We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme for this month is "Heists," and, in addition to Sarah Welch-Larson's piece about "Thief" below, includes new essays on "Sneakers," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Tenet," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One," "Point Blank," "The Pink Panther," "Sexy Beast," "Time Bandits," and "Rififi."
Art Credit: Brianna Ashby
A man and a woman size each other up across a table in a diner just outside Chicago. It’s late. They’re both pale already, but the greenish hue of the sodium lights make the two appear more weary than they already are. If they hadn’t been spitting venom at each other when they’d walked through the door, they’d look like corpses that had been occupying the booth for days. As it is, they’re both walking wounded, carrying the scars of the difficult lives that brought them to this point. The gigantic window behind the two frames them in stark blackness, dotted by the fuzzy lights of the city in the distance.
As with every Michael Mann diner scene, this is a moment for two people at angles to each other to come to an understanding for the long haul. They’re never perfectly in sync, but their hostility melts to curiosity as they realize how they’re alike. Frank (James Caan) is a jewel thief who spent eleven years in Joliet Correctional for a petty misdemeanor; Jessie (Tuesday Weld) bounced around South America, unmoored from the outside world by her abusive, drug-dealing ex-husband. Frank makes money selling used cars during the day and cracking safes at night, but he admits that he wants a domestic life in the suburbs with a family to feel caught up with the rest of the world. Jessie wants security without the bullshit. Both have been hurt by other people, and by the system. They’re kindred spirits, able to be vulnerable with each other over a cup of coffee in a lonely diner over the highway. It’s less a relationship than an alliance. Us against the world, as other lovers might say, though these two aren’t much for grand romantic gestures.
Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), like its protagonist, elides the romance in favor of efficiency. Frank’s me-against-the-world attitude is both his armor and a weapon in his one-man crusade to fund his American dream.
Chicago sits in the middle of Cook County, Illinois. One of the popular nicknames for the area is “Crook County.”
One of the other popular names for Chicago is “The Windy City,” but you already knew that one. Tour guides will be quick to tell you that the nickname doesn’t come from the weather off Lake Michigan; it comes from the hot air produced by Crook County politicians. Never mind that the actual wind off the lake in winter is still bitter enough to make you feel like you’re going to die.
The Chicago of Mann’s Thief is a working-class city of metal and bricks, green sodium lights and corruption. It’s an industry town, and Mann shows it mostly during overcast days; ordinary, uncinematic weather that underlines the ordinary businesslike nature of Frank’s illegal dealings as he tries to move the merchandise he’s stolen. The Loop—the downtown business hub ringed by the Chicago River and the raised “L” train tracks—exists only at night in the world of this movie. When Frank crosses the street under the elevated tracks, he’s like a beetle in his leather jacket and jeans: hard outer shell walking under the piled-up depths of the trains and skyscrapers—a hard man with hard work to do. When he cracks a safe in the jewelry district, he throws the necklaces and bracelets over his shoulder without taking a second look at them. He goes straight for the loose stones: easier to move, and easier for him to pass along to some anonymous fence without attracting too much attention. The chains attached to the set jewelry might as well be literal chains holding Frank back, so he doesn’t bother. Frank works with a partner (Jim Belushi as Barry), but he answers to no one. His world is cold concrete and colder cutthroat steel, and he would rather die than go back to prison, so he keeps moving forward, unfeeling as a shark, focused on the next score.
Frank is a freelancer. He researches, cases, and breaks every safe himself. He likes the freedom to choose his own jobs; he doesn’t like having a boss in his business. It’s only after Frank and Jessie come to an understanding that Frank agrees to go to work for Leo (Robert Prosky), a local mob boss who’s been courting him for his expertise. Leo promises Frank steady, high-paying work; the resources he needs in order to do his job; and a promise that there will be something worth taking from every safe he cracks. Frank takes the job from Leo because he needs a lot of money, fast; without cash, he can’t realize his dream of settling down with Jessie.
Illinois is an at-will employment state: the understanding that either the company or the employee can choose to end the employment agreement at any time is codified into law. Frank’s agreement to work for Leo may be outside the law, but it’s still at-will employment—there’s no written contract, only a handshake and an uneasy feeling on Frank’s part. It’s a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts, with the details left hazy. Frank insists that he’ll crack one safe—two at most—for Leo, and then he’s out. He won’t steal anything easily traceable, and he wants to keep flying under the radar. “No cowboy shit. No home invasions,” he says when he agrees to take the job. Leo assents to Frank’s terms with the easy smile of a man who has the upper hand. He gives Frank everything he wants: the funds for a house in the northwest suburbs, a burglary job in Los Angeles, even a child for him and Jessie to raise after the state refuses to let Frank, an ex-con, adopt one legally.
Frank sees working for Leo as an avenue to easy money. He treats the agreement like he treats every other safecracking job he’s done: get in, get the money, get out. Leo allows Frank to labor under that assumption, then stiffs him some of the percentage from the L.A. job.
Frank’s reaction is one of barely controlled rage. Caan plays the character like a man who knows about his own short fuse, but who also likes the power that his hot temper can afford him. His syllables are clipped, but he doesn’t use contractions when he speaks: the hard “I am,” never a soft “I’m.” He tells Jessie it’s an attitude he picked up in prison: he had to make himself almost like an animal in order to survive the prison yard. He carries himself like he doesn’t care whether he’s going to live or die. But Frank does care, especially when he’s been cheated. When he’s owed money, he won’t let go of it until he’s been given his rightful due. Frank visits Leo in his home, getting straight to the point: you owe me for the work I’ve done.
This scene has become the linchpin of Marxist readings of the movie. Frank points aggressively at Leo. “I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labor,” the thief snaps; he’s furious about having been cheated, and he doesn’t appreciate being stolen from. The popular reading of the line is one of labor solidarity—a nice interpretation of a single line, but one that fails to take into account the rest of the scene, let alone the rest of the film. When Leo suggests that Frank join a labor union, Frank retorts that he’s wearing his labor union, implying that his gun is the only enforcement of his labor rights that he needs. Frank doesn’t rely on anyone else to help him. He’s not a union man, he’s a rugged individualist, trying to fight the system that made him who he is. Leo sits calmly and takes the invective from Frank, because even now, with Frank threatening him in his own home, Leo has the upper hand. Under capitalism, the house always wins.
Thief is not actually about the labor movement, although it’s sympathetic to it. Thief is a movie about the rot that necessitated the labor movement in the first place, and about the ways that individuals are trapped in a system that will crush them. It’s about the American Dream, about a man who was shut out from that dream by his prison sentence before he could even become an adult. He’s not about to give up on that dream, so he’s going to steal what he can, to take what he believes is rightfully his.
Crucially, Frank refuses to participate in collective action. He isn’t seizing the means of production, he’s looting the spoils of production—albeit through hard work of his own. The only communities he comes into contact with are corrupt: the police, the politicians, the mob boss who owns everything he has. He’s been burned by the systems that were supposed to prevent him from failing, first as a child in the foster care system, then as a prisoner doing time out of proportion with the crime he’d committed. He doesn’t really care to reform the world he lives in. He just wants to cheat the system that cheated him, so that he can get out ahead of everyone else who managed to get along by the rules.
Frank knows precisely who he is and how he’s managed to get ahead, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in hiding it. “I’m a thief,” he tells Jessie on their first date, listing the silk shirts and the nice watches he wears. “I change cars like other guys change their fuckin’ shoes!” He knows he makes more than the typical used-car salesman—his cover job—and that his wealth shows. It’s as though he’s managed to pull a heist on capitalism itself. But in playing the game—in adopting the trappings of the wealthy men he steals from—Frank falls into the mire of another strain of capitalism. Everything becomes transactional. Only money can grease the wheels.
When his mentor from prison, a man named Okla (Willie Nelson), falls ill, Frank promises to free him so that he won’t die on the inside. Frank pays off an attorney to pay off a judge to secure Okla’s release. The two bastions of the law in Crook County sit across from each other in court, openly signaling with their fingers the price of parole as they walk through the litany of their hearing. The courtroom becomes an auction house, the integrity of the law for sale. Frank watches the exchange with amused disinterest, the cash for the bribe in a manila envelope in his pocket. This is the way the world works; if you have a little money to slip under the table to get what you want, why not use it? In order to spirit a body out of prison one only needs to have the proper key, and in Crook County the only key that Frank needs is money. It’s another heist of sorts. Frank will play the game when he wants to, but only if it’s a situation where he’ll come out ahead. Otherwise, he’s out.
Process filmmaking is crucial to the heist plot: the heist is only exciting if the audience understands just how difficult the job is in the first place. The stakes and constraints must be set up, just so; the thieves need to be competent at their jobs in order to make the heist’s stakes plausible, and the filmmaker must be efficient in setting up the stakes, setting, and potential traps so as to maintain the tension. Mann manages this all with nearly wordless precision.
Under cinematographer Donald E. Thorin’s watchful camera, every conversation—every interaction—becomes a heist. Mann is a process man to his core, with the how always just as important as the why. When Frank and Jessie go on their first combative date, Mann takes the time to demonstrate the way Frank drives his car like a getaway vehicle away from the bar, aggressive and confident. Once he’s got the girl, he’s gone. Frank’s a master thief, and Mann excels at telling stories about men who are very good at their jobs.
He’s especially good at storytelling of the cops-and-robbers variety. His process style is perfectly suited to heist movies; you have to know how things work in order to be able to pull them apart and extract the value out of them, both within the story on film, and in the assembly of that story on camera. The film watches patiently as Frank and his colleagues tap the phone lines before a job, trusting that the audience will pick up on the importance of finding every wire without delivering exposition about what the team is doing in the first place. The story of Thief is as pragmatic as its protagonist, and as abrasive as its Tangerine Dream score, which favors jagged edges as Frank drills into his safes and eases back into ethereal synths during the getaway. Frank’s chasing a dream that doesn’t really exist for anyone; he’s chasing the ghost of the life he thinks he deserves. No one’s going to give it to him, so he’s going to take it by any means necessary—he’ll break in if he has to.
Thorin shoots the action with aggression to match. The metals and industrial tools of Frank’s trade take up most of the frame with their bulk. The color palette is cold blues and rusts and grays, punctured by the shine of the loose diamonds Frank is after, and by the orange sparks his machinery throws. Over everything lies a pall of sickly green: the old sodium lights of downtown Chicago, the color of money, and the color of rot.
Frank knows what he wants and how he wants to obtain it; when he takes Jessie out for the first time, he demands that they talk through their problems right away so that they “can move on with this grand romance.” Their relationship is as transactional as the rest of Frank’s dealings with the world, a mutual understanding that is built on a need for security before it can grow into something that looks like respect, let alone love. We never get the particulars. The two have known each other for five months by the time the movie starts; we don’t see any grand proposal, nor their decision to move in together. Frank shows Jessie his vision board for the future, a collage he made from scraps of magazines and photos in prison: a house, a wife, children, Okla free as the wind. Jessie accepts the terms of the life he’s offered her.
But there’s no day-to-day, no routine, no invasion into Jessie’s psyche; Tuesday Weld plays her character as both curious and accepting, a woman who’d rather be relegated to the safer edges of the world rather than be subjected to the scrutiny of men—or movie cameras. In a rare moment of quiet, we see the two sitting on a sofa in front of a fireplace, their heads thrown back and their eyes closed after an exhausting bout with Social Services in their quest to adopt. But we only see them from the back, and we can’t hear them talking to each other. We’re not privy to any of it. Mann elides the process of their relationship almost entirely. The two are past the idealism of youth anyway. They want to get on with the rest of their lives.
The transaction comes at a price. Frank’s pocket-worn collage of magazine clippings, on top of his material goals, also has a river of skulls meandering across one corner. When Jessie asks Frank about the skulls, he tells her he wants to die on his own terms, not like he thought he’d go when he was in prison. His own terms involve getting everything else on the collage first. He wants to win the rat race. The perfect score isn’t diamonds, it’s dying with dignity and with more wealth—more signifiers of getting ahead—than anyone else Frank has ever come into contact with. Frank is in a race against time, which is to say he is in a race against death.
That race isn’t just against his own death; his goal of getting Okla out of prison is partly to ensure that Okla will die a free man. When Frank visits Okla early in the film, the two chitchat, trade stories about life on either side of the bars, and look at each other with the affection they won’t give to anyone else. Then Okla leans up close to the glass. “Get me out of here,” he whispers, his eyes and the swiftness of Willie Nelson’s delivery betraying the urgency that Okla feels. Like Frank, Okla doesn’t want to die in there. Okla wants out of prison, but he also wants death with dignity, death outside the system. Frank wants out of the cage he’s built for himself, out of the trap Leo let him walk into. Neither of them wants to be in anyone else’s pocket.
Frank also wants a good death, but he wants it after he’s gotten what’s his. And that’s going to be his downfall: if he wants to escape with his life, he’s going to lose everything he’s worked for. He’ll burn it all down himself, rather than seeing Leo get away with a hostile takeover. He sends Jessie and their son away: the deal is over. She’ll get his money, but she’ll never see him again; a house built on the shaky foundation set by a mobster is no secure place to raise a family. When Frank and Jessie went on their first date in the diner, he told her that he’d needed to abandon all connections—material and emotional—in order to survive the Joliet Correctional prison yard. The dream he’d built with Jessie in the suburbs was just another prison after all.
After sending away his wife and child, Frank dismantles everything else in his collage. Okla’s gone by then, succumbed to his illness; for all Frank’s money, he couldn’t really save the life of his friend, only relocate him. Frank blows up the house in the suburbs. He sets the vehicles at his used car shop on fire. He bombs out the bar he frequents. He dismantles his capitalist prison. He does to Leo what he said he’d never do working for Leo: he does cowboy shit. He invades Leo’s home. He kills everyone who stands in his way.
He pulls off the perfect job. He walks out without any money, and he leaves no trace of himself behind. He abandons the dream. It was all only paper, anyway.