Thief (film)

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Thief 1981.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Mann
Written byMichael Mann
Based onThe Home Invaders
by Frank Hohimer
Produced by
CinematographyDonald Thorin
Edited byDov Hoenig
Music byTangerine Dream
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • March 27, 1981 (1981-03-27)
Running time
123 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$5.5 million[2]
Box office$11.5 million[3]

Thief is a 1981 American neo-noir heist action thriller film[4] directed and written by Michael Mann in his feature film debut. Based on the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer, the film stars James Caan in the title role, a professional safecracker trying to escape his life of crime, and Tuesday Weld as his wife. The supporting cast includes James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina, and Willie Nelson. The original musical score was composed and performed by Tangerine Dream, with additional music composed by Craig Safan.


Frank is a jewel thief and ex-convict who has a set structure to his life. With a pair of successful Chicago businesses (a bar and a car dealership) as fronts for his criminal enterprise, Frank sets out to fulfill the missing part of his life vision: a family with Jessie, a cashier he has begun dating.

After taking down a major diamond score, Frank gives the diamonds to his fence, Joe Gags. However, before Frank can collect his share, Gags is murdered for skimming from the mob's collection money. Barry, Frank's friend and associate making the pick-up, discovers that a plating company executive Gags was working for, Attaglia, is responsible for Gags' murder and stealing Frank's payoff. In a confrontation at Attaglia's plating company, Frank demands his money back.

This leads to a meeting with Attaglia's employer Leo, a high-level fence and Chicago Outfit boss. Unknown to Frank, Leo has been receiving Frank's goods from Gags for some time. He admires Frank's eye for quality stolen goods and professionalism, and wants him working directly for him, offering Frank large profits. Their meeting is monitored from a distance by police surveillance.

Frank is initially reluctant, not wanting the added exposure or complications, but later that night, a conversation with Jessie changes his mind when she agrees to be part of his life, after he relates a tale of prison survival via a toughened mental attitude. Frank now agrees to do just one big score for Leo, telling Barry that this will be their last job. After being rejected at the state adoption agency, with Leo's help Frank is able to acquire a baby boy on the black market, whom he names David after his late mentor, nicknamed Okla.

After resisting a shakedown from a group of corrupt police detectives, and then subsequently ditching their surveillance, Frank and his crew are involved in a large-scale West Coast diamond heist organized by Leo. All goes well with Frank's "burn job" and he is expecting the agreed-upon sum of $830,000 for the unmounted stones of wholesale value $4 million. But when Frank returns from the job, Leo gives him less than $100,000. This is all that Frank will receive in cash according to Leo, who says he invested the rest of Frank's cut in shopping centers in Fort Worth, Texas and Dallas, Texas an idea Frank had previously rejected. In addition, Leo sets up a Palm Beach score for Frank in six weeks without consulting him. Frank tells Leo that their deal is over and takes the cash as he leaves, demanding the rest of his money in 24 hours.

Frank drives to his car lot, unaware that Leo's henchmen have already beaten and captured Barry and are waiting in ambush. Frank is knocked out and Barry is killed by Carl, one of Leo's enforcers. Frank awakens with Leo staring down at him, surrounded by his henchmen. Leo informs him that he, Jessie, their child, and everything he owns are Leo's property. He threatens Frank's family if he does not continue working for him. Leo warns Frank to focus on his responsibilities. When Frank returns home, he orders an uncomprehending Jessie out of their house, telling her their marriage is over. Frank instructs an associate to drive her, the baby and $410,000 in cash to somewhere where they cannot be found, informing Jessie that more money will be coming at regular intervals, but that he will not be joining her.

With nothing to lose, Frank blows up their home using high-explosive charges. He then drives to his business establishments and does the same. Armed with a pistol, he quietly breaks into Leo's house in a peaceful neighborhood and pistol whips Attaglia in the kitchen. Frank hunts for Leo, killing him in the living room. Frank then pursues Attaglia as he tries to escape from the house, but is confronted in the front yard by Carl and another henchman. In the ensuing gunfight, Frank is shot, but manages to kill the trio. Frank loosens what appears to be a bulletproof vest he was wearing beneath his jacket, and walks away into the night.



Thief marked the feature film debut of Michael Mann as director, screenwriter and executive producer, after five years in television drama.

Mann made his directorial debut with the TV movie The Jericho Mile. This was partly shot in Folsom Prison. Mann says that influenced the writing of Thief:

It probably informed my ability to imagine what Frank's life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him.. The idea of creating his character, was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it. Everything that's normal development, that we experience, he was excluded from, by design. In the design of the character and the engineering of the character, that was the idea.[5]

Mann made James Caan do research as a thief for his role, and said:

I always find it interesting, people who are aware, alert, conscious of what they do and are pretty good at it… People who want to put in 50-60 hours a week and go home and are not really conscious of life moving by, don’t really interest me very much... As part of the curriculum designed for an actor getting into character, I try to imagine what's going to really help bring this actor more fully into character. And so I try to imagine what experiences are going to make more dimensional his intake of Frank, so that he is Frank spontaneously when I’m shooting. So one of the most obvious things is it’d be pretty good if [James Caan] was as good at doing what Frank does as is Frank.[5]

Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan served as the film's producers.

James Caan's emotional several-minute monologue with Weld in a coffee shop is often cited as the film's high point, and Caan has long considered the scene his favorite of his career.[6] The actor liked the movie although he found the part challenging to play. "I like to be emotionally available but this guy is available to nothing."[7]

Being Michael Mann's feature film directorial debut, Thief showcases many of the cinematic techniques that would later become his trademarks. Chief among these is the cinematography, utilizing light and shadow to give the proceedings, especially those taking place in the darkness of night, a sense of danger. The film also earns plaudits for its meticulous attention to detail: the tools and techniques of the trade, right down to the oxy lance used to penetrate a safe, are authentic, the result of Mann's decision to hire real-life thieves to serve as technical advisers.

Thief marks the first film appearance of actors Dennis Farina, William Petersen, James Belushi and Robert Prosky. At the time a Chicago police officer, Farina appears as a henchman. Conversely, John Santucci, who plays the role of corrupt cop Urizzi, was a recently paroled thief and acted as a technical adviser on Thief. In 1986, Farina and Santucci both were cast in Michael Mann's TV series Crime Story, Farina as a Chicago police lieutenant and Santucci as a jewel thief. Petersen, who later would star (along with Farina) in the Mann film Manhunter, appears briefly as a barman at a club. The influential Chicago improv teacher Del Close has a brief appearance as a mechanic, in a scene that was improvised with the other mechanic actors.[8]

Michael Mann originally intended to score the music with Chicago Blues. He said, "However, I felt that what the film was saying, thematically, and the facility with which the film might be able to have resonance with audience. I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank's experience specific only to Frank…So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream."[5]

Originally titled Violent Streets, the film debuted at the 34th Cannes Film Festival.[9] It went on to open in theaters in the United States on March 27, 1981, earning a modest $4.3 million. While not a financial success in its initial release, the film has become a reference point in Mann's career, especially with the release of his crime epic, Heat, with which this movie has many similarities.

The still of Frank holding a gun on Attaglia as he attempts to recover his money in an early scene was used for one of the movie's posters.

Near the end of the film, Frank destroys his house. The film company built a false front onto a real house and attempted to destroy it with explosives. The explosions severely damaged the real house, however, leading to its demolition.


Mann has gained a reputation as a director who uses cutting-edge music for his films. Thief's moody soundscapes were composed and performed by Tangerine Dream, and was their second of many notable film scores composed by the group throughout the 1980s. The film was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Musical Score.[10]


The movie received widespread critical acclaim. It holds a 94% rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. Roger Ebert described Thief as "one of the most intelligent thrillers I've seen" and gave the film 3½ out of 4 stars, writing that the film's only major flaw was a failure to develop the subplot featuring Willie Nelson's character more fully: "Willie has played the character so well that we wanted more."[11]

See also


  1. ^ Staff (December 31, 1980). "Review: Thief". Variety. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  2. ^ Siskel, Gene. (May 11, 1980). "Movies: James Caan: Frustrated star talks tough about his career Tough talk from a frustrated star". Chicago Tribune. p. d2.
  3. ^ "Thief". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  4. ^ "Thief (1981)". FilmAffinity.
  5. ^ a b c Jagernauth, Kevin (February 6, 2014). "Interview: Michael Mann Talks Making 'Thief,' The Importance Of Authenticity & What's Coming In His Next Film". Indiewire.
  6. ^ James Caan, Thief DVD audio commentary
  7. ^ Chase, Chris (April 3, 1981). "At the Movies". New York Times. p. C6.
  8. ^ Harris, Will (July 28, 2021). "When It Comes to Finding Del Close Stories, My Interviews Are Not a Wasteland". That Thing They Did.
  9. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Thief". Retrieved June 3, 2009.
  10. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0.
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger (1981). Thief, accessed May 1, 2014

External links

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