Art and Film: Thief’s incomparable visual grit

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Michael Mann’s brilliant 1981 neo-noir film Thief – showing in BAM’s February 5-16 Mann retrospective – is paradoxically celebrated for being under-appreciated. Substantively, he makes the one-last-score storyline as ugly-funny as good Tarantino and as tragic as good Polanski, brings out James Caan’s bestial, foulmouthed best, optimizes Tuesday Weld’s off-kilter winsomeness, and draws out career-best sidelong connivance from the fine character actor Robert Prosky. But what seems to have stuck with most critics and moviegoers is the film’s edgy style, from its elegant graininess to its deployment of the pioneering German prog-rock band Tangerine Dream – probably because it’s been style rather than substance that Mann himself subsequently focused on (in movies like Heat and Public Enemies and the TV series Miami Vice).

Yet in Thief style and substance come together synergistically as they never have in any of his other ten movies. The denouement is bracketed by images that Mann must have intended as the movie’s most indelible ones, like something akin to paintings. The first, a little more than halfway into the movie, involves Caan’s Frank’s methodically muscular cracking of a putatively impenetrable safe via a hi-tech blowtorch and a lance-like steel rod. At the end of the scene, Frank, having secured the diamonds, sweaty and grimy, takes off his protective hood, sits down on a chair, removes his gloves, lights a cigarette, and almost post-coitally exhales the smoke, gently nodding to himself. In terms of smoking cool, it’s up there with Bogart in Casablanca, Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, and Belmondo in Breathless. More importantly, the framing signifies that those minutes following the successful completion of his last and greatest heist constitute Frank’s lone moment of contentment.

It’s all downhill from there. He has taken an angry yet affectingly futile stab at normal life above ground, hoping to settle down with Weld’s Jessie and adopt a child. The showstopper isn’t so much that he’s not cut out for it – though that’s certainly a major factor – as Prosky’s duplicitously avuncular Chicago gangster Leo’s effective confiscation of his money by tying it up “on the street” in order to keep Frank in his employ. Frank isn’t cut out for servitude, either. Resigned to his individualist compulsions, in the final scene he is left trudging bloodily from Leo’s silenced house, the last man barely standing – Frank’s visual epitaph.

Watch the entire film:

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Art and Film: Jem Cohen’s faith in art

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 Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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