No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne
Frank (James Caan) works alone. He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves. They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept. They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value. It’s a tidy operation. Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses. Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts. It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.
All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections. At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him. Frank likes running the show. Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate. The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more. Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people. For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky. When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.
The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre. Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on. LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does. In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn. In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”. He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob. Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side. THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms. Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.
Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character. Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter. As odd as it sounds, he’s honest. As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him. When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable. He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times. In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.” James Caan revels in this role.
Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film. The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT. More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free. THIEF looks great too. Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.
Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities. When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him. He knows he’s free.