Release Date: 3/27/81
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Cinematography by Donald Thoren
It was Michael Mann’s Thief that inspired this retrospective and motivated me to revisit the full list of films of 1981 to declare it the most underrated year of cinema. Older films should not be judged simply for dated elements that can detach viewers from the story, but it’s an unfortunate fact that some films don’t withstand the test of time. Thief doesn’t fall into that category and still hits on all cylinders 40 years later, with gritty cinematography, smooth editing, and a score that screams early 80s cool. These elements still inspire, which is why Thief is one of the best films of 1981 and set the stage for the great work Michael Mann would bring to television and cinema over the course of his career.
Thief hooks you in from the opening sequence, and it starts with three simple elements that are expertly brought together: The electric blue title on a black background. Rainy streets at night. A mesmerizing soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. But these signature 80’s touches shouldn’t be judged as mere tropes, but rather as the foundation for a style that would be imitated throughout the decade and beyond, making Thief one of the premiere examples of 80’s neo-noir. While the foundations of March 1981’s other noir films Cutter’s Way and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on murder and greed, Thief makes it all about the heist.
The film begins on a rainy Chicago night as three men quietly walk into a car that pulls out onto an empty street, on their way to their night’s work. Parked in a dark alley the driver sits in the car as the spotter, listening to the police radio for any hint of their activity. The tech whiz Barry (played by Jim Belushi) disables the alarm. The safe cracker Frank (played by James Caan) works an industrial drill into a seemingly impenetrable safe. They know if they each do their jobs right, there won’t be a hitch. Frank cracks the safe, throwing aside everything except the boxes of diamonds. The score successful, they methodically pack up and move on without a word. No questions about next steps or mistrust about who holds the loot, these guys are professionals down to the coveralls and separate getaway cars.
By day Frank runs a successful car dealership, but his main financial interests are based on his night work. He meets with his middleman Joe Gags at a diner to move the diamonds for cash. Gags offers to buy them outright for $185,000 and they arrange for Barry to pick up the payment. Gags lets Frank know there are some “stand up guys” that want to meet him, but Frank resists because he doesn’t want the complications. After their handshake deal Frank turns his attention to the hostess Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld), scoring a date with her for later that night. Afterwards as he takes a break from his work at the car lot, he reads a letter from his friend Okla who’s currently in prison and needs to see Frank as soon as possible.
But even the best laid plans can fall victim to an unexpected hitch. Frank gets an urgent message to call Barry who tells him he can’t make the cash pickup because Gags cheated the wrong guy, Attaglia, and was pushed out a window with their $185,000 in his pocket. Frank pays a visit to Attaglia’s steel plating company to make him cover the $185,000 that will now end up in police evidence. He’s not in the mood for Attaglia playing dumb, so Frank makes him an offer he can’t refu—, sorry, he puts a gun to Attaglia’s head and tells him he has until that night to pay up.
Frank stops at the prison to see Okla (played by Willie Nelson) who asks Frank to help him get out as soon as possible. Frank tells him to hang tight because he only has ten months left in his sentence, but Okla doesn’t have that long due to a heart condition and he doesn’t want to die in prison. Frank gives him his word he’ll get him out, and another weight is added to his shoulders.
Later that night Frank arrives at the pickup spot for his $185,000, unphased by the two men Attaglia brought with him. Meanwhile two cops on a stake out are taking pictures of the transaction, and Barry is perched on top of a nearby billboard with a gun pointed at Attaglia’s group…just in case. The creepily in control Leo (played by Robert Prosky) calmly hands Frank his money but also has a proposition for him. Leo is the upstream guy who had Gags in his pocket and runs scores all over the country. He offers Frank the opportunity to work on higher stakes jobs that could make him a millionaire in months. All jobs would be properly cased, and if he’s caught there’s also a lawyer to spring him. Frank is hesitant, but if he accepts he’s only bound to two or three jobs with the opportunity to then move on if he chooses. Frank tells him he’ll think about it.
His meeting with Leo makes him two hours late for his date with Jessie, who sits fuming in a crowded club, not interested in going on with their date. She has no patience for his excuses but he has even less patience and drags her out to his car, flashing his gun at anyone trying to stop him. On Okla’s advice, and with Jessie in the front seat as a captive audience, he comes clean about his work as a thief. Over coffee at a diner (and after Jessie calling him an asshole) they let down their guards and open up: how Frank went to prison for stealing $40, and Jessie’s ex moved drugs and died. She’s happy with her ordinary, boring life but she gives Frank a chance. This diner scene is priceless, and Frank’s moving story about how he survived prison is just one of many pieces of Thief that make it notable. Caan and Weld play their scenes with authenticity, with Jessie bridging the hard hitting scenes with moments of tenderness and devotion.
Frank calls Leo from a payphone to accept his offer, but for only for big scores, and shortly after he and Barry fly out to LA to case their first job. When he gets back he wastes no time starting a life with Jessie buying a house in the suburbs. Now the work begins. He contracts his old friend Sam, a machinist, for the equipment he’ll need to burn through the safe. Sam is surprised by the safe’s specs, which will need custom equipment that he may not even be able to build, but he’ll find a way. But while the bigger job will give him a bigger score, it also comes with bigger risks, and a bigger commitment that he may not be prepared for.
Okla’s granted early release thanks to the creative work of his lawyer and a $6,000 cash payment to the judge. Frank and Jessie try to adopt a child, but his criminal record makes them less desirable as parents and their dream is crushed. Frank calls the case worker out on her hypocrisy, telling her he was a child of the system who understands the despair of growing up in an institution. But his words and his temper get them nowhere as he and Jessie are escorted out. Mann masterfully ends the sequence with a simple shot of Frank and Jessie later that night as they sit outside their home, silently and in each others arms, as their house begins to look more empty.
Soon after Frank is tailed by two Chicago detectives and is pulled over. Sergeant Urizzi and his partner offer to “make life easier” for Frank and establish a new business relationship to the tune of giving them ten points on any score through Leo. Frank refuses, but it’s far from over and he’s now a marked man. Chicago PD watch Frank’s every move, bug his house, and take him in at gunpoint on a bogus traffic violation to “persuade” him to take their offer. Frank confronts Leo about the increase in the heat. Leo says he’ll take care of it and also helps Frank with the adoption issue. His family complete, his equipment built, and the building’s alarm password recorded, it’s time to get to work. But as Frank will realize, each new “gift” comes with strings attached, and honor among thieves doesn’t count for much.
No spoilers here. Director Michael Mann, cinematographer Donald Thoren and editor Dov Hoenig constructed a near flawless film that is perfectly matched with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, and arguably sets the tone for 80’s neo-noir. But it’s James Caan’s performance that truly makes the film memorable. He brings more to the role than just a safe cracker looking for one last big score (though Caan actually looks like he can crack a few safes between movies if he wanted to). The weight of his performance brings Frank’s humanity front and center: he’s a man who is loyal to his friends and ultimately wants the family that eluded him in life, and will do anything to protect it. Caan’s performance as Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather will always be his signature role, but Thief will always be Caan’s signature film.
Release Date: March 11, 1981 (France)
Starring: Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Jacques Fabbri, Thuy An Luu, Anny Romand, Chantal Deruaz
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Screenplay by Jean Van Hamme & Jean-Jacques Beineix (based on the book Diva by Delacorta)
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
While the the look of Michael Mann’s Thief exudes a gritty realism, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s French crime thriller Diva stands out for the beautifully saturated cinematography and methodically crafted directing style of the cinema du look that puts the noir elements in the story and a cool 80’s new wave sheen in the visuals. For years I’d confused this film with 1987’s Aria, and revisiting Diva was a welcome rediscovery of an intriguing film that mesmerizes with each scene.
Jules (played by Frederic Andrei), a postal carrier in Paris, attends the performance of opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (played by real life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) after his shift. Still wearing his postal hat and jacket, he stands out among the well dressed audience. But the postal bag on his lap hides a Nagra reel to reel audio recorder he uses to bootleg her performance, and gets the attention of two men sitting behind him. After the recital he briefly meets Hawkins backstage for an autograph. She is charmed by his postal outfit and politely chats with him, but Jules is quickly pushed aside by one of her acquaintances. Everyone backstage is focused on Hawkins which allows Jules to swipe her dress from the performance. He returns to his modest loft located in a mechanic’s garage with his new trophy and listens to his high quality recording of the night’s recital.
The next day while Jules is on his rounds, a young woman named Nadia (played by Chantal Deruaz) wanders in a train station, standing out among the morning commuters with bare feet and fear in her eyes. A car pulls up and two mysterious men, L’Antillais (played by Gerard Darmond) and Le Cure (played by Dominique Pinon) enter the station looking for her, but Nadia’s behavior makes the audience wonder if she’s trying to escape from them or actually draw them in. They spot her and she quickly heads for an exit. Outside the station she eyes Jules’ idling moped, but rather than stealing it she clandestinely drops something into one of the side bags. In the distance, Paula (played by Anny Romand) and Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau) sit at a cafe table observing Nadia but don’t intervene when the two men catch up to her. She bumps into Jules, but as he tries to help her up, Le Cure shoves him aside flashing a police identification. Paula gets up to help Nadia but she is held down by Krantz because something is “off” about the situation. Jules rides off and the goons shove Nadia into the back of their car, but she breaks free. As she tries to escape she gets an ice pick in the back, killing her instantly. As the two goons drive off, Paula curses under her breath over Nadia’s dead body.
Jules chats up young shoplifter Alba (played by Thuy An Luu) and asks her on a date. At a junk yard L’Antillais’ car is destroyed as he tries to explain the situation over with an interested party on the other end of the call. At a police precinct, Paula and her partner Nortier (Gerard Chaillou) explain to Commissioner Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) that Nadia was a prostitute who was trying to blow the lid on an international drug and prostitution ring known as the “West Indian Network.” Saporta is skeptical and doesn’t want to pursue it. The man with Paula at the station, Krantz, is an informer who had a relationship with Nadia, and he tells the chief she was going to name of the head of the West Indian Network. The chief is suddenly more interested in the case when he hears she named names on the audio tape she dropped in Jules’ moped bag.
Jules brings Alba to his flat to impress her with his recording equipment. She’s taken a liking to Jules and gives him a stolen Rolex as a gift, and he shares with her Cynthia’s performance of “La Wally” from the night before. Meanwhile at a local carnival, Krantz runs a game stand but meets the same fate as Nadia with an ice pick in his back. Back at Jules’ place, Alba is moved by Cynthia’s performance and borrows it for her boyfriend, conceptual artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). After Alba leaves, Jules picks up a prostitute, having her wear Cynthia’s blue dress for their tryst. While he’s at her place, the two men from the recital tear up his apartment. When Jules returns, he breaks down in tears at the destruction of his precious recordings. He stays with two friends, and the next morning one of them calls in from work to tell Jules two men came in asking about him. He borrows his friend’s motorcycle so as not to be recognized on his signature yellow moped. But while reaching into his moped’s side bag for his gloves, Jules finds Nadia’s tape. Paula and Nortier see the aftermath of Jules’ apartment realize others are interested in Nadia’s recording as well.
By now the theft of Cynthia’s dress has made front page news. Jules makes his way into Cynthia’s suite under the guise of a flower delivery. She offers him a tip, but instead he gives her back the blue dress from her performance. She recognizes Jules as the postman she met after the show, but he doesn’t get the reaction he was expecting for his honesty and she threatens to call hotel security. He confesses he’s traveled to see her European shows, giving details of each performance down to the songs performed and the encores she wouldn’t give. Cynthia warms up to him when she realizes he’s a true fan and sets up a date with him for later in the night. At her afternoon press conference, she is asked why she never records her performances to which she replies that she doesn’t agree with that combination of art and commerce, and that bootlegs are a violation. The two men from the concert take their leave from the press conference.
In a dark parking garage, L’Antillais and Le Cure meet up with the man who has a vested interest in Nadia’s bombshell recording: Commissioner Saporta, the head of the West Indian Network. He instructs them to find Jules and the tape no matter the cost, and if he goes down, they go down with him. Meanwhile Jules meets with Cynthia for their date, spending the night and early morning hours walking around Paris until they return to her suite and their acquaintance turns romantic. Her comfort with Jules allows her to let him listen to her rehearse, something she had never allowed before. That morning, Gorodish is called by the two men that saw Jules bootleg the recital and they express their interest in obtaining the recording. Soon after, they call Jules at Cynthia’s suite to shake him down for the tape. The men, Taiwanese businessmen, then show up at Cynthia’s hotel to make an offer to her manager: she signs an exclusive recording contract with them or they release the bootleg without consequences or payment to her due to Taiwan’s non-compliance with international copyright laws. Jules’ dream come true of a relationship with Cynthia is now in danger of turning into a nightmare due to his actions at the concert.
Jules leaves the hotel and is quickly tailed by Paula and detective Zapotek (Patrick Floersheim). Jules leads them on a chase through and under the streets of Paris in a chase sequence that kicks up the adrenaline. He tracks down the prostitute from the previous night and asks to hide in her place. While alone in her apartment, Jules plays Nadia’s tape. As he hears her statement of Saporta’s role in the West Indian Network, he realizes the woman giving him sanctuary is also a part of it. As he sneaks out, he’s spotted by L’Antillais and Le Cure and another chase ensues.
No spoilers here. Diva is a cool thriller that stands out for its European flair when compared to the straight shooting Cutter’s Way and Thief. Diva is filled with emotional and visual ebbs and flows, where even the smaller, somewhat inconsequential scenes decompress the film into a methodically paced thriller but reveal their importance later on. Beineix’s direction combined with the beautiful camera work and seamless edits (especially the cuts to music) assemble each scene like perfectly placed pieces of a puzzle. The script’s two levels of intrigue from Nadia’s recording and Jules’ bootleg give the film a constant energy and motion without being overbearing, and keep the audience guessing as to who will get to Jules first and who he can truly trust. Analog was never cooler.