Michael Mann Retrospective – Thief (1981)

Thief, 1981.

Written and Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi, Dennis Farina, William Petersen and Robert Prosky.

Thief Michael Mann

A professional safecracker’s plan for going straight spirals out-of-control when he becomes indebted to a crime boss.

Thief James Caan
Leaving behind the prison walls of his Emmy-winning T.V. movie The Jericho Mile, 1981 saw the release of Michael Mann’s first feature length film Thief. The crime noir was based on the novel The Home Invaders written by real life jewelry robber John Seyfold (under the pen name Frank Hohimer). Playing upon his fascination with the fine line that exists between the law enforcers and the lawbreakers, Mann had Chicago police officers Dennis Farina and Nick Nickeas appear as criminal henchmen, while former professional thief John Santucci plays a corrupt cop.

For the central character of Frank, the moviemaker had in a mind an actor who made a name for himself in The Godfather (1972). “When I met Michael, he had done one thing,” recalled James Caan on how he became part of his favourite movie. “I think I was doing Chapter Two [1979] or something. I see this guy sitting outside my trailer on a little wooden chair. He asked if he could speak to me; he hands me a script — I thought it was great after I read it. I find out the guy did one thing, which I also saw, which is pretty good, The Jericho Mile. So, at the time I was a big shot, and whatever I wanted to do, they did. I said I wanted to do this.”

Behind the camera, Michael Mann sought help from a fellow Chicago native. “I got a call from him asking me if I would read the script for the picture he was doing,” began production designer Mel Bourne. “I saw elements in that script that I really liked.” And when the two men met they discovered themselves to be kindred spirits. “We sat down and talked and had a clear picture of what the James Caan character looked like, what he wore. It was the start of what ended up in Miami Vice.” As for the dark interiors where shadows overpower the daylight, the movie’s production designer remarked, “We wanted that dreary, gritty, night look as a juxtaposition to the wet, neon exteriors.” To maintain this dramatic contrast, a 60,000 gallon water truck was employed to keep the streets constantly wet.

Michael Mann and Mel Bourne went to great lengths to ensure an authentic environment. “We did so much research,” recalled Bourne. “He [John Santucci] helped us and told us scientifically, down to the specific tools, how safes were broken into. Dennis Farina was on the Chicago police force at the time. He was a friend of Santucci’s and had pulled him in a number of times. So you got knowledge from people who really knew what the hell was going on.”

As for James Caan, he greatly enjoyed the cinematic experience, “Jerry Bruckheimer and my brother produced — and if you knew my brother, that’s hysterical,” remarked the amused actor. “Those two guys producing it. And Michael — this little Napoleonic workaholic. This guy was nuts. But I liked it, that film, and that character. It’s one of my fondest memories.” Thief also includes what James Caan considers to be his best performance. Seated in a diner, the actor has a seven minute monologue with actress Tuesday Weld, talking about his character’s hopes and dreams. Caan was not the only one who enjoyed the picture. “I remember I had a bunch of friends going to Stanford at the time, and I knew a lot of the football players. They used to come and stay with me, and they used to watch that movie once or twice a week. They knew all the dialogue.”

The big robbery was based on an actual heist masterminded by John Santucci, who went on to become a long-time technical consultant for Michael Mann. Though the crime was fictional, the production crew had other serious concerns. “The jewelry store at the end was built at Zoetrope Studios in L.A.,” explained Mel Bourne. “The walls of the safe were real. There were layers and layers of metal and asbestos in the walls. That paid off, because you really get the smell of that arc and you get the feel of the mass of that metal. We had to work with the L.A. police force and the fire department to make sure that the studio wasn’t going to go up in flames.”

Dennis Farina was not only the one making his film debut; the cast also included acting newcomers James Belushi, William Petersen, John Kapelos, and Robert Prosky. Even at this early stage of his directorial career, Michael Mann was honing his trademark style; the movie features slick camera movements, and a moody musical score composed by Tangerine Dream. Despite being a moderate box office success, Thief was a major step forward in establishing Mann as the A-list filmmaker he is today.

Thief trailer:

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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.