[This is an entry in the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Jill Blake of Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael Nazarewycz of ScribeHard on Film.]
Michael Mann had shown some early promise in the TV world as a writer for such classic crime shows like Starsky & Hutch and Vega$. But despite showing an easy familiarity with the criminal subculture borne out of the prison yard in his first telefilm, The Jericho Mile, it is still astounding to see how well he put together his theatrical directorial debut, 1981's Thief. It's an embarrassment of riches, featuring a propulsive score by Tangerine Dream, smart casting of novices who'd go on to bigger and better things like Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina, Willie Nelson, Robert Prosky (and if you don't blink, William Petersen), and effective use of little-seen neighborhoods from Mann's own hometown, Chicago. Watch his subsequent films, and you'll see these are the hallmarks of a formula he repeatedly returns to. But most of the success of Thief lies in the lead performance by James Caan.
Caan's Frank is the start of a lineage present throughout Mann's films. Frank's jailhouse mindset, a desire to stay unattached to anything which might impede his escape from hazardous entanglements, is a philosophy we'll find repeated again in prominent characters from other Mann projects like Crime Story and Public Enemies. But it's in Heat, where Robert De Niro's Neil can't walk away so easily after spouting a similar outlook, that Mann and the audience realize that it's a naive world view. For the younger Mann, it must have seemed easy for Frank to implement a scorched-earth-style exit, casting off his wife, child, home and businesses when the pressure gets too intense. But an older, wiser Mann scoffs at this world-view in Heat, where Neil is ultimately undone by his inability to follow through on such an exit.
Caan brings a verisimilitude to the role that transcends the almost adolescent existentialism Mann brought to Thief's script (adapted from Frank Hohimer's The Home Invaders). The first time a local mob boss, Prosky's Leo, meets Caan's high-line safe-cracker, he answers Leo's "How are you?" with a statement you can take two ways, "How am I? I am Frank." Or, "How am I? I am frank." And Caan, in what is reportedly his favorite scene of his entire career) has never been as truthful as he is in a monologue where he bolsters Mann's flawed prison yard survival theory:
Frank: You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die. You gotta get to where nothing means nothing. I'll tell you a story all about it.Both Mann and Caan found in their research that many of the convicts they spoke to would lapse into a peculiar speech pattern where they would avoid contractions. If that seems odd, the explanation doesn't. Contrary to what one would assume the convicts believed there was an economy in that phrasing, thinking that if they slowed their cadence and spoke precisely without shortening their words they would avoid having to repeat themselves. In the preceding monologue, Caan starts to fall into this speech pattern as his conversation with his paramour Jessie (Tuesday Weld) turns to prison, then it reverts back to normal as his anecdote ends.
Once there was this Captain Morfus. This 300-pound slob, he couldn't write his name. He had this crew of 16, 17 guards and cons, prison groups, crews. They would go into these cells and grab these young guys and bring them up to hydrotherapy, in the mental ward... uh, gangbang. If a guy puts up a struggle, they'd beat him half to death, and he winds up in the funny farm. Anyway, word comes down that I am next. And I do not know what I am supposed to do. I, uh... I am scared.
11:30, 12, the lights come on, and I got this pipe from Plumbing. And I whacked the first guard in the shins. And I go through a convict and another convict. Anyway, I get to Morfus and I whack him across the head twice. Boom. Then they jump all over me and do a bunch of things. I spend 6 months in the hospital ward, but Morfus... he is also fucked up real good... cerebral hematoma. They pension him out. He can't walk straight, and he dies two years later... which is a real loss to the planet Earth.
Meanwhile, I gotta go back into the mainstream population, and I know the minute I hit the yard I am a dead man. So I hit the yard. So you know what happens? Nothing. I mean nothing happens. 'Cause I don't mean nothing to myself. I don't care about me. I don't care about nothing, you know? And then I know from that day I survived because I achieved that mental attitude.
This economy of performance finds expression in Caan's physical interpretation as well. The best example occurs just after Thief's high point, when an exhausted Frank pulls up a chair to grab a smoke after an 18-hour burn job through a steel bank vault. His curly hair kinky with sweat and grease, he can only muster enough energy to take off one glove and reach into his pocket for a cigarette, lighting it with the same hand as his other one hangs loosely. In reality, his other gloved hand is probably the one Caan injured on the set when he had an accident while prying open a door with a crowbar. But Caan makes it work for Frank, a character who doesn't make a single move, literally and figuratively, without being certain it is worth the expenditure of energy. It's a touch that reveals both the weariness and the thoughtfulness of Frank, and why Caan's performance in Thief is among the finest of his career.
Thief airs on Turner Classic Movies, tonight at 12 a.m. EST, as part of a daylong airing of films starring James Caan.