(director/writer: Michael Mann; screenwriter: from the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer; cinematographer: Donald Thorin; editor: Dov Hoenig; music: Tangerene Dream; cast: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), Jim Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), Nathaniel Davis (Grossman); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jerry Bruckheimer/Ronnie Caan; United Artists; 1981)

“A cool action film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Michael Mann’s (previously directed the television movie The Jericho Mile) feature directorial debut is a gritty modern film noir that takes place in Chicago. It’s based on the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer. Real-life jewel thief John Santucci was employed as a technical adviser for the film and he also plays bad cop Urizzi (all the cops in this flick are rotten apples). “Thief” aims to make its surly but appealing ex-con Frank (James Caan) into an existential hero because he lives dangerously on the edge and has learned his no fear criminal way gives him the best chance of surviving to reach his dream of family life in suburbia.

Frank served 11 years in Joliet State Penitentiary for theft and manslaughter. The thirtysomething since his release four years ago has been successful as a small-time but highly-skilled professional safecracker and jewel thief, who works with his trusted assistant Barry (Jim Belushi). They steal only diamonds or cash, not touching anything else that can be traceable. Frank wears expensive designer clothes, drives new flashy cars, flashes wads of money around, owns a used-car lot and an interest in a bar, and has recently gotten divorced over his womanizing. Wheeler-dealer Frank has since fallen for the attractive Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a cashier in the diner he frequents, who it turns out had a problematic past that she’s running away from–her last boyfriend, now dead, was a big-time drug dealer.

Frank had a damaged life as a kid being raised by the state, and as reminder that he can start over again on the right track he carries around from his prison days a postcard collage of his idealized interpretation of a normal life. When he proposes to Jessie, Frank lays his heart open to her that was both honest and corny–giving his character a twisted sentimental underpinning.

Frank needs big money in order to retire in style to a decent domestic life with Jessie. He has always been a loner, but against his better judgment makes a pact with organized crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky) on the promise he can make a big killing. Leo’s a fence who sets up robbery sites where there’s jewels worth at least six-figures, and provides all the manpower and equipment needed for the heist. The deal is for Frank to make one killer score and retire. Leo tries to con the untrusting Frank by telling him: “Let me be your father, I’ll take care of everything.” He proves that when he provides Frank and Jessie with a baby boy obtained on the black market when the couple is turned down at the adoption agency.

In an emotional scene Frank visits in prison his mentor Okla (Willie Nelson), a master thief who taught him all he knows, who is to be released in ten months but because of his heart condition the doctors tell him he won’t live that long. Okla asks Frank to get him a pardon so he won’t die behind bars.

The big caper is a $4 million diamond heist that takes place in LA, but after the heist is smoothly executed a series of double crosses take place. It concludes with Frank realizing the evil mob kingpin never intended for him to retire. Frank reacts by going after the heavily protected Leo to get the money he was promised but shortchanged on, which turns into a violent bang-bang conclusion.

Caan’s not too bright thief characterization, one seeking the conventional life while living out a death wish, was brilliantly realized. Though the stylish film has no gravitas it was easy to overlook how empty it was since it was well-acted by a fine cast, Donald Thorin’s photography passionately caught the feverish nighttime neon-lit streets of Chicago, and the throbbing electronic music provided by Tangerene Dream put the viewer in the right mood for a cool action film.