My Review of ‘Thief’ (1981)
I happened across this film by accident one evening, and was instantly drawn in by the description. It’s one of those heist movies in which the protagonist is a professional criminal who wants to make one last big score before he bows out of the life. It is also a taut and suspenseful example of early 80s neo-noir filmmaking.
Our (anti)hero is a safecracker named Frank (played with gut-wrenching intensity by James Caan), who’s trying to make the transition from lonely ex-con who runs two businesses (a bar and a car dealership) as fronts for his ill-gotten gains to respectable citizen, married to Tuesday Weld (who plays Jessie, the Girl of His Dreams).
After a major diamond score, Frank has trouble collecting his share from his fence, who is rubbed out by the mob for skimming. Frank’s friend, Barry (played by James Belushi), discovers who killed the guy with Frank’s money. Frank wastes no time giving those guys a piece of his mind.
This leads to a meeting where Frank tries to retrieve his dough and split. But the Big Man in Charge, Leo (played by Robert Prosky) knows when he sees a true pro and wants Frank to work for him.
This is the part where Frank has to choose to walk away or take the money in one last big-time heist, then make like a tree and … disappear. Okay, a magic tree. Part of the reason he agrees to the job is to realize that dream he has of being with Tuesday Weld. Which — let’s face it — is quite an incentive.
But Frank doesn’t count on: 1) the crooked cops that benefit from the Big Man’s take and 2) the Big Man’s treachery.
There is so much I liked about this movie. It was made early enough in the 80s for it to still have a 70s vibe. James Caan gives an incredibly raw and moving performance. Tuesday Weld plays a vulnerable woman, but one with strength.
It is a taut, realistic, and atmospheric thriller without a wasted shot. Which is more than I can say for a lot of recent movies that drag the action on and on and on … until you’re practically begging for the big finish.
This movie is a great example of early neo-noir in its story and tone, if not its date of release. Entertaining with a distinct undercurrent of social commentary. But not preachy at all.
This was Michael Mann’s feature film debut. Mann used actual thieves as consultants, which accounts for the impressive level of accuracy in creating the heist scene. This was also the first film appearance of actors Dennis Farina, William Peterson, James Belushi, and Robert Prosky.
It’s not really a spoiler is it, if I say that the ending really is explosive?
A must-see for neo-noir fans!