I recall someone explaining that in the mind of a criminal, there is this inability, outright refusal to believe that they will ever get caught. Is it a developmental disorder, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia? Maybe something that slowly festers over one's timeline, as life reveals its teeth? A state of denial of the most advanced? And of course, why someone would commit the crime(s) is not the same for every perpetrator. Casting aside thorough neurological analysis, we find that people break the law for multitudes of reasons. Not always a choice: some have to provide for their families; justifications are made. Many simply realize that they are not suited for anything else. Frank (James Caan) is such a guy.
A career criminal, Frank is a high-tech specialist who utilizes sophisticated hardware to crack safes. He has a partner named Barry (Jim Belushi) and a mentor named Okla (Willie Nelson), who's still in prison. Frank's own years behind bars have hardened every fiber. Eroded his soul. He tells people he has perfected the ability to not give a damn about anyone or anything. It's called survival.
Frank has built a front for his criminal activities: a car dealership and bar in Chicago. But the Man is wise, and watching every step. The heat is around every corner, spying on Frank's meetings with Leo (Robert Prosky), a mobster/fence who offers the chance for a big take. Frank is occasionally apprehended and roughed up by the city's finest.
Despite his success and a heart of stone, Frank carries around a collage of images cut out of magazines of the perfect life to which he aspires. It even includes a wife and kid. He meets a cashier named Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and asks her to be with him. After Frank agrees to work for Leo, the latter even arranges to provide his new employee with a black market baby.
If you're familiar with writer/director Michael Mann's later movies, you can see many similar ideas in my summation of 1981's THIEF. Robert DeNiro's character Neil in 1995's HEAT shares many characteristics with Frank; they're cut from a similar cloth. Both have spent years in and out of the joint, forging a steely single-mindedness along the way. The unflinching ability to be able to walk away from everything at the drop of a dime, not looking back, erasing any emotions they may have acquired in weaker moments. Both Frank and Neil seek companions, efforts to connect romantically, but are they just marking time? Merely something to do in between jobs?
Both HEAT and THIEF contain lengthy scenes in diners featuring the criminals explaining themselves. In their (and perhaps some viewers') minds, unequivocally. Caan does some of his best work at the table with Weld, laying out Frank's past, offering no apologies, and making a bid for relational legitimacy. Jaded herself, Jessie is unconvinced of any future with Frank, yet allows a vulnerability she'll perhaps regret. This scene to me was as spellbinding as those of Frank's safecracking, which feature the sort of meticulous attention to detail seen in any of Mann's subsequent films.
As you watch THIEF, you'll also observe many visual ideas that the director would further develop over the years: streetlights and neon reflected off rain soaked streets and car hoods, fast pans that continue and then slow down for a few seconds after the required information of the scene has been provided (note the sequence when several detectives attempt to tail Frank via a GPS-like tracker). I've always loved how Mann allows scenes to play without chainsaw cuts; this is especially effective during the final safe job, a mesmerizing display of both the characters' and filmmakers' crafts. And rarely have showers of sparks appeared so cinematic.
All of Mann's productions (including TV's Miami Vice) are filled with such visual poetry, but their flashy surfaces are far more than just eye candy. Even the less tense occasions - relaxed scenes - are portals to the films' resolutions, as if peering into a crystal ball, if you're paying attention. One such moment in THIEF: while Frank and Jessie coddle their baby on the beach, Mann's camera barely acknowledges the warm scene as it quickly tilts and zooms over them to focus on the vast Pacific Ocean. A choppy, unpredictable, sprawling canvas that may harbor nasty surprises.
The score by Tangerine Dream is just so right in its cold, austere electronic dread. Mann states in an interview on the Criterion disc that he originally wanted blues scoring to accompany Frank's bleak prospects. He states that even today he isn't sure if he made the correct decision. I think he did, as the ominous keyboards are just perfect as they play under the hard geometric lines of the Chicago cityscape, and the fastidious particulars of Frank's work. The instrumentals are as effective here as in Tangerine Dream's other-worldly pieces for SORCERER and RISKY BUSINESS.
Also perfect is the final scene in THIEF: sad, downbeat, and perhaps defeatist, but like its protagonist follows through on its own paradigm. It's especially interesting to compare this wrap-up with that in HEAT. One character survives because of his mantra, the other allows emotion to get the better of him and does not.