Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF

“Keep in mind, kid, until your dying day, the only crime anywhere in the world is being broke.“
– “Oklahoma” Smith, as quoted by Frank Hohimer, in THE HOME INVADERS: CONFESSIONS OF A CAT BURGLER (1975)

“I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”
– “Frank,” as played by James Caan in THIEF (1981)

Michael Mann’s THIEF is the rarest of creations, an almost-perfect marriage of character, narrative and action. It gave James Caan what is probably the best role of his career. And, as Mann’s directorial debut, it announced his presence in the feature film world with authority.

THIEF centers around the single-named “Frank,” a Chicago jewel thief and safecracker who reluctantly agrees to take down some high-end scores for a mob fence and loan shark named Leo (Robert Prosky in his screen debut). Frank hopes this last string of lucrative robberies will help him create the life he aspires to, with a wife, Jessie (played by a weathered-but-still-luminous Tuesday Weld), an adopted child and an extended family that includes his mentor-in-crime, the imprisoned “Okla” (Willie Nelson in one of his first film roles).

Frank, who’s spent nearly half his life in prison, sees no reason why he can’t have these things, or why committing serial felonies isn’t the road to Happily Ever After. He wants to assemble his life the same way he organizes a heist, and he carries the blueprint around with him in the form of a childlike collage of Polaroids and pictures cut from magazines.

That new life is easier envisioned than realized though. As the stakes get higher and both the mob and crooked cops close in on him, Frank finally explodes, and embraces the nihilism he adopted in prison (what Mann calls his “Darwinian adaptation”). It’s his armor against a brutal world where, as Bruce Springsteen sings in “Something in the Night,” “As soon as you’ve got something/They send someone to try and take it away.”

THIEF is based on the book THE HOME INVADERS, a 1975 memoir by Francis Leroy Hohimer (left), a career criminal and burglar from Chicago who wrote the original manuscript while still in prison. It was eventually published by the indie Chicago Review Press, and soon optioned by Chicago native Mann for his feature debut. Mann had previous experience with the subject matter, having directed the acclaimed ABC-TV movie THE JERICHO MILE (1979), starring Peter Strauss and filmed at California’s Folsom Prison.

In commentary and interviews – most recently on the Criterion Blu-Ray of THIEF released in 2014 – Mann says after optioning THE HOME INVADERS he “threw the book out” and wrote the screenplay from scratch. However, significant parallels remain between the two. Both Franks own car dealerships and nightclubs, and have a mentor in prison (the character of Oklahoma Smith is carried over from book to film, as is much of the wisdom he imparts to Frank). Both are vocational criminals whose young adulthood was spent behind bars, and both work for brutal mob figures who eventually turn on them.

The differences, though, are major. The real Hohimer was primarily a cat burglar who, as the title of his book suggests, specialized in home invasions, targeting wealthy families. The film’s Frank excels in high-tech safecracking and sophisticated industrial robberies (depicted in rich detail by Mann, informed by a crew of Chicago “advisors”). Frank utilizes burning bars, magnetic drills and electronic countermeasures to commit his crimes. Hohimer’s method of opening a safe was to have the owner do it, on pain of injury or death. And most of Hohimer’s entries were by key, not by force, those keys having been provided to him by the notorious Chicago fence and mobster Leo Rugendorf. In THIEF, Caan’s Frank makes the distinction clear when he tells the film’s Leo what he will and won’t do. “No cowboy shit.” he says. “No home invasions.”

(Wikipedia and IMDB entries for both the film and Hohimer himself incorrectly state that “Frank Hohimer” was a pen name used by another convict named John Seybold. That’s untrue. As many sources have confirmed, Seybold and Hohimer were two different men).

Despite its urban nightscapes, rain-swept streets and atmosphere of claustrophobia and impending doom, THIEF is not a film noir, according to its director. In an interview taped for the Blu-Ray, Mann describes Frank as “a rat in a maze, the three-dimensional maze of the city,” but asserts that “I wasn’t thinking consciously about film noir at all. I think in true film noir there’s a sense of hopelessness, a sense of ennui ... that’s not THIEF.”

One might argue that THIEF certainly *looks* like a film noir. The art direction and cinematography, by Mary Dodson and Donald E. Thorin, respectively, lovingly depict a city gleaming with reflected neon, where shiny dark cars prowl wet streets, all of it set to an otherworldly electronic score by the German band Tangerine Dream.

With its glowing neon palette (including title credits that Nicolas Refn Winding obviously paid homage to in 2011’s DRIVE), THIEF does feel dated in a certain ‘80s way, but only in its stylistic tics. In one sense, it’s a throwback to American cinema of the 1970s, when even crime and action films tended to be character-driven. Caan’s Frank is fully realized, a man with a past, if not much of a future. He’s charming, but dangerous when cornered. On one level he’s a classic existential noir hero, yearning for things he can never have, and eventually dragged down into a hell of his own making.

When his partner Barry (played by Jim Belushi, in a role that seemed to promise a better film career than he actually had) is killed, and Leo threatens everything he loves, Frank again becomes the caged animal he knows he is at heart. He casts off his connections to the civilian world, and reverts to his prison mindset in order to become a man with nothing to lose, who can wreak vengeance without concern for its consequences. He tells Jessie that, in prison, “You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die.”

Leo begs to differ. “You one of those burned-out, demolished whackos in the joint?” he says. “Don’t come at me now with your jailhouse bullshit, because you are not that guy. ... You got a home, car, businesses, family, and I own the paper on your whole fucking life.”

But Leo’s wrong. As Frank proves at the end of the film, he *is* that guy. When he eventually takes down his tormentors in a brutally efficient gun battle at a suburban Chicago home, there’s nothing triumphant about it. His victory is both cathartic and tragic. Frank surrenders his hard-won humanity and post-prison achievements in order to survive. This rat escapes by blowing up the maze.

(Continue reading PART TWO here.)

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine as part of its "My Favorite Neo-Noir" series.)

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