' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Thief (1981)

Friday, September 17, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Thief (1981)

There is a scene in Michael Mann’s “Heat” when bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) convinces his lady friend, Eady (Amy Brenneman), to come away with him in spite of the big bank robbery going bust. It’s one of the very few scenes in one of Mann’s myriad magnum opuses that does not quite work, a little too rushed in Neil’s plea despite the moment’s enormity for Eady. You can see an extended cut of this scene, however, not in the “Heat” extras but in Mann’s “Thief” (1981), when the eponymous Frank (James Caan), late for his date with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), drags her to diner despite her reticence given his tardiness. If his dragging her there feels like pathetic male entitlement, it also comes across pitifully endearing, especially once he spills his guts about being in prison and remaking himself into nothing, to use his exact word, in order to survive being in prison. Now he wants to make himself into something more than a career criminal, a desire manifested in a photo collage he places before Jessie, representing his life’s ideals: wife, child, home. The collage is charming, childlike. Frank believes it can come true, which is why his going for broke on a first date does not come across far-fetched but just right, underlined in Caan’s extraordinary verbal delivery, belying his posture, sounding like someone who has both rehearsed a variation of this speech a thousand times and now is still searching for the right words. And unlike Eady, Jessie gets her say, copping to her own scattered, screwed up past, not wanting to take a risk now that she’s on the straight and narrow, epitomizing the upside down nature of Frank’s proposal. In asking for a normal life, he is taking his biggest risk yet. What’s Mann-land? That’s Mann-land.

Of course, processes fascinate Mann just as much as emotional and professional paralysis, and so before we even get to Frank’s diner entreaty, we are taken through his whole operation as a methodical safecracker. Mann views him less as some elegant cat burglar than blue collar, sparks flying as Frank employs a 200 lb magnetic drill to penetrate a gargantuan safe. After succeeding, he raises his welding mask and takes a drag from a cigarette, looking for all the world like a guy after clocking out from his 12-hour factory shift. When the police get wise to his scheme and bring him in for questioning, Mann takes care to portray the cops as on the take, simply looking for a cut of Frank’s action in order to look the other way. Frank scoffs at this, profanely telling these clowns to get a real job, the cops as criminals, the thief as an extorted worker. 

Frank, we learn, was schooled in the art of the steal by Okla (Willie Nelson), who is currently locked away in prison and dying. Frank remains loyal to him, visiting in scenes that are oddly charged despite the pain of glass separating the two men, where the gleam in Nelson’s eyes almost seems to suggest something even beyond fatherly affection. Mann, though, is content to let that linger in the air, the relationship more illustrative of Frank’s devotion to family, untraditional or otherwise. That includes not just Jessie, who in a distorted variation of meeting the in-laws is brought by Frank to see Okla, but Frank partner’s, Barry, played by Jim Belushi with a giant coif and sideburns that remind you the future star of “According to Jim” once had a little Elvis in him. The scene in which Frank and Jessie and their adopted son, Barry and his lady friend, congregate on a beach elevates the idea of family to a kind of Mann-ish myth.

Set to a Tangerine Dream’s aptly named “Beach Theme”, this scene is not almost too good to be true; it is too good to be true. To make enough money to break free from living on the wrong side of the law, Frank agrees to work with Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss who does not simply assign Frank profitable scores but deems himself, tellingly, Frank’s “father.” Leo literally purchases Frank and Jessie a son through nefarious black market means when she is unable to conceive, suggesting this notion of family is nothing but an illusion, one constructed by Leo and one Leo warns he will erase when Frank threatens to walk away. Frank walks away anyway, taking matters into his own hands in an operatic conclusion of slow motion violence, exacting vengeance on Leo for crossing him. If it is a Hero’s Moment, it is one rendered tragic, Frank saving his family by sacrificing himself. Not literally, mind you, just symbolically, burning it all down and remaking himself into nothing once again, a fate, it seems to me as he wanders off into the darkness of suburbia all alone, worse than death. 

No comments: