Michael Mann's Fantastic Cinematic Debut THIEF Came Out 40 Years Ago Today

It's quite possible I've recommended this movie on Twitter more than any other over the last decade. Even if it doesn't get the shine of other films of its era, THIEF, the feature film debut of A-list director Michael Mann, is one of the best movies of the 1980s (for all the shit it takes, '80s cinema did gift us with many classics) and has become sort of a cult masterpiece over the last four decades. So it was great to see the movie get so much love online today, the 40th anniversary of its release.


James Caan stars as the eponymous Frank, a ballsy, tightly-wound, and highly-disciplined master safe cracker (if Sonny Corleone was at a 10, Frank is at about an 8). After finishing a hard 11-year stint in Joliet four years ago, Frank sets up his future nicely, turning boosted diamonds into a pair of legit businesses and planning for an early retirement. The only thing he's missing is a family to share his hard-earned riches with.

In THIEF's mesmerizingly terrific, synth-fueled, 10+ minute opening scene in rainy, nighttime Chicago, Frank and his two cohorts meticulously steal high-end diamonds from a safe before quietly making their unrushed getaway. Joseph (William LaValley in his only IMDb credit) mans the police scanner and walkie-talkies while parked in an alley. Barry (Jim Belushi doing fine work in his first speaking role) takes care of the alarm system for the duration of the heist. And Frank, the lone crew member inside the building, goes to work with his drill. Caan actually learned the trade before filming so he could do it himself on camera.

Watching the scene, we're reminded that this is a time when the only folks with wireless phones where Yuppie assholes and cocaine kingpins. DNA evidence wasn't something criminals worried about. Every city block didn't have 24/7 surveillance. Basically, the only way to get caught after the fact back then was if somebody ratted on you. Mann gives us 10 minutes with minimal dialogue, dark lighting, lots of rain, and a jewel heist by a guy clearly looking for something specific. It's a scene that's allowed to breath and take its time, something Hollywood doesn't do much of anymore (perhaps because of ever-decreasing audience attention spans). But it seduces you and ropes you right in.

Frank meets his fence Joe Gags to unload the stolen diamonds. But Gags gets killed the next day after he's caught ripping off a wise guy but before he gets Frank his $185K. Frank sets out to track his money down and, in due time, he's meeting with the local crime boss Leo (a surprisingly scary Robert Prosky, also in his first speaking role). Leo is very impressed with Frank's worksmanship and taste and also seems entertained by his abrasive demeanor so he reaches out with an offer to work together. 

In the meantime, Frank is also courting Jessie (Tuesday Weld) in hopes of settling down with her and having a normal future. The pair have a nine-plus minute scene in a diner where the two have a frank, adult conversation about what each of them wants out of life, the future, and each other. This is some of the best work of Caan's career. Simmering just below the surface, Caan's Frank explains to Jessie what he went through in the joint, how much his buddy Okla (Willie Nelson) means to him, and how his bid shaped his current mindset. 

Frank eventually agrees to work with/for Leo and Leo helps Frank get his family jump-started via a black market adoption. But retirement and family life is very much at the forefront of Frank's mind. He wants to do one more big score then call it a day. He's a principled man who just wants what he earned and to be left alone. Leo has other plans for him. I don't care that the movie is 40 years old but I'm still not gonna spoil it. Suffice to say, shit happens as things go from heist flick to action/thriller. If you're wondering if shit gets blown up, I'll just say that Jerry Bruckheimer was one of the producers.


THIEF was based on a novel "The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar" and Mann had numerous cops and robbers working on the film. Some were technical advisers and others actually acted. Among them was a future star making his film debut. 

The late, great Dennis Farina was famously a Chicago cop before his life- and career-altering work with Mann. He went from roll calls to call sheets and we were all better for it (if you're a Farina fan, be sure to catch this). In addition to a future top-notch character actor, you can see a lot of what Mann would use in his 1995 bank score masterpiece HEAT (not to mention the excellent DRIVE from Nicolas Winding Refn). 

THIEF may not be the first movie you think of when you hear 'Michael Mann' or 'James Caan'. But the work fits right alongside anything else either guy has done. If anything, it's only gotten better with age. 

THIEF is currently streaming on HBOMAX.