Fuelled by a pulsing synth soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, and rife with colourful dialogue and Chicago locals, Michael Man’s masterful thriller Thief (1981) convincingly pursues its eponymous antihero to the desperate limits of his talent. “Raised by the state,” Frank (James Caan) is an uncompromising loner and professional thief who is making up for lost time, stealing back from society after a lifetime of cheated dreams. The opening sequence – a thing of taughtly paced, neon-illuminated, and rain-slicked beauty – reveals Frank drilling through the walls of a steel vault meant to shut out, as well as within; like the prison where he wasted over a decade of his youth for stealing 40 dollars.
An outsider, Frank is more at home planning meticulous heists than making friends: he tells his partner Barry (James Belushi) that if he wanted to meet people, he’d join a country club. Still, the facade of nihilistic fearlessness which enabled Frank to survive is not immune to the effects of long-term loneliness. Shortly after meeting cashier Jessie (Tuesday Weld), his hope of buying himself a redeemable, safer future is solidifed by a Mephistophelian offer from ‘godfather’ Leo (Robert Prosky), who replaces kindly-eyed father figure Okla (Willie Nelson), the master thief and convict who taught Frank his trade behind bars. Oddly, one of the only noticeable flaws in Thief‘s dynamic, well-developed journey is too meticulous a technical account of Frank’s criminal operations.
Equally disappointing is the swift disappearance of Willie Nelson’s character at the start of the film. His relationship with Frank – so compelling onscreen – almost begs to further complicate the plot and to somehow intertwine itself with the climax. After Frank accepts Leo’s proposal to make him a millionaire and to ‘take care’ of him, Frank is magically secured a new house and car, and even an illegally-obtained baby – after the adoption agency turn him and Jessie down in a telling scene of institutional sanctimony and hypocrisy. But Leo’s patronage turns out to have a higher price than expected.
Like the emblematic diamonds Frank must steal for his last gig, the glamorous cityscape suddenly glitters with hidden, untold dangers: there are snipers, FBI agents and corrupt cops hot on his tail. Supported by rigorously roving camerawork and effective photography that wracks up the tension, Frank’s quest for individual freedom only leads to further, irreversible entrapment. With anxious fury, he and the viewer are propelled through a maze of streets, tunnels, and tube-like underpasses at night in the hope of symbolic rebirth. But ironically, after building a career on illegal and arguably self-destructive acts, Frank realises that he must self-sacrifice in order to provide his new family with the financial security and safety he has never known. In a finale of double crosses and wholesale violence, the pathos-filled cycle of Frank’s shattered illusions and isolation is completed. He becomes a master thief who ends up with tragically far less than he started with.
Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ