Michael Mann‘s 1981 crime thriller Thief is commonly considered to be one of the strongest directorial debuts of all time. And just because that’s hyperbolic doesn’t mean it’s not true. The heist movie stars James Caan as Frank, a master jewel thief and ex-con who has his sights set on a different life, one he wants to share with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and their child. First, Frank has to pull off one last big score, but being under the thumb of a Chicago mob boss complicates the matter.
The film’s heart-pounding action and mesmerizing style laid the foundation upon which Mann has built a career. The icy palette and neon-noir aesthetics, in particular, are quintessential Mann. But even beyond the visuals, Thief is thematically rich, deftly paced, and perfectly illustrates what makes Mann’s confidence as a filmmaker so unique.
As one might expect from a film titled Thief (and one based on the exploits of a real burglar), the action sequences here are extraordinary. With the help of a pulsing Tangerine Dream score, Mann expertly racks up the tension in these moments. This is the work of a director who, to put it simply, knows exactly what he’s doing.
And yet, as exciting as it is when the film goes big, it’s even better when it goes small. A case in point is the thrillingly lowkey dinner scene that bridges the first and second acts. After showing up late to a date with Jessie, Frank takes her to an all-night diner for coffee. The next ten minutes play out as a simple conversation. It’s minor, but it’s where we find the heart of the film.
The two start out slightly abrasive. She’s still bitter about feeling stood up, and he’s learning how to be honest after so many years of duplicity. Each calls the other out for not using their indoor voice. But then they start talking. She explains her rocky past spent drifting with an ex and her present appreciation for a life that is boring and ordinary.
Then it’s his turn. He tells her things his ex-wife didn’t know: his work as a thief, his time spent in prison, and the mentality he developed to survive. Mann apparently did his research here, utilizing stories he’d heard from real former inmates. This attention to detail shows. Frank tells her about how time loses meaning. He relates how he feared for his life and how he fought, only to learn of the serenity that comes with not caring anymore. It’s terrifying and saddening, delivered with the kind of honesty that indicates Frank understands how he survived the eleven years in prison, but there’s no way he’s truly processed it.
Caan here, it should be noted, is excellent. Frank is a mess of emotions — he’s aggressive and sad, cagey and nonchalant, brave and frightened. Physically, he plays Frank as someone operating on muscle memory. When his lighter doesn’t work, Frank still holds the unlit cigarette for a few minutes, as if he doesn’t know what to do with his hands otherwise.
On the other side of the table, Weld is equally strong as Jessie. She teases out a playful attitude in the character. When Frank makes a joke about the death of an inmate, there’s a not-very-well stifled laugh from her. A standout moment comes when — in the same breath as if it was all the same casual question — Jessie asks Frank, “Where were you in prison; would you pass the cream please?”
All the while, the scene is imbued with an electric quality. The diner itself is a florescent oasis amidst the dark black of the night outside. Cars roar in the background as a freeway is framed between the couple and seen through the wall of windows. The lights are all blurry as they twinkle faintly in the distance like manmade stars. The space and the world around it are nondescript and anonymous. It almost feels like the diner is suspended in the air, hovering over the nightscape. It’s a location where there’s a hum in the air and it’s unclear if it’s from the world outside vibrating against the glass or the sizzle of a grill that runs 24/7. It is at once the least romantic place in the world and the most romantic place in the world.
Indeed, it’s exactly the anonymity of this space that feeds into the magical sense of hope that binds Frank and Jessie. They’re in a space where no one else knows them. They could be anyone, and they can imagine being anyone else. As their conversation continues, Frank shares with her his vision board: a patchwork collage, in which he’s compiled the things that mean most to him. He has a picture of his mentor and father figure who informed his past and images of a wife and children that he strives to exist in his future. He asks her to be part of this dream.
As the conversation carries on, the synth score begins to pulse. It’s a tremor that swells as Jessie sputters with her initial fear. It then builds into a melodic wave as Frank speaks openly — with a pain that tells us he hasn’t been this honest in a long time — and tells her he believes they can make something of this. She tears up, and he looks like he’s about to as well. Finally, the two clasp hands in a hopeful promise.
This last shot of the scene, their two hands joined together, is one that Mann lingers on to emphasize the weight of this moment without being overwrought. Indeed, this scene is a masterful showcase of his subtle camerawork. The scene begins with a two-shot and then gradually the camera becomes closer to each subject, medium-long shots become medium shots that become close-ups. We’re being pulled into their world and, with each frame, becoming more heavily invested.
Michael Mann has spent the last forty years thrilling audiences with breathtaking heist sequences and action scenes that rival the best of the best. But the pugnacious spirits of many of his characters and the cycles of violence they find themselves in are always tinged with sadness. They are men who, as it’s later put in 1995’s Heat, don’t know how to do anything else. As bleak as it is, however, there are sometimes dashes of hope. Lights at the end of the tunnel. Tiny florescent lights, framing two nighthawks caught in a liminal space, believing they can make something special out of it all.