A talented safecracker wants to do one last big score for
the mob before he goes straight, but the mob has other plans.
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi,
Robert Prosky, Tom Signorelli, Willie Nelson
Based on the novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of
a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer
If you're gonna make a movie about an emotionally unavailable expert safecracker, you cast James Caan. That's just the right decision. Thief is the film that introduced the world to Michael Mann, future director of The Insider, Collateral, and Heat among others. He's one of the best when it comes to realizing pressure onscreen. The character of Frank (Caan) is under consistent pressure the entire time. Pressure from the mob, pressure from his family, and pressure from himself to have the life he always dreamed he could have. The beats of this film are very simple, but Mann actualizes them in a way that constantly keeps you engaged and on Frank's side, even though he's a criminal.
Frank is an expert safecracker, maybe the best. He works with a small crew, including his friend Barry (Belushi, in a rare dramatic role). After an incident with some missing money, he catches the attention of Leo (Prosky), a powerful gangster who wants to buy Frank's services indefinitely. With bigger scores, Frank sees a way out of the business for good, so he takes the gig. But Leo wants Frank permanently, until he's burned out or dead. Now, Frank needs to make a decision. In or out? Caan's performance is what really drives the movie, as he is lights out fantastic. Hardened criminal, with just the right amount of humanity.
Thief is a good, old-fashioned heist film with a host of good performances and a consistently good story. Even the scenes you don't really need, like Frank trying to adopt a child, are still really good. The film's climax is to die for, with Frank going up against Leo for control of his own future. There's just so much to like here, and it's a shame people these days don't really know about it. When they hear James Caan, they think The Godfather or Elf, but there's so much gold in between those two films.