We look back at the iconic work of the late, great James Caan and take a deep dive into the underrated neo-noir masterpiece Thief, with Caan at his fiery, mesmeric best…
The sad news has broken. Another cinematic icon has left us, leaving behind an awe inspiring legacy. James Caan for a time, was synonymous with tough guy roles. Broad shoulders and rugged looks he exuded masculinity and toughness that often hid the inherent flaws in his characters or hidden vulnerability. It could be the bullheaded and bravura approach of Sonny Corleone, whose brawn was offset by a lack of finesse and forethought.
At times Caan played merely a straight up tough guy, or gangsters, but he’s shown so much range within a career that saw him venture across an array of genres (and brilliantly sending his image up in comedies like Mickey Blue Eyes, Honeymoon in Vegas). He even took that hard edge, no nonsense persona to the now essential holiday classic Elf, as Buddy’s disapproving father.
Caan will be most associated with roles like the aforementioned Sonny in the all time great The Godfather. Sonny’s death alone earning a place in cinema history, given the brutality with which he’s is peppered with bullets. There was also a star turn opposite the sensational Kathy Bates, in Rob Reiner’s Misery. A classic thriller that dipped into the well plundered well of Stephen King.
I’ve loved some of the works many might have considered lesser…his action heavy Sam Peckinpah helmed The Killer Elite (featuring great action, Robert Duvall and the legendary Mako). I also loved his scenery chewing villain work which helped elevate arguably the last full tilt Arnold Schwarzenegger action classic, Eraser. The cult classic Rollerball, so good it inspired an iconic video game and the underrated thriller The Gambler (recently remade below par by Mark Wahlberg).
For me though, Caan’s intensity and charisma were most perfectly utilised in his best leading role. Caan is utterly mesmerising in a film which put Michael Mann on the map. Despite time giving Thief a pantheon placed legacy, it was a film that slipped a little below radar initially. In Mann’s career, it was part of an early double hit of exceptional crime thrillers, with Manhunter following a few years after.
Manhunter, perhaps in part due to its source material, or indeed the Hannibal Lector adaptation which followed and became a smash in 1991 (Silence of the Lambs), was more quickly placed into cult classic status. Whilst box office glory eluded it entirely, Thief had no shortage of admirers, proving highly influential in years to come. Perhaps most notably, Nicolas Winding Refn cited it as a key source of inspiration for Drive. Mann himself took the rawness of both Thief and Manhunter and would later refine that model, of a complex, morally obtuse and stoic protagonist, in Heat. Caan as the meticulous master thief is essentially the blue print for De Niro’s Neil McCauley in Heat.
Mann’s epic world of mostly nights is doused in neon, dripping with rain soaked and reflective streets. His frames feature gorgeous symmetry and meticulous framing. It’s a visually resplendent neo-noir classic with Frank (Caan), our titular thief, always just outside of touching distance of a way out of his life. He’s a career con with a history of hard time who won’t do another stretch. Caan has that life of inescapable criminality and consequence written into his face. He’s been permanently grizzled, made unapproachable to those outside of his circle, unless they fascinate him (such as Tuesday Weld’s love interest, Jessie).
Frank aspires to a collage, picture postcard life. The picture simple goals, but these are the goals of the regular shmoe. The guy who adheres to the rules but doesn’t get financially rewarded. Frank wants enough to buy into that world (a home, wife, kids) and be comfortable, as well as claim freedom for his old pal Okla (Willie Nelson) who remains in prison.
Of course, in a world run by criminal overlords, here in the unexpected guise of the ordinarily cuddly, Robert Prosky, escape is almost impossible. Last job upon last job, leading to an inevitable blood soaked, nihilistic finale. Caan plays the role with this underlying fatalism. Frank, for all his postcard dreaming and assured demeanour, knows his fate is the one aspect of his life he can’t meticulously control. He’s always got this weight hanging behind him, behind the precision tools that he can crack any safe with, a hook in his side always pulling him back into more jobs, more danger. He won’t go back to jail and deep down he knows the only alternative to that.
When he goes against Leo (Prosky), the affable but firm crime boss takes a dark turn and Frank and his closest are put under threat. Frank’s best friend (James Belushi) is brutally despatched and it becomes all too clear that Frank’s postcard collage is a fairy tale. He has to give up Jessie, his son, his business fronts. He severs himself entirely from the life he was building, hell bent on revenge. What’s most crushing is the snarling ferocity turned cold stoicism in which Caan plays the final act. Even if he kills Leo, he won’t go back to the dream. It’s not death of glory. It’s death or solitude/resignation. It’s a classic example of nihilistic cinema. Despite his hard edge, cold demeanour and his dark side, we still route for Frank, such is the power and depth Caan conveys.
In the wake of Caan’s sad passing, hopefully Thief will be picked up and reappraised still further. Its legacy continues to grow, as does its depth, superiority and artistic merits over most modern alternatives in the genre. Mann’s film is beautiful and recent transfers and restorations only serve to accentuate the glorious 35mm stock, from a time when films were treated with meticulous precision, crisp visuals, gorgeous lighting and clarity. It’s visual influence has bled into not only film but TV, whilst the Tangerine Dream score also provided an atmospheric and esoteric backdrop to those visuals. The popularity and nostalgic appeal of synth scores and notably the likes of Tangerine Dream can still be heard in a recent smash like Stranger Things.
Thief is already part of the Criterion label, giving it the prestige placing it has always deserved as a key cornerstone in modern neo-noir cinema. At its heart though, is a powerhouse performer in Caan. People have often dismissed Mann’s work as cold, missing the point that we are being challenged by the director and performer to look beyond that cold, stoic outer shell, to the complexity inside. It’s all there, and through James Caan, arguably the most effective and mesmerising character ever committed to Mann’s celluloid.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.