to cut through. Copper is a soft metal. Titanium is a hard metal, and a special tool that is able to cut through both has to be devised. It’s dialogue that not many viewers would understand, but Mann found it imperative the two actors knew what was being said. As long as they were convincing in what was being said, the audience didn’t need to understand it.

Mann describes how the burning rod works in the scene where Frank is testing it out. Magnesium rods are put inside of a pipe. When oxygen under pressure is sent through it, it heats up to between 8000–9000 degrees. Mann remarks that not only is the tool heavy, it essentially melts anything and everything it touches making filming and handling it on set extremely difficult.


Thief was your first theatrical film. How were you as a filmmaker then? Were you confident in your abilities?
Michael Mann: To be confident or lacking confidence didn’t enter the equation that much. Of course there was some anxiety, but I wanted to make the film for so long ‐ I had written it, researched it and had Thief all over. We were so living in that world, that it never … it may have occurred to me a little bit before the first night of shooting, you know, “Wait a minute. Should I be a little apprehensive?” [Laughs] But I was too busy worrying about it, and familiar with every aspect of the film, rehearsals, location scouting, to have the luxury of self-reflection and anxiety. You know, you are making a movie three months before you start shooting. So, it became: is that crane going to show up? Because, on our first day shooting, I have to do this crane shot down through Rat Alley. It was the first shot of the film. The rainmakers aren’t working. I want parallel rain so I’m not really worried about, “Should I have an anxiety attack or not?”

How do you think Thief holds up?
Michael Mann: It’s interesting to see what works. It’s interesting to see what stands the test of time. What is it about the Leo character and his confrontation with Frank that could be in a picture right now, for example.

You’ve spoken, before, about wanting to make Frank a rat in a maze. How did you go about achieving that effect as a filmmaker?
Michael Mann: First of all, we were shooting it in Chicago and most cities are flat. So, the way I wanted to get three dimensionality is to set most of the scenes at night. The dark sky becomes a lid. Streets turn into tunnels via shooting them and their reflections turned into a kind of Pissarro, just perspective. He was a master of perspective. It occurred to me to wet down the streets, because I remember driving through Chicago in the rain and seeing black streets like mirrors. So it was designed to build an environment, so that, almost subconsciously, you’re moving through Frank’s world more than observing him on it, streets more tunnels than surfaces.

Do you think most audiences are aware of those techniques you use to create that effect, or is it more about feeling?
Michael Mann: I’m about the audience experiencing it, not observing and naming it. And sometimes they experience it in deep ways. If I can sufficiently craft it, they come back to it a number of times because there is more there for them. I’m interested in the intensity of experience. When I’m powerfully taken by a film, I’m swimming in it, wide-awake dream. So, I try to induce that state.

Knowing all that, I imagine you don’t have to worry about finding the movie in editing.
Michael Mann: You have to find it again, make it be there in editing. Editing is writing with shot film. The mix is the ultimate writing the movie. At the last stage of the sound mix, your grasp of it can be the closest to the way it was when the whole story first occurred to you. It’s now become that, totally. The screenplay is, of course, the genome, but it’s also blueprint, theory about what’s going to work. Shooting is concrete, but it’s also theoretical about what’s going to work in editing. So, did it work? Yeah, this worked. This other day’s shooting that I thought was going to work, guess what? It doesn’t work. How else can I deliver this story point? Or, another story point I felt was critical to the act two curtain? I don’t need it. I don’t like it even if I did need it. I didn’t have to shoot it. So I make annoying discoveries like that.

When do you know if a film or scene works? Is it based on your own instinct or is it when you put the film in front of an audience?
Michael Mann: It’s analytical and totally emotional at the same time. Analytically, I may know that a certain scene is leading to a shock, a surprise that’s going to end act one. Yes, that scene is delivering. So, you trust the story structure. At the same time, you have a visceral experience of the movie. If I’m tracking with the movie with the story, am I getting turned on the way I’m supposed to be? And, then, you see it with an audience which, by the way, could be one person, could be 500. Doesn’t matter. You immediately get a different perspective. All of a sudden, you are very fresh to it again, for some reason. Every director will tell you that.

It’s kind of like, you project yourself as if you, too, are audience watching it for the first time. All of a sudden you instantly intuit answers to issues you struggled with. With comedy, it’s probably easier. They laugh or they don’t laugh. By the way, sometimes I’ve had films in which there may be a scene that an urban audience gets and an ex-urban audience won’t get at all. There’s a scene in Thief where Frank’s lawyer ‐ in mime ‐ bribes a judge. New York, Chicago; they got it. Los Angeles? It went right by. As a kid growing up in 50’s Chicago, if you got stopped by a cop, “Let me see your driver’s license,” you had a $5 bill under the license. “Have a nice day.” So if you grew up in the suburbs you wouldn’t get what the guy is doing at the bench.

You’ve been a major pioneer of the digital movement. If you were making Thief today, would you shoot it digitally?
Michael Mann: Absolutely. And I’d be much better off doing it today than when we did Collateral. Collateral was beautiful in digital projection if you were in a theater that had digital projection. The problem was that it had photochemical release prints, which the labs knocked out with “tolerances” that were a joke. A print any director would reject was fine as far as the lab was concerned. So, getting what I made digitally, to photochemical release printing was a nightmare. Now, with digital cinema being ubiquitous, it’s great. Thief would have the same look, by the way.

Originally titled Violent Streets, the film debuted at the 34th Cannes Film Festival. It went on to open in theaters in the United States on March 27, 1981, earning a modest $4.3 million. The movie received widespread critical acclaim. It holds a 96% rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 26 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. Roger Ebert described Thief as “one of the most intelligent thrillers I’ve seen” and gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, writing that the film’s only major flaw was a failure to develop the subplot featuring Willie Nelson’s character more fully: “Willie has played the character so well that we wanted more.”


James Caan as Frank
Tuesday Weld as Jessie
Willie Nelson as Okla
James Belushi as Barry
Robert Prosky as Leo
Tom Signorelli as Attaglia
Dennis Farina as Carl
Nick Nickeas as Nick
W.R. Bill Brown as Mitch


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