A man watches the clock, shrouded in darkness, while his partner cuts through a safe. For nearly ten minutes, a group of thieves pull off a brilliant heist without needing to vocalize their next steps. The balletic opening of Thief, scored by a pulse-pounding Tangerine Dream score, remains one of the highlight moments of Michael Mann‘s illustrious career. By the time the score fades, and James Caan drinks a cup of coffee by Lake Michigan with a fisherman, Mann proved he had the goods.
Thief follows Frank (Caan), a former convict looking to build a future in Chicago. After finding himself behind bars for over a decade, he plans to better his life. First, he needs to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld), the girl he’s been dating. He then wants to get his father figure, Oka (Willie Nelson), out of prison. When Leo (Robert Prosky) offers him a gig that will help his dreams come true, Frank enters a deal with the devil.
Mann begins his career by constructing the prototype character for the future of his career. The complicated and driven Frank is not just great at his job – he is the best. Yet what makes Frank compelling is Mann’s take on his search for happiness. Caan’s career-best work pierces through every scene. He was born to speak this dialogue and lives in the character like few ever have. As he chews through it, pathos and vulnerability endear us to Frank. Caan uses his physicality to display confidence, but Mann lets Caan take over the frame in the quiet moments. The nuance and effort in every action rings through. Caan rewards the choice ten times over.
Meanwhile, through Mann’s lens, Prosky creates an all-time crime villain. In the quieter moments when the men are on the same side, Prosky is affable. He seems genuinely interested in making everyone rich and creating a mutually beneficial partnership. Yet there’s a menace lurking behind his eyes, and even as Caan appears to lay out terms of work, Prosky dismisses them. Caan’s desires eventually blind him to the truth: he’s working with a rattlesnake. When Prosky turns on his anger, he becomes a genuinely terrifying force. Thief cannot reach its full potential unless Prosky delivers, and Mann’s direction leaves no doubt about his power.
Additionally, Mann ensures the grime of this underground can be felt in every frame. While Prosky brings the menace, it’s the surrounding characters that make Thief pop. The debut of Dennis Farina adds authenticity. The former Chicago cop pops off the screen, even in a limited role. Tom Signorelli brings a no-bullshit attitude and gives Caan someone legitimate to play against. James Belushi leans into his Chicago upbringing and feels authentic in this world. Even the transformative performance from Nelson puts the finishing touches on the perfect ensemble.
The score from Tangerine Dream sets the mood and tone of Thief from the opening frames. It feels like a true “Welcome the Eighties” moment, melding the hard-boiled scores of the 1970s with modern synth work. Paired with nighttime cinematography, Mann turns Thief into a dreamlike fantasy. Yet the score features industrialized rhythms and factory-like pacing. It completes Mann’s vision of Chicago and would lend the city one of its most endearing visual spectacles for decades.
Mann came out of the box fully formed. Mann turns Thief into a magnum opus, and every signature of his career is on full display. The authenticity, the style, and the narrative became iconic throughout the industry. As emotional and raw as Thief might have been in the 1970s, Mann was too much of a visionary to play it straight. Instead, his genre-defining days were only just starting.