The Mover
Eric Hynes on Thief

Thief plays at Museum of the Moving Image as part of The Caan Film Festival on Friday, September 30 and Sunday, October 9, 2022.

James Caan turned 40 the year he made Thief. There are hints in the film that his character, Frank, is actually in his mid-thirties, which doesn’t quite land—not because the legendarily strapping Caan isn’t fitter than most men 20 years his junior, but because being fit and fight-ready despite 40 wearying years is precisely how he looks, and it helps to define Frank’s appeal and precarity. He doesn’t have the years-to-burn ease of a man in his thirties; he’s moving, talking, and acting like he needs to be somewhere yesterday. Frank reveals that he spent more than a decade in prison, where offenses behind bars extended an initially short sentence, and where he survived by learning how to not care whether he lived or died. In the years since, he’d dedicated himself strictly to big scores: high-difficulty heists of jewels or cash, with profits sheltered in a used car dealership and Chicago tavern, as well as in strategically peacocked designer suits and jewelry. He’s in command of it all yet disdainfully so, not valuing any of it beyond it being a means to an end. He moves quickly, endlessly entering and exiting buildings, cars, rooms, popping into the bar for a minute, popping out, then popping back in to take a call before quickly exiting again, the movement being the message. The film lingers on his methods, but not at all on his triumphs, about which he doesn’t even crack a smile. “I am running out of time,” he says.

James Caan turned 41 the day before Thief’s theatrical release in 1981 (which was three days before recently inaugurated U.S. president Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr. in Washington, D.C.). His performance is arguably the best he’d ever given (only his turn in Karel Reisz’s The Gambler merits a debate) and on an extratextual level embodies a hinge between ’70s and ’80s Hollywood, masculinity, and sex appeal. Born in 1940, his twenties neatly encompassed the 1960s, during which he transitioned from competitive athlete to Meisner-tutored actor and rose from stage and TV productions to Hollywood leading roles for both august auteurs (Howard Hawks’s El Dorado and Red Line 7000) and fellow upstarts like Francis Ford Coppola (The Rain People). He became a star in his thirties thanks to his sensitive, Emmy-nominated turn as Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song (1971) and his scorching, Academy Award–nominated work as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972). During the ’70s he averaged two films per year, tackling everything from action movies to musical comedy, all while embodying, alongside his Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) costar Elliot Gould, the unmitigatedly hirsute, unapologetically Jewish hunk. But as he revealed in interviews from as far back as 1975, he was weary of where the industry was headed, and craved the challenging, multilayered roles that had informed his craft and seemed plentiful just a few years prior.

If he’d been born 15 to 20 years later, such impatience might have led to a second or third act in American independent films (a glimmer of which can be viewed in his scene-stealing appearance in Wes Anderson’s buoyant first film, Bottle Rocket). But in 1980 it led him to his first and only directorial work, the dark and rigorous Hide in Plain Sight, and then to Michael Mann, who at 37 was more like 27 in director years, finally starting to make a name and career for himself in the studio system. Mann’s first big shot offered Caan his best shot in years. In hindsight, Thief also concluded the actor’s marquee era, whilst a younger crop of actors freebasing on Caan’s physicality and volatility—minus the body hair and street-bred, class-fueled umbrage—ascended. The likes of Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Michael Paré, and Matt Dillon inevitably drew comparisons to De Niro and Pacino and big papa Brando, but it was Sonny Corleone in a wife-beater and suspenders, eyebrow raised like a wound-up toy, fist ready to strike, that actually set the mold. Jimmy Caan wasn’t an icon—he was a guy you knew or met and never forgot, and remembered in your body, your insecurities, your impulses.

In his big monologue-ish bits in Thief he’s never, not even close to cloying, pushing us away as readily as he’s pulling us in. Denied a fair hearing at an adoption center, he righteously, if inarticulately, pops off at the snooty employee, while his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld, three years younger than Caan yet ten years more experienced in, and hardened by, Hollywood) implores him to just let it go, simultaneously revealing an offhanded racism as well as a deeply personal grievance against the state. You want to cheer the outburst but . . . the burst itself complicates the righteousness. No matter the cost, Frank will not be owned by anyone, including you, the audience. And from The Gambler to Misery, from For the Boys to The Yards, tunnel vision for emotional and psychological integrity—likeability or approachability be damned—is what Caan brought to his parts.

The match between Mann and Caan is a fascinating one. Superficially it’s a pairing between a new and old guard, a cold-blooded scenery painter and hot-blooded scenery chewer, but on an operational level it’s so fitting that it’s too bad they didn’t work together again. Mann is famously exacting and shows up towing reams of research. With Thief that meant learning everything there was to know about safecracking and master thievery, and exhaustively (or as close to exhaustively as possible within a standard feature) conveying that knowledge to the audience. In Caan, he found an actor who wasn’t just willing to learn how to convincingly portray a man with such a skill set, he found an actor who was able to passably acquire that skill set. In both of the big set-piece heists, that’s Caan operating the machinery, drilling into steel, sweating under fireproof hoods. But what Mann simultaneously explores in Thief, and often in his other films, and which may have been best served by Caan, is a comparative messiness in verbal expression.

In his films, the precision of the skilled technician—which he lovingly, clinically (in the best, most respectful expression of the term) dramatizes—is often contrasted with his imprecision with language. Pacino and De Niro in Heat, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans: they’re all akin in their practically transcendental professionalism, as well as in their quote-worthy failures at articulating cool or compelling sentiments. In this respect Mann is underrated as a screenwriter. Of course, “I’m a fiend for mojitos” is a howler of a line, but what, exactly, would a vice squad detective with a handlebar mustache and no game outside of his undercover bravado actually say in such a situation? Similarly, Caan’s Frank uses the preschool-worthy epithet “goof” at least three times in the film, spackles “asshole” over every crack and crevice, and regarding his failed marriage says, “It was over, but we kept moving through the moves.” Maybe these formulations, along with Frank’s self-conscious avoidance of contractions, speak to his education or lack thereof, but they also allow for a compelling, dimensional dynamism in Mann’s storytelling, which Caan puts over with every breath of his performance.

There’s even a structural synergy to this dynamism. The film’s bravura, mostly dialogue-free opening safecracking sequence, with staccato synths and power chords provided by Tangerine Dream, takes approximately ten minutes of screen time—ten tremendously long movie minutes of technical skill and performative cool before the story leaves the extreme present tense and the protagonist says anything of substance. Later, after Frank wrestles Jessie into his car because he’s arrived late to their date (“You were looking forward to this, come on”), he takes her to a highway overpass oasis cafe for an all-cards-on-the-table confession and proposition, recounting his years of incarceration (“You gotta get to where nothing means nothing”), his reasons for wanting to hurtle ahead with his life, and his distaste for the state of the cream on the table (“What’s wrong with it? It’s cottage cheese!”). Nothing that follows this scene makes a lick of sense if Jessie isn’t persuaded by Frank, whose passion and intent absolutely have to be evident. Physically, it’s there in his cocksure preening, his self-conscious, one-leg-up posturing in the diner booth, his tender, boyish unveiling of a wallet-enfolded aspirational collage; verbally it’s a clumsier matter, though his wishes are (often bluntly) clear. “You are scared to death,” he tells her when she hesitates at his overtures. “You’re an asshole,” she replies. In the end, Jessie is persuaded by Frank, setting their plans for a life together, as well as his plan to take one big gig for hire before retiring, in motion. The scene, which matches and contrasts the opening heist, also lasts ten minutes.

Much as Mann is giving equal time and weight to precision and imprecision, he’s also pitting autonomy against dependence. Frank’s commitment to starting a life with Jessie fast-tracks his need to acquire enough financial security to go straight—the man in motion starts moving even faster—which necessitates going to work for crime boss Leo (an exquisitely reptilian, Shakespearean villain-via-Chicago Robert Prosky, somehow delivering his first screen performance). Leo then exploits the new power dynamic to the max, extending to Frank, who’s fatherless (and recently mentorless after the death of his in-prison pal Okla, played with wild-eyed eroticism by Willie Nelson), a poison pill paternalism, securing for Frank and Jessie a black-market baby which he quickly uses as leverage, cheating him out of earnings, and reprimanding him for not “playing ball” with corrupt cops. Frank’s only recourse is to return to “nothing means nothing” and burn it all down: his relationship, his businesses, his future, and Leo. The zero-sum, pyrrhic-victorious carnage of Thief’s denouement scans as a very ’70s existential, endless loop finale in which nobody owns Frank, and Frank is again a nobody, stumbling forward into futurelessness.

But by 1981 there were supposedly heroes and myths again and new opportunistic self-delusions to enact. It was time to “play ball,” evolve with the times, monetize your passions, join a gym, record with a drum machine and adopt a vaguely Caribbean sound, cast Watergate cretin G. Gordon Liddy in your television show (as Mann would later do). The progression from the sociologically specific, often uncompromisingly grim Saturday Night Fever to the glossy, steroidal, fascinatingly pointless Staying Alive offers a wildly reductive but nevertheless helpful clue into what transpired over those few years.

Despite Thief being Caan’s finest hour, the 1980s would be his least productive decade by far, yielding only the following year’s risible farce Kiss Me Goodbye before solid turns in Coppola’s Gardens of Stone (1987) and Graham Baker’s Alien Nation (1988) half a decade later. Mann, of course, would go on to help create Miami Vice, direct The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986), and play an integral role in fashioning and reflecting the look, feel, and vibe of the decade. There’s plenty evidence in Thief of what would come for Mann: a bravura descending crane shot along fire escapes in an alleyway, ever-wet reflective streets, light cascading over chrome as seen from a car-wheel-level POV, the integrity of perfectly executed lawlessness, Dennis Farina. But only in Thief do these elements share an arena with an older sense of cool, of the preceding decade’s cynicisms and expressions of criminality and corruption. Thief is a beginning, and like all beginnings it’s born of what came before. And what came before walked and talked and wore a pair of slacks like James Caan. Then that ideal learned to carry a gun like a marksman, crack a safe with advanced tools like a master, and drive a car smoothly and moodily over slick streets, and in the process became a model that Mann would build upon thematically and with later characterizations of men straddling two eras, modalities, and ways of being, such as in The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies. Yet while those iterations echo within his own thoroughly developed and expressed aesthetic and ethos, in Thief it’s an aesthetic and ethos relayed and refined from myriad, evident forebears, for which Caan serves as both the baton and a most vital source.