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#6 Chicago Fire
Thoughts on Michael Mann's Thief
Somehow I’d never heard of this film before about a month ago. Someone mentioned Mann’s debut effort in response to my inclusion of Manhunter in my favourite films thread. Mann’s most celebrated feature is probably the brilliantly kinetic Heat, his most accomplished exploration of the urban mythology of organised crime in America. Thief, I discovered, feels in some ways like a rehearsal for that 1995 magnum opus. The 1981 feature is, like Heat, a heist movie, and with it Mann demonstrates the same fascination with criminal expertise, the practical challenges of pulling off a score, and the deeply melancholy side of life as a career criminal.
Compared with Mann’s slick, glossy later works Thief has a rough and ready quality—the director worked with a budget of $5 million, while for 1986’s Manhunter he had $15 million at his disposal. But this isn’t a criticism; the muted, low-budget look of things in Mann’s Chicago feels historically appropriate: 1980/81-model America still looked and felt a lot like the shabby United States of the mid-to-late Seventies, when the strife-torn Keynesian order was struggling through what turned out to be its final years. By March ‘81, when Thief had its domestic release, Ronald Reagan had barely warmed the seat in the Oval Office. The neoliberalism that would bring a synthetic, glossy look to America’s material culture, and soon enough the world’s, hadn’t yet had time to work its ‘magic’. The Eighties as we know them hadn’t really started.
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Yet even within the limitations of its budget, Thief dazzles. Michael Mann is known for his visual flair and evocative atmospheres, and a viewing of his debut feature leaves one in no doubt that he got out of the blocks running. He was helped in no small part by craggily handsome James Caan who, playing an ex-con elite safecracker focusing exclusively on diamond theft, delivered a performance that’s belligerently masculine in a way that’s no longer politically correct. Nevertheless, Caan’s standout scene is recognised by many to be one in which he confesses to date Tuesday Weld (who’s also excellent, though perhaps under-utilised), across the formica of a coffee shop table, his deep yearning for a normal family life, which his criminal activities have thus far made impossible. A compelling, moving yet unsentimental scene—no manipulative music here, no music at all in fact.
Going against genre conventions, Mann doesn’t play the heist sequences for suspense. There’s never any indication the police are going to turn up and apprehend Caan and his team. Neither are there any Mission Impossiblesque laser beams or motion sensors for the thieves to negotiate—the film sticks scrupulously to the register of realism. As opposed to suspense, what the director is interested in are the criminals’ skills and equipment, along with their calm yet driven professionalism. Mann fashions—through crisp editing, Donald Thorin’s smart cinematography and a memorable Tangerine Dream score—a seductive poetic of daring and expertise. The director even brought in real-life thieves as advisers. I wonder if the cast and crew felt it necessary to take special precautions around them..
Tangerine Dream’s abrasive contribution merits further mention. Although John Carpenter and others had been exploiting synth music in the horror genre for some years, as had Italian makers of gialli, it was an uncommon choice for an American crime thriller. Mann, a Chicago native, originally intended to score Thief with Chicago jazz, but came to feel that that would be too location-specific, and that synths would impart more of a universal feel, and be more appropriate to the subject matter. Certainly a jazz score would’ve made for a very different film, perhaps one with a postmodern retro flavour like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, released the same year. By contrast, Tangerine Dream’s electronica, and Mann’s close attention to technology and technique, together strike a neo-futurist note, anticipating a theme and a mood that would come to dominate the Eighties (not least in Mann’s own work).Although the Thief score instantly became one of my favourites, it was by no means everyone’s cup of tea at the time of release, being nominated for a Razzie for Worst Musical Score.
What of Thief’s politics? Naturally the police figure in this story, and in contrast to the sympathetic treatment both law enforcement and thieves receive in Heat, here the cops are portrayed very negatively. The men of Chicago PD are presented as brutish, cowardly and corrupt, parasitically syphoning off wealth from the city’s organised crime gangs, the activities of which they’re quite happy to see continue. Caan and his fellow criminals are a more mixed bunch, ranging from the violent but basically honourable (Caan himself, and his collaborator James Belushi), to the viciously deceitful and murderous (Robert Prosky’s crime boss). With this noirish, pessimistic view of both sides of the law characterising the film, Thief doesn’t readily divulge a definite politics. There’s clearly a masculinist overtone to this and Mann’s other crime thrillers, but it’s only relatively recently that masculinity and masculine values have become exclusively reactionary concerns. In 1981 left-wing politics could be robustly masculine too, with Marxist-Leninist groups active (sometimes violently so) and the US labour movement still a substantial political force, yet to be brought to its knees by restored laissez-faire capitalism.
The mindset that seems to inform Thief is that survivalist one that Christopher Lasch identified as the dominant one of the Seventies1. A loss of interest in broader social causes accompanying a new, exclusive focus on the self in every respect: economic, sexual, spiritual. The utopian dreams of the Sixties were, if not dead, then certainly abandoned by most of those who’d pursued them (liberal boomers and some left-wingers of the so-called silent generation), producing what I’ve called The Decade of Disillusion. The desire of Caan’s safecracker to do one last big score and get out no doubt resonated with audiences still well acquainted with the Seventies preoccupation with escaping, or at least disengaging, from a seemingly crumbling society.
If Mann stands for something it is perhaps the value of a passionate engagement with the modern world. There’s no postmodern irony here, nor any Body Heat-style nostalgia for noir’s heyday, the hardboiled age of Chandler and Hammett. Thief can be looked upon as Mann’s tentative stab at presenting a ‘visionary present’ a la J.G. Ballard2, something that the director would more fully realise five years later with the remarkable Manhunter. More on that film in an upcoming post.
See Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W. W. Norton, 1979).
Ballard told one interviewer he was a great fan of American thrillers, citing John Boorman’s 1967 classic Point Blank as his favourite. In fact it’s hard to think of a more Ballardian film than this remarkably weird Lee Marvin vehicle, including even Cronenberg’s Crash (more a Cronenbergian film than a Ballardian one in my opinion).