Thief (1981)

The trademark “Mannliness” all started here. Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir masterpiece exhibits much of what the auteur would examine throughout his career. James Caan, in his finest on screen performance, is the prototype Mann-protagonist. Frank is a professional, unrivaled in his field of choice. He’s precise, measured, and collected on the job and a whirlwind of machismo and aggression off the clock. 

Mann often deals with existentialism in his films but here he handles it best, merging style and substance to create one of the most beautiful examples of neo-noir cinema. Caan is a force of nature here, a blistering swell of bravura and masculinity, still retaining all of the traits that make Frank a human being. Raised on the streets Frank desperately wants to live The American Dream, forcing himself into romance and calculating every move in his life to the exact detail. He micromanages himself and Caan handles the complexity of the character with ease.

Frank’s well-structured planning seems to be paying off. He has a beautiful wife Jessie (Tuesday Weld), who loves him (their scene together in the Diner best reveals Frank’s inner struggle), and his days of expert safe cracking appear to be coming to an end thanks to a deal made with crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky). Indeed every single character in the film serves a purpose. Prosky affects a kind, nurturing, paternal attitude as Leo, successfully creating a bond with Frank (he even helps Frank become a father, furthering their familial relationship). The genius in Prosky’s performance is the slimy scummy nature of Leo always shines through.

Like in all great noir fatalism drives the narrative, and what compels is watching Frank fight against this fate tooth and nail, holding onto his “life picture” he’s crafted for himself, refusing to give up The American Dream. The score from Tangerine Dream deserves a mention, heightening tension and mood, creating an effortlessly cool atmosphere alongside Donal Thorin’s slick, rainy, neon-drenched streets of the city night. Mann, even in his earliest films, has always been a master of the image (a great example being the screenshot I chose above) and here his evocative, visceral style is matched beat for beat in all aspects. Caan has never been better, and Mann has (arguably) never been better, chronicling Frank’s battle against his fate – and his walk away from existence.


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