Thief (1981, Michael Mann)

Taking Cannes Month way back to 1981, this played in competition alongside Possession, Excalibur, Heaven’s Gate and winner Man of Iron. Mann’s first theatrical feature, though he’d already made TV prison/sports movie The Jericho Mile and written/created the series Vega$. Frank (James Caan, best known as Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket) gets out of prison and has a clear plan for the rest of his life and the safecracking skills to fund this plan. All he needs is a girl (Tuesday Weld of Lord Love a Duck) and to reunite with his friend (Willie Nelson)

Tuesday is along for the ride but other things start going wrong. Willie dies his first day out of prison, and gangster Leo (Robert Prosky of Broadcast News, a priest in The Keep) offers to help Frank line up a big job and get him and Tuesday a fast-track adoption, and somehow professional criminal Frank isn’t savvy enough to realize that Leo’s not gonna let him do a couple jobs then walk away.

I’m fortunate to be watching this for the first time in the mid-2010’s. The movie’s keyboardy Tangerine Dream soundtrack went from a cool experiment to a long-lasting embarrassment, staying that way for decades until post-Drive it became cool again. Drive seems indebted to this movie’s ending as well, when the hero leaves the girl behind to go on a potentially suicidal rampage against the guys who wronged him – or maybe that’s just how all crime movies end.

I love the bizarre, against-type casting of Willie Nelson and Jim Belushi (pre-SNL, his first movie) as Frank’s partners – wish Mann had kept doing that. Of course it’s Mann-stylish, all slick streets and street lights, but what seemed stylish in the early 1980’s looks pretty subdued today.

The two Jims:

The movie’s one De Palma shot:

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