Even if Michael Mann hadn’t gone on to set the neon and pastel tone for the ’80s with Miami Vice or made the ultimate heist film, Heat, his extremely stylish debut film, Thief, would still have been enough of a calling card to inspire future filmmakers.
Originally titled Violent Streets, the film debuted at the 34th Cannes Film Festival, where it competed with Chariots of Fire, Excalibur, Heaven’s Gate, and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession for the Palme D’Or.
It opened stateside on March 27, 1981, with a mere $4.3 million, but its cinematic impact is still being felt.
A list of films inspired by Heat—including Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—might be a longer one, but on Thief’s 40th anniversary, Mann’s signature cool blue hues and the lovingly shot nightscapes look better than ever. And the propulsive electronic score by Tangerine Dream (which was bizarrely nominated for a Razzie) has aged much better than many ’80s scores. Would we have that sweet Stranger Things theme without it? Perhaps not.
All the style would be nowhere without the authenticity that James Caan brings as Frank, the ace safecracker who has a partner (James Belushi, in his film debut), but resists working for the mob when they come calling.
Mann had Caan actually use all the custom tools in the film. The real Frank, a jewel thief who under the alias Frank Hohimer wrote The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, was also a consultant on the film. Mann also hired an ex-thief to play a crooked cop and a real cop (Dennis Farina, making his acting debut in the film) as a mob henchman.
On its release, Roger Ebert acknowledged the rare sense of realness on the screen: “Michael Mann’s Thief is a film of style, substance, and violently felt emotion, all wrapped up in one of the most intelligent thrillers I’ve seen. It’s one of those films where you feel the authority right away: This movie knows its characters, knows its story, and knows exactly how it wants to tell us about them.”
Here are some films that—to different degrees—owe a debt to Thief.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
You may well boggle at the suggestion that Oscar-winning director William Friedkin was influenced by newcomer Michael Mann. The reverse is certainly true: Friedkin had an eerie Tangerine Dream score on his 1977 film Sorcerer, four years before Mann employed the group on Thief. And Friedkin carved out his own definitive gritty crime drama auteur status with The French Connection. But, the detailed way he shows counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) plying his art—etching the plates, checking the negatives, mixing up the right shade of green paint—seems to owe something to the intricate expertise of Mann’s master thief. And they both share Wang Chung: To Live and Die in L.A. debuted the same month that the band’s song “True Love,” was featured in an episode of Miami Vice.
While some critics, including Roger Ebert, gave To Lie and Die in L.A. a 4-star review, Washington Post critic Paul Attanasio was less enchanted, unfavorably comparing it to Mann’s then-hit series. “It mimics Miami Vice, but creates far less real L.A. atmosphere than Heartbreakers [a Peter Coyote film also featuring a Tangerine Dream soundtrack], or even the lamentable Into the Night.” Ouch!
Sexy Beast (2000)
In his film debut, Brit Jonathan Glazer gives us happily retired safecracker Gal (Ray Winstone), who’s reluctantly called back to a new job by the most brutal of enforcers, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley, in an Oscar-nominated performance). Where Mann’s Chicago-set drama plays out in the very real here and now, Glazer’s crime drama veers into surrealism, with Gal having nightmares about a gun-toting Donnie Darko-esque rabbit. (Sexy Beast, was, of course, released before Donne Darko.) The nocturnal scenes of Thief are swapped for the blinding sun of Spain, where Gal is enjoying his hard-won freedom from a life of crime. Until a boulder—and the past—come crashing back in to force him to do the proverbial last job. And that job is a doozy that would give Frank from Thief pause: An underwater approach that remains one of the most incredible heist scenes on film. Gal is lucky that Logan is actually not as high on the crime syndicate hierarchy as Ian McShane’s Teddy, who values money over staff.
The Town (2010)
The Town is based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan and was a natural fit for the Boston-born-and-bred Ben Affleck to star in and direct. He plays Doug MacRay, a career criminal whose father is in jail, but who dreams of a better life when he starts romancing Claire (Rebecca Hall), the teller at the bank his gang just hit. It’s not a far cry from Thief’s Frank, who, we learn, was state-raised and is working to get his father figure, played by WIllie Nelson, out of jail.
Like Frank, Doug is coerced into pulling off a big score he’d normally never touch. When neighborhood heavy Fergie the florist (Pete Postlethwaite, in his final role) says he’s going to send Claire’s funeral arrangement to Doug’s house unless he pulls off the big score, Doug plays ball. The execution of Fergie and his henchman after the heist goes fatally wrong unfolds much like the showdown in Thief, although the ending is a far more hopeful one.
Unlike Frank’s elaborately plotted night-time heists, Doug’s scores are done boldly in broad daylight and in public. And while Doug is part of a crew, his desire to break out and be his own man shows he’s cut from the same individualistic cloth as Frank. Put Frank’s declarations to mob boss Leo, “I’m self-employed,” and “You don’t run me,” side by side with Doug telling pal Jem (Jeremy Renner): “I’m done. I’m puttin’ this whole fuckin’ town in my rearview. You aren’t lettin’ me or not lettin’ me do shit.”
Nicolas Winding Refn’s synth-and-neon-infused film about a getaway driver is, by most cinephile’s math, half Walter Hill’s The Driver and half Michael Mann’s Thief. But the director himself denied those influences when the film came out, comparing it instead to Grimm’s fairy tales. (Something about the knight rescuing the princess from ogres.) Given that The Driver (Ryan Gosling) has a strict code of conduct—Google his speech about what he will and will not do if you hire him for a job—and an almost mechanical precision in his work, you can’t help but be reminded of Frank’s professionalism in Thief. As in Thief, The Driver gets in over his head for the woman he loves and finds himself facing down a mobster in a climactic showdown.
Instead of the aerial view we get of neon reflecting off the hood of Frank’s car, The Driver is photographed mostly from a godlike low angle inside the car. Like Frank, the Driver is an amiable enough guy, happy to help out a stranded neighbor and play surrogate Dad. But we see his capacity for violence early on when an old client approaches him at a diner and offers him a new job. The Driver offers to “kick his teeth down his throat.” So when the famously brutal elevator scene goes down, the only one who is taken aback is Irene (Carey Mulligan), whom he loses in that instant.
Refn makes time for a pivotal diner scene between The Driver and Irene earlier on that could be a double for the one between Weld and Caan in Thief. And the synth score by Cliff Martinez is surely a nod to Tangerine Dream.
Like Frank, The Driver, according to Refn’s explanation of the ending, walks away from the violence bloodied, but unbowed.
I’m Your Woman (2020)
Director and co-writer Julia Hart’s movie takes Thief as its blueprint, but instead follows the wife of a master thief who is on the run thanks to his screw-up.
“I’m your woman,” is the exact line Tuesday Weld delivers to James Caan when he orders her out with no explanation near the end of Thief. He sends her and their infant son—who was procured by the mob boss now gunning for them both—away to save their lives.
In I’m Your Woman, Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, who, like Weld’s Jessie in Thief, cannot have children and cannot adopt, thanks to her husband’s criminal record. Jean’s husband, Eddie, shows up one day with a baby and tells her it’s theirs. Soon after, she’s woken up in the middle of the night by one of Eddie’s cohorts: She’s got to leave right now, no time to explain or even pack. The speech he gives her about the guy who’ll be handling her and how much money to give him on a regular basis is also almost word for word what Caan tells Weld.
We actually learn less about Jean’s past than we do about Jessie’s, but we do learn more about Eddie’s. And we watch Jean toughen up and defend herself and her son as Eddie’s enemies edge closer. She’s aided by one of Eddie’s former associates, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and his wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), both of whom know this world far better than she does. The fact that they’re Black means that Jean being on the run with Cal makes for some tense situations, including when a police officer assumes a white woman like Jean needs rescuing from Cal.
Set in the ’70s, it eschews any synth on the soundtrack, opting instead for Aretha Franklin. While the body count is as high or higher than Thief, the film ends on an upbeat note, largely thanks to Aretha’s rendition of “The Weight.”
In Thief, we never learn what happened to Jessie, or if she and Frank found each other again. But it’s nice to think that Jessie, who calls Frank out for being late just as fiercely as Karen did Henry Hill in Goodfellas, could survive with or without him.
After Thief, Mann would go on to refine his moody nocturnal palette with such iconic crimes films as Manhunter, Heat and Collateral, all centered on driven loners who might literally be a dying breed. With Thief, he gave us not just a film, but an existential mood and sensibility delivered with the same kind of precision and professionalism as its title character.
Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of Moviepaws.com. You can follow her on Twitter.