HBOMax Deep-Dives: Thief

Thanks to WonderWoman 84, HBOMax has seen a dramatic rise in subscriptions. But once a viewer has seen DC’s latest offering, what else can they find on the app? Fortunately, HBOMax has a much greater selection of films and television programs than subscribers may realize. In this series of articles, Combat Republic will take a deep dive into the HBOMax film library and review some of the site’s more obscure selections.

Thief (1981)

Though he’s dabbled in historical epics (Last of the Mohicans), biopics (Ali), and horror films (The Keep), Michael Mann is a creature of crime noir. In the 1970s, Mann spent his career working as a television writer and director. By the early 80s, he looked to make his mark in feature films. Thief, starring box office giant James Caan, was Mann’s first theatrical release and largely set the tone for the type of film that would follow, like his masterpiece HEAT

Thief is the story of Frank, a successful jewel thief based in Chicago who works for himself and has very few ties. The film opens with Frank and his crew breaking into a state-of-the-art (for 1981) vault and removing hundreds of thousands of dollars in diamonds. Though the team gets away, one of Frank’s associates is later killed by a mob enforcer, costing Frank his cut. Rather than stew over the development, Frank walks into the mob’s business front and threatens to shoot the man who cost him his money. The action doesn’t get Frank in trouble with a mob boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). It impresses Leo, who likes Frank’s guts and talent as a thief. Leo wants Frank to work for him. Frank balks at the offer, but Leo sweetens the deal, offering to take care of Frank and help him with personal matters.

As smooth as Frank is on the job, he’s far less tactful in his personal life. Though he’s wealthy and owns both a bar and a car dealership, Frank has trouble connecting with people. He’s rough and edgy, even in situations where it’s unnecessary. Frank keeps a picture collage— what would be called a vision board today— in his wallet representing his goals in life. Frank decides to chase his dream of a normal life with one last job seeing Leo’s offer. He proposes to his girlfriend, Jesse (Tuesday), in a less than romantic way, but she agrees. They buy a beautiful house in the suburbs and try to adopt a child while planning his big retirement score, a heist in LA. 

Frank achieves most of his dreams very quickly. When he and Jesse are denied at the adoption board because of Frank’s ex-con status, he lashes out at the social worker. But Leo takes care of them, procuring a child on the black market who the couple name David after Frank’s late mentor (Willie Nelson).

However, the closer Frank gets to his dreams, the more he exposes his once secretive life. Now that Frank is connected to Leo, he’s become the Chicago Police target, who violently attacks him when he refuses to give Leo up. Frank moves forward because he sees the end coming. 

The theft in LA is a success, but when Frank tries to get his $800,000 payoff, Leo tells him that most of the money has already been invested in other places. Leo’s booked another job for Frank where maybe he can make the money back. Frank lashes out again, demanding his money and threatening his boss. Leo reminds Frank that everything he has is because of him. Leo promises to take it all away if Frank quits, including his family. A smart man would move forward, but Frank’s pride is more important as always. Frank walks, and Leo proves his point by gunning down Frank’s partner, Barry (Jim Belushi).

Seeing no other choice, Frank cuts his wife and child out of his life. He gives Jessie $100 grand to start a new life. She doesn’t understand, but Frank pushes her away rather than explaining the situation. As soon as Jessie leaves, Frank literally blows up their home. He then sets fire to both the bar and the dealership. Leo can’t take his life away because Frank will do it first. Frank tosses away the photo collage that represented his dream life as the dealership burns. Frank set fire to that life when he joined Leo.

Frank breaks into Leo’s home, gunning down the mob boss and his cronies. Beaten and bloody, Frank hobbles away from the chaos without a clue how to restart his worthless life.

Thief is a film that focuses on the life of its character. The big score is secondary to the plot. Frank is a typical Mann anti-hero. He’s not a likable person, but he’s so driven that he’s hard to look away from. Mann bathes the scenery in the neon lights that would become his calling card on Miami Vice and other neon-noir thrillers like Manhunter and Collateral. The script is sparse. There are long stretches without any dialogue. Mann lets the actions tell the story. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack helps set the film apart from other thrillers, and while it was reviled in its era, the music helps add to the film’s neo noir appeal.

The pace might be hard for modern viewers to digest, as the action doesn’t kick in until the last thirty minutes. However, there’s something nostalgic to watching a heist film that doesn’t involve computers or hacking. The hands-on grittiness gives the film a blue-collar feel. Everyone in this movie is a criminal. They’re not slick tricksters who try to outsmart each other. These are hard-ass dudes who will kill with their bare hands to get what they want.

The film’s subplot with Willie Nelson’s Okla character seems like a central plot point early in the movie but fades away after the character dies. The audience is supposed to see the connection when Frank names his son after him. However, the film isn’t interested in establishing a relationship between its lead character and his child. Frank himself isn’t interested in creating any real connections with anyone other than Jesse, who he throws away to protect her. 

Thief is a story about a hardened criminal who built walls around him so thick that he refuses to allow himself any human connections. While it lets him flourish in his job, ultimately, he’s trapped behind those walls in a prison of his own making.

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