Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Instant Movie Club: Thief

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they gather at a coffee shop to share their deepest secrets and desires and answer a series of discussion questions. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching Thief. James Caan stars as a jewel thief trying to make one last score in Michael Mann’s theatrical debut.

Next week:  Nature Calls. Patton Oswalt stars as a depressed scoutmaster leading an extreme camping trip in the funniest 79 minutes ever created.

A master thief and an excellent pointer of guns.

How is James Caan’s Frank different from thieves in the myriad other “one last heist” movies, if he is at all?

Jeremiah White:  These guys are usually aging criminals looking to ride off into the sunset. They’ve survived in the game for decades leading very disciplined, safe lives and now they’re ready to kick back, which usually involves taking a risky or sketchy job they know they shouldn’t. But Frank isn’t that old. He’s in his 30s and seems even younger when you consider that he spent all of his 20s locked up and has only been a professional thief for a few years. He’s not looking for a retirement plan so he can enjoy the rest of his life; he wants to finally start his life, or at least the “normal” life he dreamed up while inside.

Jeff Hart:  Many of film’s master thieves – from Danny Ocean to Nick Nolte in The Good Thief – are burdened with an addiction to stealing stuff. Their long-suffering girlfriends roll their eyes at the idea of one last heist, because there’s always another last heist on the horizon. And then there are the romantic types, again like Ocean, or Clooney’s bank robber Jack Foley, that keep at it because they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, because they’re out to prove something or spite the system. There isn’t any of that with Frank. This dude is all business. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a prodigious chip on his shoulder, but he definitely doesn’t have any emotional ties to his craft. It’s a means to an end.

Jeremiah White:  Despite Frank’s hot-headedness and relative inexperience, the emotional detachment he’s capable of is what really puts him in a class by himself. When Frank’s budding normal life is compromised irreversibly by his labor dispute with the mob boss, he immediately puts a match to the whole thing, jettisoning his wife, child and legitimate business ventures. The most famous line from Heat is “Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Many movie criminals have talked that talk, but not many walk the walk like Frank.

Jeff Hart:  Yeah, Mann has made a career out of depicting characters that achieve criminal perfection by reaching a state of total emotional detachment. Or rather, characters that achieve that state for a brief moment of underworld sublimity, and then fall from grace (what up stone cold Bobby De Niro in Heat). Frank is the master. It turns out, he’s the gold standard all future Mann criminal creations were aspiring toward.

Apparently, the first scene between Frank and Jessie was reworked in post-production to make it seem like they already knew each other. Why go through the trouble of changing something like this?

Jeremiah White:  Well, because it makes the movie better. The way the scene plays in the final cut, it’s obvious that there is some familiarity and that they may have even gone out a few times. Every scene between them afterwards is colored by this, from Frank dragging her out of a bar (and getting really worked up about the whole thing) to Frank screaming at her about how it’s obvious he’s a thief because of how he dresses to Jessie jumping on board after Frank tells her about his time inside. Without some kind of history, Frank would be a creep and Jessie would come off as too impetuous and naive.

Jeff Hart:  Agreeing to raise some swinging dick’s adopted (stolen) baby after they just picked you up at your hostess job and maybe roughed you up a little is totally 70s, man. Those heedless days, the ones Jessie spent in Columbia, they’re over. It’s the 80s and we need at least a few dates before shacking up! But you’re right, it does make for a better movie. Frank’s diner monologue – one of, if not the, best scenes in the movie – wouldn’t work nearly as well if it was just a sudden outpouring to a virtual stranger. Instead, he’s made a calculated decision to let Jessie in like he never did his ex-wife, which makes his ultimate decision to blow everything up (literally) all the more painful.

Where would you rank his debut film in Mann’s three decades of work?

Jeff Hart:  I really enjoy Mann when he’s depicting jargon-filled criminal banter and desolate, threatening cityscapes – so Thief is right up there with Collateral and Heat for me.  Does it make me a philistine that I prefer Tom Cruise stalking Jamie Foxx to Mann’s more epic work like Last of the Mohicans and The Insider?

Jeremiah White:  Putting other great movies ahead of a shouty 90s Pacino performance isn't enough to earn you a philistine label around these parts. But I sure do love The Insider, especially Pacino's epic outbursts in it. I'd also rank Thief right there with Collateral and Heat. And they're all a tier below The Insider.

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