Thief (Michael Mann / U.S., 1981):

The opening movement arranges rainy streets and vertical lamp posts against the gilded nocturnal sky for an opulent convergence of lines, structured around a central image of James Caan, the thief at work, with mirror goggles as the drill pierces the safe. The blade corkscrews to the other side, a brisk track into the hole finds the locked gears, and Michael Mann has already established his neo-Melvillian existential hero backed against the wall. A dissolve to the morning after and Caan by the Chicago bay with a friend, silhouetted at the dawn ("magic"). A used-car dealership is the safecracker's front, his services are required by an underworld gang led by Robert Prosky, who offers himself as business partner and paternal figure. Caan already has Willie Nelson behind the glass window of the prison's visiting room, and, in any case, he doesn't believe in "lifetime subscriptions" -- except when it comes to opening up to Tuesday Weld. Caan lays his past and fears on a diner table, a Zen view of life as a collage postcard, so the couple gives settling down a precarious try. Mann aestheticizes the Hawksian manual toil of professionals, the infiltration of a security system, the melting of a vault's wall, a leisurely smoke puff -- the loner carries The Jericho Mile's prison within him, so the need for freedom is paramount. His independence runs "against the way things go down," Prosky explains in upside-down p.o.v., and home, work and the future go up in flames so that he can hang on an elusive sense of purity. The purity is Mann's, as well, thoroughly '70s in spirit while entering a new decade where the product's sheen gets valued first. Sheen it has (i.e., James Belushi in the phone booth, neon reflected on a moving car's hood), but Mann's elegy, like Peckinpah's, is for integrity in changing times, and, like Peckinpah's, it courses back to the urban cowboy disappearing into the darkness once his mission is done. With Tom Signorelli, and Dennis Farina.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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