30 Things We Learned from the ‘Thief’ Commentary

Quick, name the best film directed by Michael Mann about career criminals. Yeah, you probably just blurted out Heat without giving it a second thought, and you’d be about 58,396 miles from being alone. However, you’d be wrong. Before you start going off about “matter of opinion” and “how can he say these words” repeat these after me. “Heat is NOT, I repeat, NOT, Michael Mann’s best film.” There, now doesn’t that feel loads better?

Oh, what’s that? you want to know what is Michael Mann’s best film? Let’s go back to 1981 where Mann offered up his second feature film, Thief, a film about a career criminal trying for his one last score – you can forgive this particular film for that cliche. It was the catalyst for all these other heist films using it that runs over the surface of rainy, Chicago streets. It’s cool. It’s energetic. It features one of James Caan‘s best performances. So, here, in honor of all the inspiration the film brings to Refn’s Drive, we offer up what Mann and Caan had to say about this milestone-of-cool film in their respective careers.

You can even go watch Heat afterwards. I’ll forgive, but remember those words.

Thief (1981)

Commentators: Michael Mann (writer, director), James Caan (Frank), about 22 gallons of liquid cool

  • 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.
  • Thief was Robert Prosky’s first film performance. He was 51 at the time. It was also Jim Belushi‘s first movie. A decade later, he would star in Curly Sue. Just thought I’d throw that out there. Other first-timers found in Thief: William Petersen and Dennis Farina.
  • One of the early shots where the camera tilts downward on shots of fire escapes between two buildings was shot in a location called “Rat Alley” according to Mann “for real obvious reasons.” “What are you talking about?” jokes Caan. “This was a high line neighborhood where I came from.”
  • When the title for Music by Tangerine Dream comes up, Caan proclaims, “Oh, you and Tangerine Dream. Oh, boy. Headache.” James Caan, clearly not a fan of The Virgin Years. Noted.
  • “I think your name was clearly there more times than mine,” says Caan about the opening credits. “Well, I worked harder than you did,” retorts Mann.
  • There were no false props used in the film. Every piece of machinery used during the heists were the actual tools that would have been used in real-life situations. The magnetic drill James Caan used during the opening scene weighed 200 lbs. Likewise, most of the tools and guns used in the film had actually been used in real-life heists.
  • A technical adviser was on set to instruct Caan. “That’s a fancy name for thief,” quips Caan. In fact, Caan got so well-versed in learning the craft of being a master thief that when one of the “technical advisers” was asked on Good Morning America after the film was released how well the actor did, he joked that he didn’t know what he had been wasting his time on set for.
  • “Frank is conceived of as an independent thief in Chicago with his own crew. In those years, in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and the ’70s there were a lot of crews like Frank’s crew working the city, and they were very high-lined thieves. They did industrial level burglaries. These were not burglars who did home invasions,” says Mann. He also mentions some of the best international thieves came out of Chicago, one particular area called “The Patch.” Caan adds that the crew they were working with on the film was the best crew in the country.
  • Mann mentions John Belushi, who was filming The Blues Brothers in Chicago around that same time, was on set quite a bit visiting his brother. The two had a club they had set up called The Blues Bar, a predecessor to The House of Blues according to Mann. It was a private club where much of the cast and crew would visit after shooting was finished for the night.
  • 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.
  • The way Caan and Mann talk about the first scene involving Frank (Caan) and Jessie (Tuesday Weld) is vague and a bit confusing, but the gist sounds like the scene was reworked quite a bit in post-production, to the point where initially it was the two characters’ first meeting. Now it plays like they have a history.
  • 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.
  • Mann mentions much of the life Frank is trying to assemble for himself came about from his years in prison, that he probably went to prison at a very early age and devised this idea of a life while inside. Now that he’s out, he’s trying to put the pieces together, but since it isn’t a natural life Frank leads, he’s putting them together in the most mechanical way possible.
  • Caan remarks on the simplicity of the story in Thief, how he likens Mann’s script to the Ternary or ABA form of dance. Mann also comments the regression of Frank’s character and how now that he finally has everything he has wanted in his life, he’ll have to regress back against Leo who is threatening it all. “Because he’s a delimited man given his history, the only thing he can see for himself to do is to rid himself of everything he’s cared about so that he’s reduced to that nihilistic state where there is no meaning in his life,” adds Mann.
  • The scene between James Caan and Tuesday Weld at the late-night diner is, according to Caan, his favorite scene of his career. It only took him 20 years to tell Michael Mann that. Mann also comments on this scene saying how it makes the effort in directing all the more worthwhile when he is able to direct a performance as good as Caan in this scene. “Thank you,” says Caan. “I wish I could do it more than once or twice.” “So do I,” jokes Mann.
  • During the diner scene between between Caan and Weld, sound effects, most notably the traffic noises, were manipulated to give the scene a sense of build. Mann wanted to give the scene something more than it being 10 minutes of two characters conversing.
  • 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.
  • When Frank meets Leo at the bar, Mann wanted James Caan angry for when they shot the scene. As luck would have it – or maybe not – Caan received an upsetting call from home regarding his son prior to shooting the scene. This resulted in him being even angrier than Mann wanted him to be. Mann likes to think he asked Caan to channel the anger into his performance. “Instead you said, ‘Jimmy, don’t eat the table.'”
  • 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.
  • During the interrogation scene, one of the detectives mentions taking Frank to a ballgame or the track. This comment is based on reality. The actor who delivers this line, Chuck Adamson, was an actual cop who mentioned to Caan that sometimes you couldn’t beat a confession out of someone. Sometimes you had to take them to dinner or a ballgame to get them to confess.
  • Mann wanted to give the impression of Frank being a rat in a maze throughout the film, particularly in the few scenes leading up to the big heist. Metallic colors were utilized to make the city streets seem more like tunnels. This is also why Mann opted for the electronic score instead of the bluesy score he initially wanted.
  • Frank using the word “electeded” was James Caan’s idea. “It was my theory these guys always had four dollar words,” explains Caan. Mann mentions it goes back to Frank’s time in prison, that he is a self-taught man and this moment is an example of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value at work.
  • Prior to filming Thief, Dennis Farina was really a Chicago police office. The man playing his partner in the film was his real-life partner on the force.
  • According to Michael Mann, Leo is based on two real-life criminals who ran crews of thieves in Chicago, Milwaukee Phil Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf.
  • Near the end of the film, when Tom Signorelli as Attaglia is walking into Leo’s kitchen, you’ll notice he smirks, almost chuckles. Michael Mann had simply given him the direction to think of something funny when he entered the room.
  • While it’s commonplace for characters to wear bulletproof vests in movies today, it wasn’t in 1981 when Thief was released. There was a certain amount of confusion from some audience members as to how Frank survived the shotgun blast to the chest. “We did have that shot in the house when he leaves of him grabbing that. Do you remember that?” asks Caan. “Of course you remember it. You wrote it.”
  • There’s some debate between Mann and Caan as to what happens to Frank after he walks down the street at the end. Mann doesn’t have an optimistic view on what happens to Frank even going so far as saying, “Where’s he going? Nowhere.” However, Caan thinks that a man with Frank’s determination would get everything he lost back no matter what.
  • Evidently, James Caan didn’t know he was doing this commentary until the night before. Mann called him up late at night, asked Caan what he was doing in the morning, and said they were recording the commentary. “Michael, don’t ever call me again,” says Caan. He also mentions Mann was currently working on a film with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and that he should have called “one of those guys.” I wonder what that mystery movie was…
  • Also, the commentary track cuts Michael Mann off in mid-sentence. “There’s something about it. You suddenly get to immerse yourself…” and then the disc ends. Evidently, the commentary was recorded for the film’s laser disc, and it wasn’t lined up right on the DVD. So, you go, MGM. Keep working on that quality home entertainment.

Best in Commentary

“There wasn’t a gesture you did or a tool you used or an attitude you had that wasn’t anchored in some history.” – Mann to Caan regarding his becoming of Frank

“The thing that really impresses me about the movie and that sticks out in the movie for me as an actor and as a theater goer is that the characters in this movie, unlike every other picture I see, solely drive this movie.” – Caan

“Of course I had my helping of raw meat that night, and it didn’t bother me.” – another head-scratcher from Caan. God love him.

Final Thoughts

Loooooooooooong gaps in commentary. That’s what I notice most about this commentary track. Michael Mann and James Caan seem to have great admiration for their work on Thief. Even though some of the commentary is them pointing people out they remember from the set or Caan simply yelling out someone’s nickname, there’s still something much more they could have been saying during those gaps. The big heist scene is almost completely devoid of commentary. It’s also a scene with minimal dialogue, so I shouldn’t have to be checking my audio settings to make sure the commentary track got turned off. Also much of the commentary is spent reiterating the point of what Frank wants with his life, how he has very nearly achieved it, and how he has to regress to defend it.

All in all, a bit underwhelming, especially with Mann’s filmography and Thief being one of his first movies – and in my opinion his best. I can’t won’t say much specifically regarding Caan. You don’t want to cross that man. He knows where the bodies are buried. Hell, he buried half of them himself.

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Jeremy's been writing about movies for a good, 15 years, starting with the film review column of his high school newspaper. He stands proud as the first person in his high school to have seen (and recommend) Pulp Fiction. Jeremy went on to get a B.A. in Cinema and Photography with a minor in journalism. His experience and knowledge of film is aided by the list of 6600 films he has seen in his life (so far). Jeremy's belief is that there are no bad films, just unrealized possibilities. Except Batman and Robin. That shit was awful.

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