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
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.