Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF (Part Two)

(This is Part Two of an essay that originally appeared in an earlier form in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine.) You can find Part One here.

Though a centerpiece heist takes place in Los Angeles, THIEF is very much a Chicago film, shot mostly on location and steeped in local history. In addition to being Mann’s feature debut, it’s also full of local actors he’d use again. The late Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop, plays one of Leo’s henchman. William Petersen (who starred with Farina in Mann’s MANHUNTER four years later) has a bit role as a nightclub bouncer. The leader of the corrupt cops is played by John Santucci, a real Chicago jewel thief who lent the production both his expertise and his burglary tools. Busy character actor Ted Levine (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MONK, THE BRIDGE) plays one of his partners. Another real-life Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson, is seen as one of the officers who give Frank a station house beating in an attempt to shake him down.

Farina, Santucci and Levine would go on to star – and Adamson write and produce – Mann’s TV series CRIME STORY in 1986, a period piece set in Chicago in the early -60s that eventually migrated – as did the Chicago Outfit itself – to Las Vegas (in the series, Levine played a career criminal named “Frank Holman,” perhaps an homage to the author of THE HOME INVADERS). Other THIEF actors, such as Tom Signorelli and Nick Nickeas, eventually appeared in other Mann projects, including his breakthrough show, MIAMI VICE. Prosky, here alternately avuncular and terrifying (he smoothes the way for Frank and Jessie to adopt a baby, then threatens to kill all three of them), went on to a long career in film and TV.

Mann would revisit the world of professional thieves in his 1995 film HEAT, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, based on a 1989 TV movie he’d written and directed called L.A. TAKEDOWN. One thing all three films have in common is a long dialogue scene set in a coffee shop, in which the characters explain their philosophies, what’s important to them, and how far they’ll go to protect it.

Of the three, THIEF’s version is far and away the best, as Frank tells Jessie about his wasted prison years, and his hopes for the new life he plans to build piece by piece. She’s intrigued, and a little freaked out, but she’s had a rough time with men up until now, and though Frank is no prince himself, she’s ultimately won over by
his sincerity. He tells her about his first year in Joliet Prison, after being convicted on a $40 theft charge, and how he survived the abuse of guards and cons alike – though fighting back cost him another eight years behind bars. Caan and Weld are in top form here, and he brings it all home by giving us a glimpse of a “state-raised” kid who caught one bad break after another. It might be his finest moment on screen.

Unlike Caan’s character, the real Frank Hohimer eventually turned and became a government witness in 1974, after being prosecuted by a federal organized crime strike force in Chicago. He was being groomed by the Justice Department to testify against Rugendorf, who died before he could go to trial. His later years found Hohimer in and out of prison on a variety of charges. He died in 2003.

In retrospect, THIEF may or may not, as its director contends, be a film noir. But there’s no question it’s one of the most vivid cinematic renderings ever of the criminal life – and one of the best films of the decade.

1 comment:

Joseph F. Alexandre said...

Thanks for this well written piece on an under looked classic! I'd also maintain Thief fits into the confines of a Gangster picture, actually to date, the best film about the workings of the Chicago 'Outfit'. The character Leo, as Mann has stated, was not only modeled on Rugendorf but also Wiseguy 'Milwaukee' Phil Alderesio. In addition, Santucci and most of the high line Thiefs' Mann based his film on, aside from the book as you mention, were all from the Italian 'Outfit' neighborhood known as The Patch.

In many ways, though not on first look, Thief is a great companion piece to Sydney Lumet's 'Prince of the City' which also came out in 1981. Much like Caan's Frank, Treat William's Danny Ciello (based on NYC detective Robert Leucci) is trying the fight the corrupt system that makes the 'rules' by which the 'game' of organized crime is played. As the Chicago PD says repeatedly, in the form of Sgt. Urizzi to Frank, "Don't you know you gotta come up? Your part goes with the territory!" Or when Chuck Adamson's character says, "Do I have to ask you to dance, or what?" "What's with this guy?" Even judges are in on the fun, through intricate hand signals Frank's attorney is able to negotiate his mentor's release from Prison for 6 'dimes'...

In the case of Prince of the City, Ciello's one of those crooked cops taking drug money, but tired of cops just the focus of IA, he wants to take down crooked judges and attorneys like Joel Blomberg. But, like Frank, despite his attempts to go against the 'way things are done' Ciello realizes all too late even if he wins, he still loses as the last scene of POTC makes all too clear. As a matter of fact, one character in POTC, a relative of Ciello's who's a member of the Columbo family says to him, "Danny, if they caught you doing something don't you know you can come to us?" The clear implication is that the Wiseguys have more control over the NYPD than the City Officials. The themes in both films, and Mann's work in general, is that the Criminal Crews and the Cops who chase them are two sides of the same coin. Anyhow, great film, thanks for the reminder.