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Film / Thief (1981)

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Thief is a 1981 neo-noir crime drama film written and directed by Michael Mann and starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson, and James Belushi.

Caan plays Frank, a thief who specializes in safe cracking and who prefers only to steal hard-to-trace valuables such as diamonds and cash. Frank is working hard to reach his goal of retiring and leading a normal life, but when he decides to take a shortcut to reach his goal sooner, he risks losing everything.

Not to be confused with the video game series of the same name.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anti-Hero: Frank is an unrepentant thief with a lot of unheroic qualities, but he's the main character and sympathetic in his own way. He's opposed by Leo, a tyrannical mob boss.
  • Author Appeal: Michael Mann is a fan of blues music and originally planned to score the whole film with blues but eventually changed his mind. He still in stuck one scene featuring a live blues band, Mighty Joe Young, playing at Frank's bar.
  • Badass Boast: Leo lets Frank know the score: "I own the paper on your whole fucking life. I'll put your cunt wife on the street to be fucked in the ass by niggers and Puerto Ricans. Your kid's mine because I bought it. You got him on loan. He is leased. You are renting him. I'll whack out your whole family. People'll be eating them in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say. I run you. There is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned out, you are busted, or you're dead. You get it? You got responsibilities. Tighten up and do it."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Frank successfully kills Leo and Attaglia, but he has cut all ties with Jessie and their adopted son and will likely never see them again. The cut, unfilmed ending had Jessie eventually find Frank.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Frank is a thief who cracks safes. He's opposed by Leo, a murderous, backstabbing and tyrannical mob boss.
  • Book Dumb: Frank runs two businesses and is an expert safecracker, which all leave him flush with cash, but he's also a former hooligan who spent his whole twenties in prison. His grammar is poor and his misspells "male" on his adoption application.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: What Frank ultimately does to Jessie.
  • Bulletproof Vest: One makes an appearance at the very end, first revealed in the classic way: the wearer inspecting it after getting shot.
  • The Cameo: Improv teacher Del Close has a small role as a mechanic.
    • Blues musician Willie Dixon appears after the first heist scene as a man fishing whom Frank greets.
  • Dirty Cop: The cops who start tailing Frank approach him and announce that they're his new partners, demanding ten percent of his earnings. They don't take kindly to being refused. It later turns out that they're under the payroll of Leo.
  • The Dragon: Attaglia to Leo.
  • Dragon Their Feet: Frank knocks Attaglia unconscious in the kitchen before shooting Leo dead in his room, then Frank kills Attaglia.
  • Drill the Lock: This is how Frank handles his burglaries, befitting the grungy tone of the movie. In the first heist, against a safe, Frank uses a drill with a magnetized plate to bore through the wall until the tumblers are exposed, which he then just knocks out with a hammer and screwdriver. For the second, more elaborate vault, Frank's crew uses a thermal lance, which not so much drills as it does just melts whole grooves in the vault door until they just pry a chunk of it loose so they can crawl inside. The drill was even genuine tool used by burglars, for authenticity.
  • The '80s: Right down to the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Though we never see them, Leo tells Frank his wife and kids are everything to him, and everything to life in general, which eventually convinces Frank to let Leo help him and Jessie adopt a kid.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Leo is almost avuncular to Frank when giving him the sales pitch to come work for his criminal enterprise and for the entirety of their time on the Bank of California job. When Frank displeases him, however, Leo's friendly facade drops instantly, and he reveals himself to be a vicious, tyrannical monster.
  • The Ghost: Frank mentions his recently divorced ex-wife several times, but she never makes an appearance.
  • Grammar Nazi: The woman at the adoption bureau tells Frank to his face that he misspelled "male" on his application.
  • Hand Signals: The crooked lawyer on Okla's case nonverbally haggles with the judge in open court through hand signals. He lays four fingers across his face while speaking, and the judge responds by laying six fingers against his own face, which the lawyer matches, settling the sum of the bribe.
  • Honor Before Reason: Frank loses everything he cares about — and probably loses out on a much better (albeit still criminal) life — because of his "my way or the highway" attitude and refusal to work and play along with Leo and his gang.
  • It's Not You, It's My Enemies: Frank orders Jessie to leave him after Leo threatens her and their child. He doesn't explain himself at all, making this a harsher but more effective use of the trope.
  • Police Brutality: After Frank refuses to pay a pair of dirty cops a cut of his illicit gains, they catch back up with him, arrest him at gunpoint for a broken tail light (which they kick out) and then spend a good amount of time pummeling him at the station. It gets worse from there.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Frank issues a slew of ethnic slurs at the adoption agency, ironically while expressing a desire to adopt a child of any race.
  • Really Gets Around: Averted. Frank's first wife thinks all his extra money comes from affairs with rich women. He never cheated, but also hid from her that he's a thief.
  • Shown Their Work: Former Chicago thieves and police detectives consulted for the movie and even acted in several of the roles (most of the former thieves portrayed cops in the film, and vice versa), lending their technical expertise and knowledge of real-life criminal and law enforcement tactics to enhance the accuracy and realism of the film.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: When Frank enters the bar where his new girlfriend Jessie is waiting for him, the bar band is singing "I reached a turning point in my life."
  • Tracking Device: Chicago police hide one inside the bumper of Frank's car and follow it out of town to what they think is his next score. The only problem is that he found it, so they're following a charter bus to Des Moines, which has the tracker inside a package in the cargo area.
  • Villains Out Shopping: When Frank breaks into Leo's home, Leo is quietly reading a newspaper with his stockinged feet up on the coffee table while Attaglia eats cake and goes to fetch some milk.

Alternative Title(s): Thief