The Empty Balcony: Thief

Thief, the debut feature film from writer/director Michael Mann, is a bit of a relic. The 1980s were a weird time, when the progressions of style were suddenly upended and everything went day-glo. Even music changed, utilizing the cost-effective yet grating sound of synthesizers. Michael Mann embraced this decade with gusto, finding a ready home in all the glitz and glamour. His style of filmmaking is so intertwined with the 1980s that I can’t figure out which informed the other. The style is a distinctive one that viewers can readily recognize. But it all had to start somewhere.

Thief tells the story of Frank (James Caan), an ex-con turned Chicago car salesman whose primary income comes from being an expert safecracker. Frank’s character development and backstory is a bit spotty, but storytelling has never been one of Mann’s strong points. A viewer can best be served by not looking too deeply into Frank or his origins.

Frank is out of the joint, he’s a financial success, but he knows that the double life he leads has only a small chance of reaching a happy end. So he decides he needs a wife. He picks out a candidate (Tuesday Weld), pitches her a lasting relationship in one of the more bizarre sequences ever put to film in a crime flick, and that part of his life is now solved. That’s good. Now he can get back to thieving.

Frank enters into the employ of local gangland boss Leo (Robert Prosky, in his debut feature film), who has the supernatural ability to line up jobs of staggering profitability. Frank, as these things tend to go in films like this, is reluctant to continue his nefarious ways. But the money is too good. One more job, one more payday, and he is OUT. I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out how that goes.

Mann weaves a story that is mostly cliché with some depth inserted here and there, but narrative complexity has either eluded him or been ignored. It’s just not what he is about. Style is one thing this film is strong on, and it carries the film much further than I ever would have expected. But isn’t that the case with all of Mann’s projects? Miami Vice, Heat, Manhunter, Public Enemies…all these films feature a swashbuckling aesthetic that leaves little room for much else. Mann strips down a story to its core elements and then layers his own sensibilities on top. In 1981, when Thief was made, this meant a synthesized score, cartoonish bad guys, cartoonish good guys, and little sense to it all.

But that’s okay. This movie is made to be enjoyed like fast food. Don’t waste time trying to find notes and flavors that aren’t there. Thief is salt and meat. It satisfies a viewer’s appetites with brute force.

This film started out very strong, but began to waver right about the time Frank bullies his way into getting a wife. It wasn’t so much the manner in which he went about the business, but it was the first scene in the film that I noticed the acting was largely improvised. It was either that or the actors weren’t given much rehearsal time. The performances throughout, then, walk a fine line between naturalistic and unpolished. It’s either art or shit, and I kept going back and forth between the two. More than one scene almost convinced me to publish this review under the Shitty Movie Sundays rubric, but Mann always managed to swing things back in the other direction.

That may not bode well for any potential viewers, but don’t despair. Thief is worth watching. James Caan played a strong lead, even though Frank is a huge asshole, and Robert Prosky showed that he was a talented actor…right up until his last moments on camera in this film. Watch and you’ll see what I mean. You may even laugh as hard as I did. But that’s not Prosky’s fault. That was all Mann. Sometimes, Michael, your stars need a few more takes to get it right.

Still, I’m glad I watched this movie. It is a wonderful combination of tense thriller and schlock. The filmmaker that would later make The Keep was in evidence in Thief. I can see now how The Keep flew off the rails so completely, because Mann barely managed to keep this one together, and The Keep was far more ambitious. I wish filmmakers still made stuff like Thief.