US | 1981 | Directed by Michael Mann

Logline: An ex-con and seasoned safecracker looking to settle down takes on a lucrative job for the mafia, unaware of the long-term implications.

All the hallmarks of Michael Mann’s distinctive style can be seen here in his debut feature (he’d made a few shorts and a TV movie prior). Based on the novel (read: exploits) by real-life jewel thief John Seybold, writing under the pen name Frank Hohimer, titled The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, Mann wrote the screenplay, executive produced, and directed this thoroughly accomplished neo-noir tale with James Caan in a career performance. At its Cannes premiere it screened under the title Violent Streets

Frank (Caan) is keen to get out of the business that has almost set him up for life. He’s already done ten plus years in the can, and since being back on the street he’s set up two solid businesses, a bar and a car dealership, whilst working as a professional gem thief with his accomplice Barry (James Beulshi). But the most important part is missing; family. He has been courting one of his cashiers, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and he propositions her.

Frank’s expertise is seemingly brought to the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky, in impressive villain form), who is an associate of a man who owes Frank money. But Leo is the boss of the Chicago mob and he has plans for Frank. He offers Frank serious money, but Frank is reluctant to deal with big egos. After an intense rendezvous with Jessie, and a meeting of the minds, Frank decides to do do one large score for Leo, so he can retire and settle down with Jessie, and an adopted baby, courtesy of Leo’s black market dealings. 

It must have all looked great on paper. 

As in all classic noir, the best laid plans are scuttled, sabotaged, damaged beyond repair, or simply fucked up beyond all recognition. In Frank’s case, the perfect crime comes hopelessly undone, and Frank refuses to be the captain going down with the ship. There will be blood, but none of it will be spilled on Frank’s bronzed Armani silk shirt if he can help it. There will be casualties, though, nihilism will rear its ugly head. 

From the opening heist scene, establishing Frank’s prowess, his professional minimalism, slipping away through the back streets after stealing the hot rocks, Mann’s skill as a director is evident, his aesthetics clear. The cinematography, from Adrian Biddle, is rich and dark, the wet streets, the vivid neon, the deep shadows, the intense, driven performances. 

Tangerine Dream provide the pulsating synth-rock score, and it’s a beauty. I was reminded of Scarface, released a couple of years later, and wondered if Brian De Palma was influenced in any way, as there is a certain vibe, both in the look and the sound, that is quite familiar with De Palma’s gangster epic. 

It’s a shame Tuesday Weld isn’t given more to chew on, her Jessie role is pretty thankless. She’s a great actor, and the nuances and intelligence she imparts in her character really demanded moire screen time, more involvement. It is Jessie who gives Frank the impetus to get out, yet when the going gets tough, Frank gives her the coldest shoulder. It’s a borderline tragedy. 

It’s not Michael Mann’s best movie - Heat takes that place on the mantlepiece - but I’m confident in putting it amongst his top three. Like the Coen brothers’ debut, it is that visually and thematically distinctive and impressive. 

Thief two-disc (Theatrical Version and Director's Cut) Blu-ray and DVD is released through Via Vision.

Bonus features include audio commentary from director Michael Mann and lead actor James Caan.