Thief December 22, 2016
There’s a great scene centered smack dab in the middle of Michael Mann’s stylishly deliberate Thief (1981) that stands as one of my favorites in the history of cinema. In it, the film’s titular delinquent, the vulnerable Frank (James Caan), sets aside his life of crime temporarily to go on a date with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a pretty, bottle blonde waitress. Or so he thinks of it as a date — consider it his making up for accidentally standing her up for one scheduled a few hours previously. Jessie’s fed up: sitting alone at a bar for 100 or so minutes was enough to make her decide that Frank’s not the right guy for her — but Frank’s intent on persuasion. He wants this woman, who’s basically a stranger he’s fixated upon, and will do anything to prove himself.
And he does, simply by grabbing a booth at a cheap 24-hour diner and telling her his life story, by divulging his desires, by confessing that he’s dying to marry her. These establishing moments of Thief introduce Frank as an icy master criminal who might prefer a raw deal to a love life. But in this frowzy restaurant, sitting intimately across from this beautiful woman, is he revealed to be a sad loner in desperate need of love. He doesn’t know Jessie as well as a man proposing marriage should, no, but she’s got the look and the temperament necessary to make what he believes to be a hell of a wife. The monologue delivered is honest, funny, and maybe even a little depressing. Weld, perfect, reacts as any would, switching back and forth between compassion and confusion. But when Frank’s finished promoting himself does she decide that his romantic passion is enough to warrant a sort of agreement. She takes his hand and assures him that she’s ready to devote herself to him.
I wish the rest of Thief (which is good but sometimes more dreary than it has the right to be) were as indelible as this seven minute scene of dialogue between Caan and Weld: it’s so exceptionally written, so knowing of tone, and so piercingly acted that we sit in astonishment and wonder if we’re actually breathing through something cinéma vérité as opposed to something conjured up in the writer’s room. In a filmography full of steely crime thrillers, the diner exchange reverses preconceived notions and causes one to wonder if maybe Mann’s going for a movie beguiling in its sense of warmth. But as Thief marinates is it proven that it’s more seduced by its style than by its personality.
In place in the film is the typical story of a career criminal wanting to go straight but can’t as a result of karma being such an unreasonable bitch. Transitioning between Frank’s stealthy excursions with his crew and his charged attempts at building a home life with Jessie, one would hope that the movie would take more time to three-dimensionalize the relationship between the romantic leads and use criminality as a backdrop. But Mann instead makes Thief a crime film first and foremost, a believable romance longing to creep out with a method of escape. Its diner scene so terrific, we’d normally be okay with the movie’s going mostly for thriller tropes. But unstoppable is our aching to watch as Frank and Jessie overcome their pathetic beginnings.
And yet Thief is still an impressive exercise in its genre all the same. Though it's Mann’s first film, its visual style is bewitching and distinct in the ways only an auteur could enact, its performances even better (Caan is a wonderfully charismatic anti-hero). So much of it is exquisite — why, then, must I continue having flashes of the film I wish it were? B