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The Art of the Steal

Forty years ago this week, Michael Mann made his directorial debut with the help of James Caan and Jerry Bruckheimer. This is the story of ‘Thief,’ one of the most underappreciated, influential heist movies ever made.

Efi Chalikopoulou

In the late 1970s, James Caan was a movie star who’d grown tired of the kinds of roles offered to movie stars. “I don’t want to get esoteric and get into all this actor bullshit, but I got put into that nice, wonderful category of being a leading man,” he says. “And along with that doesn’t come some of the great character work that I really like to do.”

Nearly a decade after his Academy Award–nominated performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Caan was ready to go back to playing, well, complicated men. Hollywood had other ideas. “Everybody wants to do Rocky 9 and Airport 96 and Jaws 7,” he once said. “And you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.”

Then one day, while shooting a film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, Caan walked back to his trailer and saw that he had a visitor. He was sitting in a small wooden chair and holding a manila envelope. It was Michael Mann.

“I didn’t know him,” Caan says.

At the time, the 36-year-old Mann was working in television, writing for the buddy cop series Starsky & Hutch and helming the TV movie The Jericho Mile. His small-screen work had given him cachet that he hoped would help him find big-screen work.

“I was sought after,” Mann says, “and my intent was to use that to extort—which is a modality that certainly comes from inner-city Chicago—a directing gig.” So, he asked Caan to talk and the actor obliged. “He wanted me to read this thing,” Caan says.

Mann’s script centered on an ex-convict named Frank who makes a living stealing only diamonds or cash. He’s a quintessential example of a specific brand of eccentric tough guy who’s appeared often in Mann’s work: obsessive, driven, and principled to a fault. It was the type of part Caan had been waiting for. “There was just this unbelievable character,” he says. “It’s almost, like, too much. It’s almost like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Released 40 years ago this week, Thief features a protagonist who is a reflection of his meticulous creator. Mann treats each of his films like an intricate architectural project; every detail, no matter how tiny, is vital. “The verisimilitude in his writing, the truth, his research,” says Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced Mann’s directorial debut. “He takes you inside a world.”

In the first scene of the movie, Mann drops the audience into the near-pitch-black, rain-soaked streets of his hometown of Chicago. This is Frank’s universe, and we spend the next two hours traversing it with him. With its neon-accented dark color palette, synthy score by German group Tangerine Dream, and bursts of brutal violence, Thief feels as stunningly modern today as it did when it came out. Back then, however, Mann’s aesthetic was so ahead of its time that many moviegoers were scared off. Good reviews be damned, the $5.5 million neo-noir barely doubled its budget at the box office.

But since flopping, the now-cult classic has influenced a generation of moody heist flicks, including 2011’s Drive. More consequently, it changed the trajectory of Michael Mann’s then-fledgling directing career. It also made Caan feel like a real actor again. “Jimmy was perfect,” Mann says. “He’s got the masculinity, he’s got the edge,” Bruckheimer adds.

Now 81, Caan doesn’t seem to have lost that edge. After overhearing me telling his assistant over the phone that I was excited for our interview, he chimed in from across the room. “If you’re looking for excitement,” he said loudly, “go to Magic Mountain.”

As a young man in the ’60s, Mann spent summer nights driving through Chicago for no reason other than to look at things. “Bridges, reflections on the water, I was attracted to all of this,” he says. “It thrilled me in a way. I never really thought about why it thrilled me, but it thrilled me.”

It occurred to him in his early 20s, when he was attending the University of Wisconsin, that he was subconsciously scouting locations. “I think I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker before I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker,” he says.

After attending London Film School, Mann broke into television. By the late ’70s, he’d worked on two movies shot in California’s Folsom State Prison. First he wrote an uncredited early draft of Dustin Hoffman’s Straight Time. Next he directed the TV movie The Jericho Mile. For research purposes, Mann twice spent time among the correctional facility’s general population. There, he met inmates whose predicaments had led them to existentialism. “The one thing I know about the people in prison who are really smart and have strong egos is that they ask themselves the most important, fundamental questions in life with an urgency that people living outside of prisons don’t,” Mann says before rattling off said questions off the top of his head. “Why should I continue to live? How should I sustain my life? What’s time? What am I going to do when I get out? What do I want my life to be? And as it gets granular and detailed, what kind of house? What kind of woman? What relationship to biological processes? Do I want to have a child?”

United Artists

Mann started to imagine a character who had the answers to all of these questions. The problem was that prison stripped him of the ability to achieve his goals in socially acceptable ways. During an 11-year stint that began after he was convicted for stealing a measly $40, Frank is forced to both endure and commit violence. As a result, he loses his self-worth but gains an armor of fearlessness. “You gotta forget time,” says Frank, who in his wallet carries a collage that’s a projection of his ideal life; photos of young children, a car, a house, his still-incarcerated mentor … and skulls. “You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die. You gotta get to where nothing means nothing.”

In polite society, this philosophy makes him an outsider. But in the underworld, someone with his outlook can thrive. “He didn’t give a fuck about anything,” Caan says. “And when he reached that goal, where he got to that moment of not giving a fuck, he was impossible to deal with. He became a guy where you couldn’t guess his next move.”

(Mann, it should be noted, says that he did not base the movie on The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, despite the fact that it says so in the opening titles: “I optioned that book. I thought maybe there was something in it. I decided there was nothing in it. I find that the guy who had written it was kind of creepy and so there’s nothing at all based on that whatsoever, but there had been a history of the negotiation. So, that’s why it’s in the credits.”)

Frank’s tale intrigued Bruckheimer. He’d been itching to work with Mann after his friend and future partner, then–Paramount Pictures executive Don Simpson, recommended the ambitious writer-director. As soon as he finished Mann’s script for Thief, he knew that he wanted to produce it. “He really got under the skin of both the cops and the robbers and showed you what their world was like and what they go through,” Bruckheimer says. “I’ve never seen or read anything like it.”

With Bruckheimer and Caan attached, Paramount was interested in the project. On a Friday, Mann’s attorney even phoned to tell him that studio head Michael Eisner had green-lit the movie. “I said, ‘Yes. We’ll get going,’” Mann remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you wait till Monday morning? Because sometimes his green lights turn into flashing ambers,’ which is exactly what happened.”

According to Mann, Paramount hesitated and United Artists quickly swooped in. “I guess I was the flavor of the month, or one of the flavors of the month,” Caan says, “and so we got it set up immediately.” Now that they had a deal, Mann and Caan set out to bring Frank to life. For the film’s star, that required far more than just showing up on set with his lines memorized.

To believably embody a high-line professional thief, Caan needed to carry himself like one. Mann brought him to Gunsite Academy, a firearms school in Arizona. At that point, the actor claims, he didn’t have much experience with weapons. “I liked using my hands,” he says. Mann, who would go on to compete in International Practical Shooting Confederation events, was conversely more practiced in handgun combat. “I did enough shooting to know that what I saw in films was silly,” he says.

During the visit to the training facility, Caan learned the Weaver shooting stance, how to handle and fire pistols, and how to sweep a room. The star, who played freshman football at Michigan State and later became a rodeo team roper, was a crack student. “He’s a fantastic athlete, so he was a natural for this,” Mann says. “But he’s also very funny.”

Before filming began in Chicago, Caan also spent time with expert safecrackers, some of whom hadn’t exactly retired. For his character, he borrowed the persona of jewel thief John Santucci, who ended up in the movie as crooked police officer Urizzi. “We didn’t have a props department because all we did was use all of John Santucci’s work tools and his attitude, his perspective on life,” says Mann, who populated Thief with real burglars and ex-cops. Dennis Farina, a Chicago detective, served as an adviser to the director and ended up landing his first film role as a crime lord’s hired goon.

“All these guys grew up in the same neighborhood and they all knew each other,” Mann says, “and they’re usually chasing each other.” The set, Caan says, was split “like the Dodgers and the Yankees.”

For the main cast, Mann chose actors with a bit more experience. Oscar nominee Tuesday Weld appears opposite Caan as Frank’s world-weary love interest, Jessie. Willie Nelson has a supporting role as Frank’s dying mentor and friend, Okla. For Frank’s boss Leo—who’s based on real mobsters Phil Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf—Mann initially auditioned dozens of people in New York, but couldn’t find anyone who’d be right for the part. He got so frustrated by the process that he asked Bruckheimer whether he was doing anything wrong. “He gave me some of the best advice of my career,” Mann says. “He said, ‘No, the right person has not walked in the room.’ And we kept looking.”

Eventually, Mann met Robert Prosky, a Washington, D.C., theater veteran. “Within four lines, he was the guy,” the director says of Prosky, who had never had a major movie role and went on to become an iconic Hollywood character actor. “He had the bucolic aspect to him and that kind of paternalism. And you could see that he could have a lethal quality behind that.”

Frank also needed a partner. Jim Belushi wasn’t famous in those days, neither for being John Belushi’s brother nor for his limited TV and film roles. He was just a young working actor. But like Mann, he was a Chicago guy. “Oh, Jimmy,” Mann says. “He’s everybody’s dangerous younger brother, who makes mistakes and gets in trouble, but you love him.”

Belushi remembers meeting Mann in a hotel suite. When asked what he thought of the script, Belushi says that he jokingly replied, “I like my character’s part because he gets to die.” After reading for an amused Mann, he was led to another room. “They said, ‘James, meet Jim Belushi, he’ll be playing the part of Barry,’” Belushi recalls. In front of him, Caan was doing push-ups.

“Jerry,” Mann said to Bruckheimer early in production, “see this tie?”

A producer doesn’t usually discuss sartorial choices with his director. But when Bruckheimer looked at the piece of neckwear, he understood what Mann was getting at. It had blues and blacks and reds in it. Those shades would match the alleys, bars, and back rooms of Chicago. “That’s what he used as his color palette in the movie,” Bruckheimer says.

The opening sequence of Thief immediately establishes Mann’s distinct aesthetic. It begins on a wet evening with Barry picking Frank up in a Cadillac Eldorado. As they drive to a job, Tangerine Dream kicks in. The camera makes a detour down into Rat Alley, a cavernous passageway near South Wabash Avenue and West Adams Street. “The whole city is a three-dimensional machine and Frank is like a rat who knows how to run for the maze of it,” Mann says. “That’s why these things are all happening at night, because at night there’s a black lid on the city.”

With only flashlights illuminating his dark workspace, Frank starts cracking a safe that’s taller than he is with a 200-pound magnetic drill. Mann literally takes the audience inside the diamond heist; there’s even a shot that travels through the hole that Frank makes. “I always do research on optics and cameras that are available,” the director says, “and that’s a surgical tool.”

On set, Caan’s onlookers, a cast and crew of experts, had him feeling pressure. “They’re all standing there with their hands folded: Let’s see what you can do, buddy,” Caan says. “My right hand to God, it’s the God’s truth. Michael would just roll the camera. What do you want me to do? ‘Bust the goddamn safe,’ he says. I said, ‘Oh, my God.’”

But that’s what Caan did, and he did it well. “I was going to drop you into this world,” Mann says. “And I want to inform you at the very beginning many, many things about the world, some of which you’re consciously learning and some of which you’re learning and don’t know you’re learning. And one of them is that Frank is really good at what he does.”

Both Mann and Caan knew that Frank had to be possessed with an uncommon level of honesty and cynicism. This was how he had to live his life, and he wasn’t going to apologize to anyone for it. “I wear $150 slacks, I wear silk shirts, I wear $800 suits, I wear a gold watch, I wear a perfect, D-flawless three-carat ring,” Frank crows. “I change cars like other guys change their fucking shoes. I’m a thief.”

Even the way Frank talks was deeply considered. First, the Queens-raised Caan had to nail down the Chicago accent. “It’s the broad vowels, it’s the hard consonants at the end of words,” Mann says. Caan also deliberately slowed down his speech pattern. “I never have to repeat myself,” he says. “Haste makes waste.” In an attempt to speak as directly as possible, the actor even stopped using contractions.

“Michael said, ‘Wait a minute, so what the fuck are you doing?’” Caan says. “Welcome to the party. It’s only been about three weeks since we’ve been shooting.”

Belushi remembers filming a scene where Barry calls Frank from a phone booth. Mann gave him one simple direction: “He said, ‘Buddy, these moments of communication between these men, one mistake could get them killed or in jail. So they never speak in contractions. Ever.’”

Frank lived the perilous life of a burglar, but in order to survive, he had to at least pretend to be an upstanding citizen. Mann used the character’s non-criminal existence to showcase some of his favorite Chicago spots: Frank picks up Jessie at Wise Fools Pub, where a young William Petersen is the bartender and blues guitarist Mighty Joe Young and his band are playing; the thief also owns a used car lot and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. “One of the great neon signs of all time,” Belushi says of the iconic facade of the watering hole, which later appeared in, among other movies, High Fidelity and Ocean’s Twelve.

For perhaps the movie’s most memorable scene, when Frank woos Jessie in a diner by bluntly explaining his backstory and philosophy on life, Mann chose a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in an Illinois Tollway oasis. “It’s a whole reel. It’s 10 minutes. It’s huge,” Mann says. “And to stop the movie right in the middle for somebody to go sit in a booth and tell a story, it’s a little bit strange, but I think wonderful.”

Mann picked that exact location for a reason. In 1971, he and a woman who he was just getting to know stopped there for coffee. “At that exact booth over the freeway,” he says. “We wound up sitting there talking all night.” The woman was his future wife, Summer. Fifty years later, they’re still together.

A man like Frank is not destined for a happy ending. But in the hands of Mann, his downfall was never going to be precipitated by something as pedestrian as a botched job. The emotional peak of Thief is its final, Los Angeles–set heist, during which Frank and his small crew use a thermal lance to melt their way through a vault. In the movie, they first douse the smoke alarm with foam. In real life, Mann just pulled the battery out of it.

“With that burn bar, it creates so much smoke every fire department in the city would have been there,” Belushi says. “When we were doing it, we had to stop, clear the smoke, go again, stop, clear the smoke, go again.”

After successfully burning through the diamond-stuffed safe—“I swear to God, it’s like cutting a pound of butter,” Caan says—a sweaty Frank fishes a cigarette out of his pocket, lights it, takes a puff, and exhales. Predictably, though, Frank’s triumph is short-lived. He learns that Leo, who enticed Frank to work for him and even procured a baby son for him when the state refused an adoption request, has invested a cut of the thief’s score in the construction of a shopping center. He’s also set up another job for Frank, knowing full well that he wants out. “I can see my money is still in your pocket which is from the yield of my labor,” Frank tells Leo. “You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat. But that is OK. Because I elected to make that deal. But now, the deal is over. I want my end and I am out.”

Mann calls this employee-employer relationship Confucian: “Leo likes him, is benevolent to him, in exchange for filial piety. So, Frank comes to this with the sense of, ‘I’m not interested. There’s no generosity. What I steal is the fruits of my labor.’” Frank, Mann adds, is “kind of the locus of a leftist, existentialist critique of American capitalism. That was the intent.”

Knowing that Frank won’t back down, Leo and his goons find and kill Barry, shooting him in the chest multiple times. When it came time to film the character’s death, Belushi begged to do the stunt himself. He ended up enduring five takes, absorbing dozens of squib shots. “They give me a couple Percocet for the morning because I’m going to be so hurt,” Belushi says. “All of a sudden I’m getting Stuntmen’s Association booster pins, patches. And now I’m in the Stuntmen’s Association. Honorary.”

Mann later jokingly gifted him a frame showcasing three stills of Barry’s lifeless body flying through the air. “It’s the best death in film,” Belushi says. “I haven’t had a death close to that in 40 years.”

By the movie’s climax, Frank understands that his one mistake was betraying his personal code. After years of nothing means nothing, he’s begun to give a fuck; he has a wife and son now. But for their sake, he has to push them away. He sends Jessie and their infant son David off to a new life, blows up his used car lot and bar, and pays a vengeful visit to Leo.

“He is vulnerable and weak,” Mann says. “Why is he vulnerable and weak? Because he had nothing, now they have something. And when he has something that has meaning, it could be threatened to be taken away from him and so that weakens him. And so his act at the end is the only act he knows. It’s nihilistic. Destroy it. Return myself to having nothing anymore, because then I have the power. I have tremendous power when I have absolutely nothing.”

Though Caan always has done his best to refrain from talking about acting like it’s anything but pretending to be someone else—at one point he interrupted our conversation to chide himself for “getting really fucking ridiculously actorish”—he admits that playing Frank wasn’t easy. “The way I work, I like to be emotionally available,” he said in 1981, “but this guy is available to nothing.”

Looking back now, the actor thinks that the character’s twitchy energy drained him. “I was up and running at fucking 90 miles an hour pretty much all the time,” says Caan, who injured an eardrum during one of the climactic explosions. “So it was hard. That’s just how that went. And since I couldn’t snort cocaine, I had to just do it.”

Critics raved about Caan’s performance. Roger Ebert, a Chicago guy himself, called Thief “a film of style, substance, and violently felt emotion.” Yet the praise didn’t seem to have an effect on ticket sales. The movie hit theaters on March 27, 1981, and barely made a ripple at the box office. Its producer has a simple theory as to why that is: It was new and different. “It’s really a tour de force, that film. It’s fantastic,” Bruckheimer says. “I’m not sure it had the marketing push that it deserved at the time. Michael was a first-time director, so you couldn’t get the kind of media attention that a seasoned veteran would who’s had success.”

Adds Belushi: “They sold it as a blue-collar movie instead of this great noir.”

Thief may not have been a blockbuster, but to Mann, “it was the fulfillment of a dream.” A dream that brought him back two decades, to his midnight rides through Chicago. “Suddenly in 1980, to actually be there on a crane with a camera and James Caan and Jim Belushi and everybody,” he says, “and actually be shooting that shot that I had imagined so many years ago was, I confess, a thrill.”

To Bruckheimer, the movie was at its core about how a man does his job. “I love process,” he says. “I’ve done really well with process.” Two of the many franchises he’s spearheaded, Top Gun and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, are nothing if not procedurals. From Mann, the producer took an important lesson: “Authenticity. I’ve learned to make sure you have advisers that have actually done what your film is really about. That’s certainly something that I picked up working with Michael.”

Now 78, Mann doesn’t consider his first film a career template. “Once I did Thief, I didn’t really need to do that again and I didn’t,” he says. But, he adds, “My value system is inherent in everything I do, just the same as everybody’s value system is inherent in everything everybody does.” It is undeniable that there are shades of Thief in Mann’s later work. Without it, there would likely be no Manhunter, Miami Vice, or Collateral.

In between tweeting, a new hobby that may capture his distinct voice better than any other form of communication, Caan spent an hour in February chatting with me about Thief. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied, seemingly in character as Frank, “What are you, a cop?” But underneath his tough-guy bluster was nostalgia. The role, he says, “is surely one of my favorites, if not my favorite.”

Fourteen years after Thief, when Mann, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino’s Heat came out, Caan recalls thinking that it felt familiar. So when he ran into Pacino, he of course let his friend know about it. “I said, ‘You fucker, that was my movie,’” he says. “‘All the scenes that weren’t used in our picture came over to you guys.’”

Caan’s passion is understandable. After all, that was the yield of his labor.

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