Thief (1981)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. Since it’s Chicago Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back on some essential Chicago movies, set (and often filmed) in the Windy City.

Thief (1981)

There is a tendency to turn Chicago’s streets into a playground for larger-than-life urban myths. Maybe it’s the lingering shadow of Al Capone and John Dillinger and other real characters rendered folkloric by so many gangster movies and A&E specials. Perhaps it’s because of the city’s compacted, jumbled architecture of gleaming skyscrapers brushing up against ornate cathedrals, rambling elevated train tracks and bascule bridges, and flat stretches of industrial squalor. Maybe they just get tired of blowing up New York. Whatever the reason, filmmakers love to use Chicago as backdrop for tall tales of the city, be it the exploding stomping grounds of Batman and Transformers, or just the urban labyrinths navigated by the kids of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Adventures In Babysitting. But few have told the kind of story most suited to Chicago’s particular noirish, workaday grind like Michael Mann’s 1981 debut, Thief.

The story of Thief is practically its own movie genre: James Caan is Frank, an expert safecracker and prickly, pugnacious ex-con who’s pulled into one last score so he can finally settle into the postcard-perfect family life he dreamed of in prison. Setting him up in Chicago is a subtly brilliant stroke: Frank’s methodical approach to his work—performed unglamorously with industrial torches and a coolly professional demeanor that makes a jewel heist seem as ordinary as replacing a muffler—finds its analogue in the city’s aura of nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. Thieving is just a job for him, one of many dutifully performed in “The City That Works.” Mann, who’d grown up in Chicago and spent his formative years there working construction and cab-driver jobs, brings that sense of lived-in authenticity to this well-worn crime story, rendering it appropriately mundane and refreshingly lean in scope.

Advertisement

As our own Ignatiy Vishnevetsky pointed out, that realism also functions as a necessary foundation for Mann’s hyper-stylized form, already masterfully deployed here on his first theatrical feature. The director’s Chicago is perpetually damp, which allows for endless shots of rain-blurred streetlights and watercolor neon dabs that would become such a huge part of his aesthetic. It also carries an artfully cold stillness, whether in its many tar-black night scenes or the languid shots of smokestacks slowly venting into a frozen gray sky that could be either spring or fall—one that should feel familiar to any resident. And yet Mann also captures the electric rainbow dazzle of its signs, and that magical hour when the late-afternoon sun hits the downtown Chicago skyline just right and transform its buildings into golden obelisks. Throughout, there’s a genuine affection for the claustrophobic grit and occasional glimpses of sparkling beauty tucked inside all those blocky, Chicago school structures, industrial plating warehouses, and shabby Irish pubs.

Mann’s Chicago realism extends to the cast, which is peopled with soon-to-be-ubiquitous faces like Jim Belushi (low-key and great) and Dennis Farina (a moonlighting Chicago cop whom Mann cast as a gangster henchman) in their debut film roles. Thief is anchored in Caan’s alternately terse and tormented Frank and his interactions with Tuesday Weld as the jadedly cautious waitress he falls for, reaching its emotional apex during a seven-minute monologue scene set inside Mann’s favorite confessional, a coffee shop, that advances the plot more—and contains more spellbinding drama—than all the chases and shootouts that surround it. Special praise must also be paid to Robert Prosky’s revelatory turn as a crime boss who can flip on a dime from affable uncle to blood-chilling psychopath. Yet even in this warmed-over story about a criminal desperately trying to go straight and the woman who’s afraid to love him, it’s all spared from cliché or melodrama by dint of their being surrounded by people who, quite literally, walked in right off the Chicago streets.

Obviously, there are plenty of other reasons to recommend Thief to people who could give a shit about Chicago. It’s a smart, tautly told tale—a character study masquerading as an action movie—with one of Caan’s career-best performances. It crackles and glimmers with pure electricity, zipped along by Tangerine Dream’s propulsive synths. (The soundtrack was nominated for Worst Score at the first-ever Razzies, proving that organization’s worthlessness from day one.) And its influence can be felt today in every stylish urban noir—most evidently Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which practically owes Mann a cut of its box office. But to those who live here (who maybe, right after they moved to town, drove down Western Avenue at midnight listening to “Diamond Diary,” and who still can’t pass Webster and Ashland without muttering “Thief bridge”), there remains a special, uniquely Chicago affection for Thief, a film that captures the city‘s gritty, glassy allure like no other.

Advertisement

Availability: Thief is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and can be obtained from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.