aka Violent Streets
Michael Mann’s feature debut is a stripped-down neon smog of a crime movie, Zen and the Art of Safe Cracking, suffused with a gorgeous Tangerine Dream score and the kind of attitude from its protagonist that points out where Neil McCauley (Heat) went fatally wrong. I don’t side with those Mann adherents who’d claim it as his best film, however. It has a key issue that, even now, ensures it hasn’t earned wider-spread recovery as an untarnished gem (those who know it rate it, but its rep isn’t ever-expanding). Jimmy Caan. Caan was a good actor, but he was never a very likeable one. You put him in your movie, you better be confident it has something else to draw in an audience – such as some good, homely hobbling – because he isn’t and never really was that guy.
For me, then, this makes Frank a character I’m disinclined to empathise with or invest in. At least, until circumstances put him on the back foot, and he comes out fighting. And that isn’t really until Thief’s last twenty minutes. It’s the difference between an otherwise immersive movie being good and it being great (for which, see Heat). Which doesn’t mean Frank’s milieu isn’t compelling, and there’s the benefit that, since you genuinely think Caan is dangerous, you believe Frank is too. Critic Pauline Kael quoted critic Kathy Huffhines on the actor: “You look at De Niro in a film and think ‘Something’s eating him’. You look at Caan and think, ‘He’s eating something… pizza?’” And it’s true – or was, of De Niro, a long time ago, when he was still bothering to act; now, he’s only pushing up daisies – there isn’t much, if anything to unpack with the guy, and less still to prize. Which makes for a particular limitation with star vehicles.
Mann described Frank as on a “collision with society”; he has spent most of his life inside, resulting in that cloistered world artificially shaping and warping his perception of how to function in the larger one. He was absurdly sent to prison over 40 dollars, and from there turned into a professional criminal. He carries a collage around of a perfect life, the various pieces he intends to assemble to achieve an ideal. There’s no finessing or social graces with Frank; the fifteen-minute scene where he takes Jessie (Tuesday Weld) for coffee and sets out how they should be together (“Do you think I’ve been waiting for you to come along? What is this shit?” she initially responds) only succeeds because she is also very fucked up.
Where Frank – somewhat of a kind with fellow minimalist The Driver, were the latter a rage machine at the wheel – earns our respect is that he’s uncompromising. When he does compromise, his inexperience in the real world allowing him to fool himself that his ideal is feasible, his error quickly becomes clear, and he pulls back. He isn’t going to pay the cops. He isn’t going to bend the knee to mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky, absolutely superb, in his credited big-screen debut). Faced with this, he sends wife and purloined child away and torches everything. He’s willing to do that, and he survives as a result (the flip side is De Niro in Heat, he fails to walk out in 30 seconds flat when he feels the heat around the corner).
Mann considered the picture a “critique of corporate capitalism”, something Chris Peachment picked up in his positive review for The Film Year Book 1983: “The dilemmas of any individual, facing up to the corporate nightmare of any large organisation, are exactly these, the movie is saying, despite the criminal setting”. Frank can either withdraw from the system entirely or deal with the consequences: “They don’t run me, and you don’t run me” he tells Leo, regarding the cops, but this approach is untenable if he persists with his dream; he’ll only ever bring trouble to others. Despite being au fait with the underworld, Frank is insufficiently realistic. What exactly is his relationship with Jessie, once he has it? It’s an item on his list, as is the black-market baby. It may suit his style – the tableau – but the beach scene montage is emblematic in this regard. It’s his idea of an idyllic life, but there’s no interiority. It’s all surface imagery.
Leo: I’ll whack out ya whole family. People’ll be eatin’ ’em in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say, I run you, there is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned-out, you are busted, or you’re dead… you get it? You got responsibilities – tighten up n’ do it.
There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mann presents the contrast of how-it-really-is in Chicago. The cops simply are on the take; that’s how it is. The judge (Thomas O Erhart Jr) is simply bribe-able (to secure the release of Willie Nelson’s anginic Jessie from prison); he and Frank’s attorney (Fredric Stone) engage in some slightly absurd – because it’s rather obvious – finger bartering during the hearing. Frank will work for the mob; he has no choice. And the mob buy and sell children, dispose of women and children into the food chain, and don’t blink an eye. These things are a matter of course in an Elite-run system.
Mann’s movies are all about men, and men being cops and robbers, and the armour that comes with it; he’s always inhabited and interrogated an existential space that comes from this heightened genre space. You can run with it and embrace it or shun it, but it is what it is. It can lead to regrettable lapses (some of the dialogue in Heat is… regrettable), and it’s likely he wouldn’t have had much of a positioning in the cinematic landscape of the last few years, even without a string of expensive underperformers (Miami Vice, Public Enemies) or outright bombs (Blackhat). His is exactly the sensibility that is not in favour. It will be interesting to see how his Ferrari biopic shapes up, as his biographical pictures (Ali, Public Enemies) have been mixed bags, caught between his mythic sensibilities and telling the story. And then there’s Heat 2, which is just asking for disappointment.
One person who most certainly was having none of the director’s self-styling as “a cinematic poet of despair” was Kael. This was a case where she went for broke with her vitriol, seeing Thief as a paean to nihilism: “I hated this movie from beginning to end – it’s a movie on the make, a high-minded hustle”. She could only take the picture’s content at face value – ironic, given how much she had savoured Peckinpah – as a flash flourish of “grandiloquent masochism”: “It’s the fantasy of being the best of men – the toughest and the most anguished”. To which, sure, Mann’s movies inhabit a landscape of mythic moves and architecture, but if you’re unable to see how that in itself can yield rewards, well… sometimes Pauline could only make out the trees.
Her take is that Frank’s collage “is a simple man’s existential diagram of what he wants, it demonstrates that he’s a decent man, still clinging to human values and hoping for the normal pleasures of life”. But she’s confusing his integrity – his code – with being “a decent man” and “too good and honourable for this rotten world”. Mann isn’t holding Frank up as a paragon, but Kael was so soured on the thing on every level – she loathed the aesthetics and the soundtrack too – that she was determined to reduce his presentation to polarities.
Those aesthetics would feed into Mann’s subsequent output – not least on TV with Miami Vice – but they are perhaps at their most acute here. Peachment saw the urban and tech noir representing “a kind of mechanical netherworld” that reinforced a theme of dehumanisation. He suggested it “may well be the first high-tech movie”; Kael contrastingly withered it on the vine as “close to being a parody of film noir”, “high falutin’ hype… a big trailer for itself” and “The cinematography… goes beyond slickness to exhibitionism” (call it that, if you must, but Donald Thorin’s visuals – you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything else so exotic on his CV – are absolutely glorious).
Some have suggested Thief is a bit of a bore. It’s true that it has its languorous stretches, but if there’s an issue, I’d repeat that it’s the Caan factor. Frank should come across as an artisan when he practices his profession. Instead he’s basically a tradesman. Call your local welder. Of welders, Tuesday is fine, a far cry from her day job as alleged Illuminati high queen and priestess of the druids/ MKUltra victim who was instrumental in popularising psychedelics (“Weld was Kubrick’s first choice for Lolita, but she turned him down, later claiming “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita“) Maybe she hexed the movie so it flopped (although Caan tended to have that effect unaided).
The rest of the cast, other than Willie Nelson, were mostly unknowns. Nelson’s performance in his couple of scenes is… well, if Mann’s intention was to suggest an acute homoerotic fixation with Frank on Barry’s part, he succeeded. His tender looks to Caan rather recall the scene between Sterling Hayden and Jay C Flippen in The Killing, but I’m not 100 percent sure this was the aim; the scene’s all close talking through holes in prison visitors’ window, which gives it a certain forced accent. Plus, Willie as an actor is, well, he was no Jimmy Caan. Kael’s most amusing suggestion in her review was that “A movie with a dying willie Nelson is as shameless as a kiddie-matinée movie with a crippled boy whose dog is run over…” There are also early appearances from Jim Belushi (as Frank’s ill-fated associate) and Mann regulars Dennis Farina and William Peterson.
Kael’s loathing for Thief may be unwarranted, but she did key into Mann’s abiding obsessions from the off (and, in her focus on the gloss, identified the primary ingredient of Mann’s most famous cop show). What makes Frank cool, though, in his stark singlemindedness, is that he will not be beholden and owned. That’s refreshing to see, where the rest of us habitually compromise just to get through the day. Thief flopped. Then The Keep flopped (and didn’t turn out the way Mann wanted). Then Manhunter flopped. It was a very good thing Mann had a couple of successful TV shows to keep him in favour.