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A Mann’s World: Style, Masculinity And James Caan In Thief
Adam Solomons , April 30th, 2021 08:40

Released 40 years ago this year, Michael Mann's debut Thief offered a prototype for the neo-noir action thriller about the American city – and it remains one of the best first features ever, finds Adam Solomons

In her essay for the Criterion release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, writer and director Miranda July observed that a crucial aspect of the film’s atmosphere lies in its depiction of the world’s inherent scariness. “Anderson does such a good job of describing that perpetually alarmed feeling – the trucks literally roar by like Jurassic Park dinosaurs; the warehouse door rolls up and down, blinding and blackening like the wrath of God”, she wrote. “Life really is terrifying.”

The films of Michael Mann, and perhaps above all Thief, don’t function this way. Mann’s world is stylish, ice-cool. Lonesome and overly macho, maybe, but certainly not scary. People are scary. Specifically Leo, the Chicago mob boss who manages to counter his innate haplessness with abominably violent threats which include turning people into “wimpy burgers”.

Yet Mann’s films aren’t frightening like Anderson’s, in large part because his protagonists don’t experience the world as a scary place. More often, it’s straightforwardly unjust: shadowy and conspiratorial in The Insider or Blackhat, impossibly futile in Heat or Thief, socially irreparable in Ali and The Last of the Mohicans. Whatever else goes on, Mann’s thesis is devilishly simple: things never seem to work out, regardless how much rage, skill or weaponry he (always he) has.

In that vein, Thief is more of a mission statement than an elementary foray into movies. Mann’s first theatrical release in 1981 (he had directed The Jericho Mile for TV two years prior) holds the keys to the director’s entire filmmaking career. And the elaborate, vault-wrecking torch apparatus to infiltrate it, too.

They say most great novelists only ever write one significant book; the rest are variations on a theme. (True greats like Dickens or Tolstoy, they’ll hasten to add, had a few in them.) If Michael Mann is a great director but, limited somewhat by the formula he has made his own, not an all-time great, Thief is the novel he has rewritten over again. That’s not to say Mann’s career lacks deeper explorations of stunted masculinity and failures in authority: Heat is a strong contender for best action film of the 1990s, while 2007’s Miami Vice is as slick and likeable a thriller as there is. But still – Mann’s career has never truly left the shadow of his first, and best, film.

The even greater shadow of James Caan is in large part to blame for that. Mann was 37 when he made Thief, a relatively green voice in the movie business with lots of ideas about how to blend the shiny aesthetics of big-city crime films with the harsher reality of urban life starker reality. To that end, Mann carefully recruited serving police officers and ex-convicts to play cops and robbers and focused intently on applying his characteristically suave, neo-noir visual sensibility in the city of his birth.

Caan, on the other hand, was 40, recently divorced for a second time, and somewhat haggard. Unwisely, he had rejected lead parts in The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now and Superman. The 1970s would prove Caan’s most illustrious professional decade, yet they were also gruelling years, characterised by his well-known anger issues and a growing reliance on cocaine. For Mann, Thief was the chance to leave television behind and become a Hollywood heavyweight. For Caan, it was an opportunity for a much-needed comeback.

Mann is often talked about as an auteur, but Caan’s outsized creative influence on Thief is impossible to miss. The gallery of leading men who took the roles Caan turned down couldn’t have made it what it is. Gene Hackman’s Frank would have too much interiority, Jack Nicholson’s an excess of bombast, Martin Sheen’s an unhelpful thoughtfulness, while Reeves’s clean-cut persona makes him impossible to imagine in the part.

Caan could do world-weariness better than anyone else of his generation, and that’s Frank. It’s also every other Michael Mann hero. Before Mann returned to those feelings and fleshed them out across his filmography, Caan’s character was a calling card for a new kind of leading man. And the director hasn’t left it behind, either: that much is obvious from Chris Hemsworth’s impressively rugged performance as criminal hacker extraordinaire Hathaway in Blackhat, Mann’s most recent film.

That synergy between Caan’s own disillusionment and Mann’s clarity of ambition drive the narrative and technical power of Thief. But they aren’t the only forces.

Tuesday Weld glows as diner waitress and Frank’s beau Jessie, the most nuanced love interest Mann has ever written. An actor with a two-decade career and Oscar and Golden Globe nominations under her belt, Weld was already the sort of consummate pro Mann would go on to cherish. The results of her experience are self-evident: in the film’s iconic diner scene, in which Frank sets out his suburban life ambitions (Pinterest-style mood board included) and hints at the traumas which haunt him, Weld more than matches James Caan’s tenacity, firing on all cylinders.

Jessie speaks few words in the opening exchanges, but begins to occupy the scene, intrigued (as we are) by Frank’s achingly sad story. After Frank describes his prison stint and says, “You don’t count months and years. You don’t do time that way,” Jessie takes off her jacket. She says “What do you mean?” and Frank keeps talking. Yet Mann stays on her for another five seconds while she takes it in. Her curiosity offers Frank a way into the domesticity he desires, but it’s Weld’s compelling grip on the shot which invites him in.

Mann has indulged in the femme fatale trope, most notably in Heat, but Jessie is a memorable character in part because she subverts all genre expectations. In buying into his shtick, Jessie offers Frank a chance at life, albeit a fleeting, unfulfilled one. At the tail end of the New Hollywood era, in which sexist Golden Age tropes and moralistic sensibilities were overturned in favour of cutting edge cinema, Jessie is an icon of the American New Wave with just enough hope left to outweigh her better instincts: an actor with too much knowledge of the industry not to understand that feeling, Weld buys into Frank’s fantasies like only a once-idealistic performer can.

In stark contrast to Weld’s weathered wisdom, Willie Nelson was essentially a newcomer. Only his third film appearance, Thief saw the country music legend play a character much older than himself. Okla is Frank’s mentor and above all a father figure: think Sam Elliott to Bradley Cooper in his remake of A Star Is Born, on which Nelson’s son Lukas wrote music and Willie gets a name drop. And, though an irreverent musician, Nelson’s performance is defined by an unexpected sincerity and genuine gravitas.

Okla’s overwhelming softness is far from the overtly toxic male role model of post-Thief, minimalist-titled crime films centred around domestic strife and urban decay, from The Town to Drive to The Departed. Taxi Driver is an inseparable influence on Mann’s first theatrical film, all headlights and puddles and nighttime, and the dubious morals we now associate with such symbols. Yet the degree to which Mann would go on to affect Martin Scorsese’s style in later life is striking: far from a “mob movie” filmmaker alone, Scorsese returned to the genre with The Departed after a decade-plus break from the genre. And by the time he arrived, the tropes established by Mann - flawed fathers, painful destinies, endemic municipal corruption - were seminal.

The same connection doesn’t exist for Caan, Weld or Nelson, who never worked with Mann again. It was the director’s loss. The sheer weight of their performances and the surprise factor in their casting vanished as the director began to cast bona fide movie stars in his films from Heat onwards, from Will Smith to Tom Cruise to Johnny Depp. As the scale of his films grew, intimacy became a little harder to find. If Heat became the director’s Abbey Road, a kind of greatest hits compilation informed by the themes that defined his career to date, Thief was his Sgt Pepper, a concise and coherent masterpiece which introduced us to a whole other way of making films.

Unusually, but perhaps unsurprisingly considering his place in the Hollywood wilderness at the time, Cann clamoured to do press when Thief was first released. He said Frank was the hardest part he’d ever played, and that the diner scene was the best of his career.

He told the New York Times: “For three months, I was a lunatic, I had migraines 24 hours a day, I lost about 20 pounds. And then when I looked at the movie, I couldn’t stand it. My eyes were like two pieces of glass. They scared me. I said, that guy’s a killer.”

Caan had already played an unpleasant man or two, and as Dick Tracy and Bottle Rocket made clear, wouldn’t stop after Thief. But it’s indicative of the power of his performance – and Mann’s film more broadly – that he was so moved by this role in particular. Perhaps the best explanation is that, like Frank, Caan was just looking for a way back in.