Thief is definitely an explosive beginning for Mann, and that’s fitting because this film initiates Mann’s tradition of explosive openings. Mann is almost unrivaled in his ability to bring us into the action in the opening fifteen minutes. To be clear, that doesn’t mean we can always immediately forecast the nature of the plot (the first thematic crisis point often doesn’t reveal itself until much later), but, as if working from Neil’s stopwatch, within fifteen minutes we are hooked. To go back to the foreplay example, Mann is expert at putting us “in the mood.” In the case of Public Enemies, it’s watching Dillinger break his buddies out of jail. Here it’s watching Frank break into a safe.
The opening minutes of Thief are also noteworthy because they suggest to me that they had a significant impact on another director we’ve discussed previously, David Fincher. Most particularly, there’s the shot in which Mann’s camera enters a hole that Frank has drilled in a safe—a camera gimmick that Fincher has riffed on several times, most notably in Panic Room when the camera goes inside the lock of a door and through the handle of a coffee pot. On top of that, Thief’s slow vertical pan showing the moonlight illuminating the empty fire escapes of several buildings and then settling on the rain-soaked road below recalls the tableaux of Se7en and, for that matter, Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video. Not to mention that after the movie-opening heist we watch Frank relax by sitting on a dock and sharing a view of an almost surreal sunrise that now recalls a similar shot of a sunset from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But, again, I digress.
Maybe the most interesting thing for me about Thief looking backward is that Frank is Mann’s most emotionally overt and sensitive criminal quasi-loner, thanks in large part to that great coffee shop scene with Jessie (which is more forthcoming, if less magical, than the legendary coffee shop scene in Heat) and the child adoption subplot, and yet it’s Frank who most deliberately, consciously and definitively gives up on his idyllic vision of typical domestic happiness. Frank’s hand is forced, of course, by Leo (and, yes, Prosky is terrific!), but when he breaks off his relationship with Jessie he knows exactly what he’s doing. Heat’s Neil, on the other hand, thinks he can get vengeance on Waingro and “go away” with Eady right up to the point that he’s running for his life, and Public Enemies’ Dillinger never actually gives up on reuniting with Billie until his life is taken from him. In hindsight, if you know Mann’s work, Frank’s abrupt abandonment of Jessie is inevitable, but at the time it must have seemed shocking and even more tragic than it plays today to folks like me who encountered Mann’s films out of order.
EH: Interesting that these comparisons to Fincher keep coming up. Both directors are definitely interested in process, though arguably Fincher uses a focus on process as a way of exploring his signature themes, while for Mann the procedures and routines of work are windows into the souls of his characters. At the same time, I think you’re right that Frank is the most naked and vulnerable of Mann’s heroes, with the possible exceptions of Max in Collateral and Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. Mann’s characters sometimes tend towards archetypes rather than fully developed people, which can make them difficult to get close to. Frank lays bare his soul in a way that Mann’s other characters seldom do, and this makes him one of the most self-aware of Mann’s heroes as well. If Neil and his opposite number Vincent (Al Pacino) in Heat seem to yearn unconsciously for the connections and stability of family life, Frank is acutely conscious of what he lacks, and he tries to get it by following the plan he’s laid out for himself. Of course, as the most self-conscious Mann hero, he’s also the one who, once he has what he thought he wanted, realizes that he has to destroy it, and does so with the same methodical skill he applies to his safecracking operations.
Also, in the spirit of digression, one of the least remarked-upon aspects of Thief is doubtless how quirky and strange the film can be in isolated moments. The film’s overall sense of escalating dread and its moody, low-key visual atmosphere tend to be the takeaways, especially since the last shot is that dark, distanced image of Frank being swallowed up into the night on a suburban street, leaving a handful of bodies strewn around behind him. But the film is packed with odd little moments of humor and eccentric details that waft around the fringes of the narrative. Some of these are perhaps unintentionally funny or disorienting, like the unforgettably cheesy beachside interlude with a hairy, shirtless James Caan, or the way the final shootout includes that puzzling cutaway to a random woman who’s never seen before or after that point. Other moments are more intentionally amusing, like the metal shop owner who muses about his white-coated new assistant: “What’s he gonna do, discover penicillin?” Or that odd sunrise scene you mention, with a fisherman praising the glory of “the sky king.” Or Frank’s escalating outrage and hilariously inappropriate racial remarks at the adoption agency. Or, surely the funniest scene, the subtle non-verbal bargaining going on between a crooked lawyer and an even more crooked judge to get Frank’s mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) released from prison.
These kinds of diversions aren’t really what we think of when we think of a Michael Mann film, but they’re all part of the texture of his debut. When people talk about Mann, they tend to give the impression that the films are tough and violent, testosterone-driven, grim and relentless. Scenes like this, so easily forgotten and yet so important in infusing his films with vitality and life, prove that there’s more to Mann as a director than a machismo-obsessed crime/action stylist.
JB: Exactly. I mean, there’s no arguing that he’s obsessed with machismo and that his films are dominated by meditations on maleness, but Mann isn’t limited to that. When Mann does make time for female characters (perhaps begrudgingly), it’s amazing how affecting those scenes can be. Many of those moments we’ll get to later, but in Thief that aforementioned diner sequence is terrific not just because of how much it reveals about Frank but for what it reveals about Jessie. Tuesday Weld is outstanding in those ten minutes, conveying years worth of heartbreak and loneliness with a believability that reminds me of some of Julianne Moore’s best work. Frank is right: Jessie is “hiding out” in plain sight; she’s playing not to lose. Those aren’t just words; we see that in Weld’s portrayal. Her performance is crucial because it’s the key to our ability to believe that Jessie would dive into this otherwise ill-advised relationship with a criminal she barely knows. Frank gives Jessie the opportunity to reengage with life. From that perspective, it would be reckless not to follow him. It’s a complex sequence.
Yet despite the director’s deft touch when he deigns to let a female fill the screen, it’s almost impossible to imagine Mann helming a female-dominated movie, unless the ladies in question were covered in prison tattoos. That’s why it’s all too appropriate that Mann went on to direct Manhunter, which features a villain (Tom Noonan’s Francis Dollarhyde) whose animosity stems from his failure to connect with women. My impression is that Manhunter gets more chatter these days than Thief, if for no other reason than its introduction of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter character, who here is called Hannibal Lecktor. (Mann fanboys, and those still bitter over the Oscar dominance of The Silence of the Lambs, love to argue that Brian Cox’s performance here is superior to Anthony Hopkins’ subsequent award-winning one.) But for me, time has been far kinder to Thief than to Manhunter. True, the former dates itself with Caan’s hairy-chested strutting and James Belushi’s belly-jiggling running in the beach scene, but Manhunter plays like a billboard for the 1980s Miami Vice (TV) aesthetic, which in terms of both style and mood has proved anything but timeless.
EH: It’s true that, seen today, Manhunter has more than its share of cringe-inducing moments and silly stylistic flourishes, many of them stemming more from the simple passage of time than from any intrinsic fault of the film. The synth-heavy score, featuring music by Michael Rubini and New Wave guitar/keyboard duo The Reds, treads some of the same ground as Tangerine Dream’s moody score for Thief, but there are also a number of awful ’80s-ish pop songs to date the film. Many of the upbeat pop tunes packed into the film sit uneasily against the dark mood of the material; the music often seems more appropriate for a Rocky sequel than this tense, immersive police procedural. Similarly, the sex scene between the serial killer Dollarhyde and his blind lover Reba (Joan Allen) is laughably cheesy and overblown, as are many of the other moments between this unlikely pair. What the hell was up with Dollarhyde taking Reba to feel up a tiger, anyway?
More damagingly, Mann’s stylization seems almost arbitrary at times, distracting from rather than contributing to the overall mood. If style and substance are inextricably intertwined in Thief, here Mann’s style is often reduced to a set of tics layered over the story. The periodic use of stuttery jump cuts is especially distracting, and seemingly unmotivated. These jump cuts turn the poorly staged final fight scene into a muddle of disconnected shots and unclear action. If there’s one thing we can usually count on in a Mann film, it’s compelling action, so this flubbed finale is particularly disappointing. Mann builds up to this climax with the great sequence of Reba stumbling around Dollarhyde’s home while the killer stalks her, blasting Iron Butterfly’s prog epic “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is actually used very well to lend an air of sinister theatricality to the scene. That all this build-up dissipates into such a lackluster fight scene indicates that Mann was still several years away from the masterful, large-scale battle scenes of The Last of the Mohicans and Heat.
Still, the film is interesting and compelling in other ways, and it ties in nicely with the development of Mann’s themes and characteristic heroes. Like Thief, this is at heart a film about family and the desire for family. Serial killer profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is a family man, and his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and fair-haired son Kevin (David Seaman) appear in the opening scenes as a vision of happiness and contentment. Graham is a man who has forgotten his dark past and settled into a peaceful, idyllic existence by the seashore with his family. This idyll is disrupted when Graham learns of the serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, who is killing entire families. Graham is reluctant to return to his old job, but he does so primarily because he is disturbed by the killer’s destruction of happy families. The killer traces his prey through home movies, records of mundane happiness around the home, and Graham, following the killer without realizing it at first, grows acquainted with the victims through the same means.
As we’ve discussed, Mann’s characters thirst for a home life, for normality, for the pleasures of a pretty wife, children, a nice house: Comfort, security, safety, sexual fulfillment. Graham, unlike other Mann heroes, has these things, and wants to protect them. That’s why the worst thing the killer can do is target his family, and the worst thing that Hannibal Lecktor can do is give Dollarhyde Graham’s home address, essentially an invitation to tear apart that happy, attractive family. In this case, however, the family remains intact, and the film is framed by images of Graham’s seaside home. The film ends with an idealized shot of the family trio framed against the ocean, as the words “A Michael Mann Film” appear on the screen; it’s as though he’s claiming this family photo, this theme, for himself.
JB: At the least, Mann might be claiming that seaside view for himself. The dude loves his water shots, and in particular those shots from water’s edge that look out over a seemingly infinite ocean. The themes for Mann’s water shots vary somewhat, but this type of shot construction in particular tends to suggest promise and freedom in the view ahead and messiness and conflict behind. In Manhunter, Will leaves the peace and tranquility of his beachfront property to pursue the Tooth Fairy by attempting to enter his thoughts, so the return to the beach symbolizes that once again Will has liberated himself from the mind of a monster, and that he’s going as far away from the madness as possible. Heat, of course, uses a similar tableau in regard to De Niro’s Neil, who has an empty house looking out over the Pacific Ocean, suggesting not only Neil’s desire to “go away” from his life of crime, but also the vast uncertainty of that future. In The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand looks out over water while deciding whether or not to break his confidentiality agreement. In Collateral, Max keeps a postcard picture of an island on the backside of his visor as a way to find tranquility. And, of course, Miami Vice has water, water everywhere.