After years of writing for television and cutting his directorial teeth on the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, Michael Mann made his feature film debut with Thief(1981), a cool, gritty crime movie starring James Caan as the head of a high-end crew of professional safecrackers. Mann builds the simple story of an independent who reluctantly signs up with a crime syndicate on meticulously directed heist scenes, an evocative atmosphere, and the central character, an ex-con known simply as Frank that Caan plays with a guarded, wary professionalism.
It’s quite the calling card, an accomplished piece of storytelling with a vivid, evocative style that has since become Mann’s calling card in his distinctive run of urban crime thrillers: the tech noir look of city streets and rain-slicked alleys at night, shadowy bars, and shrouded industrial spaces with pools of hard white light and shades of neon blue cutting through the darkness. This is a secret network of terse professionals whose actions speak for themselves and still maintain a code of respect and responsibility in a corrupt world. The sensibility and style of Manhunter (1986), Heat(1995), Miami Vice (2006), and Public Enemies (2009) can be traced right back to Thief.
Frank is an ex-con and a survivor, but behind the armor is a romantic yearning for home and family and civilian life, and he woos a wounded beauty (Tuesday Weld) to be his partner by dropping his guard and confessing all in a long conversation in a coffee shop, an anonymous oasis of light and society in the city of night. “It’s the scene that made Frank come clear to me,” explained Caan in 1998, and it convinced him to take the role. “This is probably the scene I’m most proud of in my entire career.” Mann returned to the same template but with a different dynamic in Heat, where De Niro and Pacino take a break for a coffee shop heart to heart between cop and crook.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, August 31.