Thief and James Caan: 2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #5
This is my fifth and final post in the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Jill Blake (Sittin On A Backyard Fence) and Michael Nazarewycz (Scribe Hard On Film). I’d like to thank both Jill and Michael for giving me the opportunity to participate in this blogathon, as it’s been enjoyable and allowed me to read a number of other people I never would have read before. And thanks to those who read and commented on my entries.
Anyone who follows movie history in general, and Hollywood history in particular, know it takes a combination of factors to become a star, most of all luck. But once you reach that level, there are two roads open to you. You can try to capitalize on your success by appearing in the types of movies that allowed you to become a star in the first place, or you can continue to try to follow your own path and hope the audience follows with you. James Caan falls into the second category. Though he wasn’t the biggest name to emerge from the success of The Godfather, the film did bring him an increased visibility after his sterling work in such films as El Dorado, The Rain People and the made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song. Caan could have cashed in on his persona as Sonny Corleone – and in recent years, he has done that – but instead, he basically took his cue from the title of one of his films of that period, The Gambler. Though Caan appeared in a sequel (Funny Lady) and a couple of tough-guy films (Freebie and the Bean and The Killer Elite), he also appeared in a futuristic drama (Rollerball), a pair of romantic dramas with Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty, Chapter Two), an anti-war drama (A Bridge Too Far), a pair of offbeat comedies (Slither and Harry and Walter go to New York), a Western (Comes a Horseman), an arthouse drama (Another Man, Another Chance), and even a drama he directed himself, Hide in Plain Sight. Pauline Kael once wrote about Burt Lancaster’s film choices in the 50’s and 60’s that whatever their quality – she liked some but hated others – they weren’t complacent choices, but were offbeat and showed a restless talent at work. The same could be said of Caan’s work in the 70’s.
Still, there must have been something inside of Caan that made him think it was time to return to a more hard-edged role, and so he teamed up with Michael Mann, who made his Hollywood feature film debut (his first movie, The Jericho Mile, was released theatrically in Europe, but made for TV here) with their effort together, which was Thief. Caan has gone on record as saying that next to The Godfather, this is his favorite of all the film’s he’s done, and I would also agree next to Coppola’s film, this is Caan’s best work and best movie. It wasn’t a big hit when it was first released, and as with almost every Mann film, it had both its admirers (Roger Ebert, who put the film on his top 10 list for that year, called it “one of the most intelligent thrillers I’ve seen”) and detractors (Pauline Kael called it “highfalutin hype”, and hated it from beginning to end), as Mann’s films tend to do, but today, Thief is rightly remembered as one of his best.
Adapted by Mann from the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer (a real-life burglar), the movie is about the title character, named Frank (Caan). Frank and his partner Barry (Jim Belushi), in the movie’s parlance, take down scores, but only jewelry, and only from businesses, never homes, and always at night. Like most other crooks, he has a legit business on the side (a car dealership), but what he really wants is his version of the American dream, which includes a home, wife, kids, and getting Okla (Willie Nelson), another thief and the closest thing Frank has to a mentor, out of prison. And like his work as a thief, Frank wants to accomplish all of this on his own terms, though, ironically enough, he plans to leave thieving behind once he does. To that end, he courts Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a hostess at a restaurant he apparently frequents, and after one date that starts off as a disaster (he’s late for reasons I’ll get to in a minute) but ends up well, she agrees to marry him. She can’t have children, but he agrees to adopt. And he has a lawyer making arrangements to get Okla out of prison before his parole is up (Okla is dying).
But all is not well as far as Frank being his own man to get what he wants. His usual fence, Joe Gags (Hal Frank), is murdered, and the man responsible for that murder, Leo (Robert Prosky), a mob boss, wants Frank to come work for him. Frank doesn’t like the idea of working for anybody, but Leo is offering the type of money that’s hard to resist for someone thinking of packing it in (he accepts after Jessie agrees to marry him). And when Frank and Jessie are unable to adopt a baby by going through regular channels, Frank reluctantly turns to Leo, who immediately gets them a baby boy (Frank and Jessie name him David, which was Okla’s real name). Plus, the cops, led by Sgt. Urizzi (John Santucci), are constantly following him, saying they’re Frank’s new partners and he needs to take care of them. Finally, Frank finds out his new house is being bugged. So even before Frank finds out Leo is not going to give him all the money he was promised up front (the rest goes into fronts like shopping malls), and is not going to let Frank walk after just a couple of scores, we can tell things are not going to go Frank’s way.
Admittedly, this does sound sort of sentimental (which is part of why Kael hated it, I think), but what’s interesting is, with the exception of his attachment to Okla, there’s nothing sentimental in how Frank approaches any of this. When tells Jessie about what he wants, and why he wants her to be with him, it may be the least romantic proposal ever put on film. Obviously, he’s attracted to her looks, but there’s no appeal made on that level; it’s more the case of one soul who’s been beaten down by life appealing to someone in similar circumstances. And even in the speech he gives her about what his life was like when he was in a juvenile home and then prison, there’s neither bravado nor pathos, just a clearheaded directness (on the commentary track he does with Mann on the DVD, Caan calls this the best piece of acting he ever did). Later, that relationship will blossom into something more romantic, but there’s always something precarious to it as well. And as for Frank’s dealings with Leo and the cops, there is the metaphor of Frank being the individual being beaten down by The System, but Frank’s desire to work alone comes out of being a product of the rigidity of the prison system, and not wanting to play by anyone’s rules again, not out of any rebellious side. Finally, except for Okla’s picture, all the pictures on the paper he carries around that shows his version of the American dream are generic, as if to show his idea of what he wants is nothing sophisticated or romantic, just what he’s seen in magazines or on TV or in movies and what he thinks he wants.
One of the hallmarks of any Mann movie is the verisimilitude he brings to his movies to match the sober tone of the storytelling. Caan is using real tools in the safe-cracking scenes, and that heightens the very meticulousness of his character. Mann also casts a number of real-life cops and ex-crooks in the film; Santucci was a former thief, while real-life cop, technical adviser, and future Mann collaborator (in the movie Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, which Santucci also appeared in) Dennis Farina plays one of Leo’s goons (not the only future collaborator of Mann’s in the movie; William L. Petersen, who plays the lead in Manhunter, appears briefly as a bartender, while Michael Paul Chan, who was in Mann’s short-lived series Robbery Homicide Division, appears briefly as a waiter). All of that lends a grit to the movie to complement the slick visuals (Donald Thorin, who had served as camera operator on such movies as Bound for Glory and Annie Hall, made his debut as cinematographer for this film), and while some have charged Mann with being more concerned with style than content, they actually mesh well together here. Another theme that shows us in Mann’s movies is people, almost always men, doing the jobs they do because that’s what they do, and they don’t know how to do anything else. This movie is the one movie where the protagonist struggles against his nature the most, but at the end, he ends up having to embrace it. Finally, another thing that Mann does well in his films is his use of music, and while I know the Tangerine Dream score may date the movie for some, it actually fits. It’s not just what Mann says on the commentary about needing a score that sounded more mechanical to match the grittiness of the film, though there is that. The music in Mann’s films tend to be about evoking a general mood – think, for example, of the piece of music by Kronos Quartet that plays over the opening credits of Heat, or how Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” at the end – and though Tangerine Dream, an electronic music group, has been characterized as a “New Age” music group, they evoke the same kind of melancholy as in other Mann films. At the same time, the music is also appropriate for the big shoot-out scene at the end.
A number of actors made their film debut here, and Prosky was the most prominent of them (he had made several television appearances, as well as appearing on stage in several plays). In the ensuing years, he split his time between playing essentially good-hearted authority figures (Broadcast News, Rudy, Dead Man Walking, and Sgt. Jablonski on Hill Street Blues) and tough guys and/or bad guys (The Natural, Things Change, Hoffa), with the occasional oddity thrown in (his memorable comic turn as an aging former TV star in Gremlins 2: The New Batch). But as far as playing bad guys and tough guys go, he’s never equaled his performance here. Leo can turn the charm on easily, and yet there’s a steeliness to him always that Prosky doesn’t overdo, especially when he’s threatening Frank. Weld is one of those actors who should have been a bigger star than they really were, radiating a sexuality and a toughness that suggested more than was often required of her. She may not look exactly like she did in movies like Lord Love a Duck and Pretty Poison, but her combination of toughness and vulnerability fit the role of Jessie, and in the scene where Frank tells her to leave, she’s able to go from desperation to anger without a sweat. Nelson could have easily let his role slip into bathos, but he avoids that for the most part. And given how many bad movies and smug performances he’s given, it’s easy to forget Belushi started out giving good performances in movies like About Last Night (as problematic as that film turned out to be), Salvador and this one. He doesn’t have as much to do as the others, but he does make a convincing robber, and considering his relative youth (27 years old when the movie was released) and experience (his first real movie role), he’s able to hold his own.
But the movie rests on Caan’s shoulders, and he delivers. On the commentary, Caan makes a big deal about how he and Mann decided Frank should avoid using contractions in his speech whenever possible, as to show how direct (and uneducated) he was, but he doesn’t make a big deal of it in his performance. He doesn’t sentimentalize Frank’s “American dream”, or his background (the way he has Frank, in his speech about his background to Jessie, glide over the difficulties he had in prison). And yet when Leo double-crosses him, and Frank feels he has to shed all of his humanity to take revenge, the effect is chilling, both in how he completely dismisses Jessie, and also how easy it is for him to go after Leo. As a fan of Mann’s, I’d have to say Thief serves as a warm-up to better films such as Heat, The Insider and Ali, but it’s still very good, and I agree with Caan it’s one of his best films and best performances.