Thief (1981) is a beautiful film to look at. Mann introduces his signature trope of obsessive men finding their equal opponent. In this case Frank, played by Caan, finding and fighting a high-level gangster boss named Leo.
Frank’s actions ask for a saturation point. In Mann’s filmic universe this intimate, fatalistic and mainly male development is a trajectory with a limit the men depicted need to reach in order to face an equal opponent as if it was a destiny violently wished for. In Thief, Leo is the personification of this opponent. In Heat it’s the Al Pacino character, and so on. The underlying theme of these men’s personal struggles might be Mann’s take on the darker side of the American Dream. The men in his films seem to overdo the dreaming as they find themselves, gradually, in a nightmarish standoff against a strong adversary – perhaps an extrapolated version of their inner enemy. These difficult but somehow intriguing men never materialize their monetary dreams as they appear to love to physically struggle too much. They find reason in the fight itself, pushing themselves to reach the last stage, the last fight, vitally bursting with despair and rage. It’s a Mann kind of silent, a Mann kind of twisted take on the ever regressing capitalist logic of personal ascension through competition and work. A lonely rage lies within Frank like ominous clouds. A rage nurtured by lost time in prison, by dreams cut short. Frank and other of Mann’s character’s struggles are considered in the context of a society that rather unhealthily celebrates the individual breakthrough.
But I wasn’t quite interested in this aspect. Rather, on some other level, thief can be seen as a series of portrayals of objects in action. There is an abundance of close-ups of objects – tools they use for the bank heist, telephones, spying equipment etc. Of course these tools serve a purpose – to make a call, to break into a safe. Yet in the context of the early 80s with a new technological age looming, the depiction of objects in Thief can be seen as an almost nostalgic musing on the beauty of heavy or cabled machinery threatened by obsolescence. Here, technology is technology to be used, to be held and manipulated. It’s technology mixed with street dirt. Frank makes and receives calls in his bar, the 80s way of always being reachable. In the main heist scene, the three thieves work the bank safe in black protective wear. Mann shows the stylized, performative act in full, as if celebrating the collective effort executed in collaboration with modified, personalized machinery.
I haven’t watched Michael Mann’s more recent hacker thriller Blackhat. It would be interesting to see how he depicts activities of objects now moved to a digital realm.
Thief is sublime pre-internet art.