Thief (film)

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Thief 1981.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Mann
Written byMichael Mann
Based onThe Home Invaders
by Frank Hohimer
Produced by
CinematographyDonald E. Thorin
Edited byDov Hoenig
Music byTangerine Dream
Mann/Caan Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • March 27, 1981 (1981-03-27)
Running time
123 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$5.5 million[2]
Box office$11.5 million[3]

Thief is a 1981 American neo-noir[4][5] crime thriller film[6] written and directed by Michael Mann in his feature film debut. It stars James Caan in the title role, a professional safecracker trying to escape his life of crime, and Tuesday Weld as his wife. The supporting cast includes James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina, and Willie Nelson. The screenplay is inspired by the book The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, a memoir by former cat burglar Frank Hohimer.[7] The original musical score was composed and performed by Tangerine Dream.

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and James Caan's brother Ronnie, Thief was screened at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d'Or. It was released in the United States on March 27, 1981, to widespread critical acclaim.[8]


Frank is a jewel thief and ex-convict who has a set structure to his life. With a pair of successful Chicago businesses (a bar and a car dealership) as fronts for his criminal enterprise, Frank sets out to fulfill the missing part of his life vision: a family with Jessie, a cashier he has begun dating.

After taking down a major diamond score, Frank gives the diamonds to his fence, Joe Gags. However, before Frank can collect his share, Gags is murdered for skimming from the mob's collection money. Barry, Frank's friend and associate making the pick-up, discovers that a plating company executive Gags was working for, Attaglia, is responsible for Gags' murder and stealing Frank's payoff. In a confrontation at Attaglia's plating company, Frank demands his money back.

This leads to a meeting with Attaglia's employer Leo, a high-level fence and Chicago Outfit boss. Unknown to Frank, Leo has been receiving Frank's goods from Gags for some time. Leo admires Frank's eye for quality stolen goods and professionalism, and wants him working directly for him, offering Frank large profits. Their meeting is monitored from a distance by police surveillance.

Frank is initially reluctant, not wanting the added exposure or complications, but later that night, a conversation with Jessie changes his mind when she agrees to be part of his life, after he relates a tale of prison survival via a toughened mental attitude. Frank now agrees to do just one big score for Leo, telling Barry that this will be their last job. After being rejected at the state adoption agency, with Leo's help Frank is able to acquire a baby boy on the black market, whom he names David after his late mentor, nicknamed Okla.

After resisting a shakedown from a group of corrupt police detectives, and then subsequently ditching their surveillance, Frank and his crew are involved in a large-scale diamond heist organized by Leo. All goes well with Frank's "burn job" and he is expecting the agreed-upon sum of $830,000 for the unmounted stones with a wholesale value $4 million. But when Frank returns from the job, Leo gives him less than $100,000. This is all that Frank will receive in cash according to Leo, who says he invested the rest of Frank's cut in shopping centers in Fort Worth, Texas and Dallas, Texas, an idea Frank had previously rejected. In addition, Leo sets up a Palm Beach score for Frank in six weeks without consulting him. Frank tells Leo that their deal is over and takes the cash as he leaves, demanding the rest of his money in 24 hours.

Frank drives to his car lot, unaware that Leo's henchmen have already beaten and captured Barry and are waiting to ambush him. Frank is knocked out and Barry is killed by the enforcers. Frank awakens with Leo staring down at him, surrounded by his henchmen. Leo informs him that he, Jessie, their child, and everything he owns are Leo's property. He threatens Frank's family if he does not continue working for him. Leo warns Frank to focus on his responsibilities. When Frank returns home, he orders an uncomprehending Jessie out of their house, telling her their marriage is over, that she must immediately leave, and that he will not be joining her. Frank instructs an associate to drive her, the baby, and $410,000 in cash to somewhere where they cannot be located.

With nothing to lose, Frank blows up their home using high-explosive charges. He then drives to his business establishments and does likewise. Armed with a pistol, he quietly breaks into Leo's house in a peaceful neighborhood and pistol whips Attaglia in the kitchen. Frank hunts for Leo, killing him in the living room. Frank then pursues Attaglia as he tries to escape from the house, but is confronted in the front yard by Leo’s bodyguards. In the ensuing gunfight, Frank is shot, but manages to kill the trio. Frank loosens what appears to be a bulletproof vest he was wearing beneath his jacket, and walks away into the night.




Thief marked the feature film debut of Michael Mann as director, screenwriter and executive producer, after five years in television drama.

Mann made his directorial debut with the TV film The Jericho Mile. This was partly shot in Folsom Prison. Mann says that influenced the writing of Thief:

It probably informed my ability to imagine what Frank's life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him.. The idea of creating his character, was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it. Everything that's normal development, that we experience, he was excluded from, by design. In the design of the character and the engineering of the character, that was the idea.[9]



Mann made James Caan do research as a thief for his role, and said:

I always find it interesting, people who are aware, alert, conscious of what they do and are pretty good at it… People who want to put in 50-60 hours a week and go home and are not really conscious of life moving by, don't really interest me very much... As part of the curriculum designed for an actor getting into character, I try to imagine what's going to really help bring this actor more fully into character. And so I try to imagine what experiences are going to make more dimensional his intake of Frank, so that he is Frank spontaneously when I'm shooting. So one of the most obvious things is it'd be pretty good if [James Caan] was as good at doing what Frank does as is Frank.[9]

The character Leo was patterned after Chicago Outfit bosses Felix Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf.[10]


Thief marks the first film appearance of actors Dennis Farina, William Petersen, James Belushi and Robert Prosky. At the time a Chicago police officer, Farina appears as a mob henchman. Conversely, John Santucci (real name: John Schiavone[11]), who plays the role of corrupt cop Urizzi, was a recently paroled thief on whom the character Frank was partly based, and acted as a technical adviser on the film.[11][12] Another actor in the film, W.R. ‘Bill’ Brown, was also a former safecracker and associated of Joseph Scalise.[12] Chuck Adamson (Detective Ancell) and Nick Nickeas (Nick)[13] were also Chicago police officers, while Gavin MacFadyen, who plays Detective Boresko, was a journalist who later served as adviser to Mann’s 1999 film The Insider.[14]

In 1986, Farina and Santucci both were cast in Mann and Adamson's TV series Crime Story, Farina as a Chicago police lieutenant and Santucci as a jewel thief. Petersen, who later would star (along with Farina) in the Mann film Manhunter, appears briefly as a barman at a club. The influential Chicago improv teacher Del Close has a brief appearance as a mechanic, in a scene that was improvised with the other mechanic actors.[15]


Museum Campus park in Chicago, one of filming locations used in Thief.

Thief was filmed on-location in Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan served as the film's producers.

Being Michael Mann's feature film directorial debut, Thief showcases many of the cinematic techniques that would later become his trademarks. Chief among these is the cinematography (by Donald E. Thorin), utilizing light and shadow to give the proceedings, especially those taking place in the darkness of night, a sense of danger. The film also earns plaudits for its meticulous attention to detail: the tools and techniques of the trade, right down to the oxy lance used to penetrate a safe, are authentic, the result of Mann's decision to hire real-life thieves to serve as technical advisers.

The still of Frank holding a gun on Attaglia as he attempts to recover his money in an early scene was used for one of the movie's posters.

Near the end of the film, Frank destroys his house. The film company built a false front onto a real house and attempted to destroy it with explosives. The explosions severely damaged the real house, however, leading to its demolition.

James Caan's emotional several-minute monologue with Weld in a coffee shop is often cited as the film's high point, and Caan has long considered the scene his favorite of his career.[16] The actor liked the movie although he found the part challenging to play. "I like to be emotionally available but this guy is available to nothing."[17]


Mann has gained a reputation as a director who uses cutting-edge music for his films.

Thief's moody soundscapes were composed and performed by Tangerine Dream, and was their second of many notable film scores composed by the group throughout the 1980s. The film was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Musical Score,[18] but that didn't deter Mann from choosing them a second time to compose the music for his next feature film, the ill-fated 1983 WWII fantasy horror The Keep.

He originally intended to score the music with Chicago blues music. He said, "However, I felt that what the film was saying, thematically, and the facility with which the film might be able to have resonance with audience. I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank's experience specific only to Frank. So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream."[9] He utilizes jazz/blues in one scene when Frank races to meet Jessie after the offer from Leo, transitioning from the meetup, all the way to the jazz club.

Additional music cues were composed by Craig Safan.


Under the working title Violent Streets, the film debuted at the 34th Cannes Film Festival.[19] It went on to open in theaters in the United States on March 27, 1981, earning a modest $4.3 million. While not a financial success in its initial release, the film has become a reference point in Mann's career, especially with the release of his crime epic, Heat, with which this movie has many similarities.

Critical response[edit]

The movie received widespread critical acclaim. It holds a 79% rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 80 reviews, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The consensus states: "Thief's enigmatic conclusion will rob some audiences of satisfaction, but it's an authentic and sleekly rendered neo-noir, powered by a swaggering James Caan at the peak of his charisma."[8]

Roger Ebert described Thief as "one of the most intelligent thrillers I've seen" and gave the film 3½ out of 4 stars, writing that the film's only major flaw was a failure to develop the subplot featuring Willie Nelson's character more fully: "Willie has played the character so well that we wanted more."[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Staff (December 31, 1980). "Review: Thief". Variety. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  2. ^ Siskel, Gene. (May 11, 1980). "Movies: James Caan: Frustrated star talks tough about his career Tough talk from a frustrated star". Chicago Tribune. p. d2.
  3. ^ "Thief". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  4. ^ "Thief (1981)". FilmAffinity.
  5. ^ Gadre, Soham (July 29, 2021). "Colorful and Sinister: The Neo-Noir Stylings of Michael Mann's 'Thief' and 'Manhunter'". Film Daze. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  6. ^ a b "THIEF (1981)". AFI Catalog. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  7. ^ "Home Invaders Casebook - The True Crime Database Home Invaders". The True Crime Database. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  8. ^ a b "Thief - Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c Jagernauth, Kevin (February 6, 2014). "Interview: Michael Mann Talks Making 'Thief,' The Importance Of Authenticity & What's Coming In His Next Film". Indiewire.
  10. ^ Ebiri, Bilge; York, a film critic for New; Vulture. "Michael Mann Looks Back on His Career, Talks Innovation, Dialogue, and Diversity". Vulture. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  11. ^ a b "CAUGHT WITH HEIST TOOLS, ACTOR HAS 1 LINE: `GUILTY'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  12. ^ a b Roffman, Michael (March 27, 2021). "Michael Mann's Thief: James Caan and James Belushi Return to Chicago 40 Years Later". Consequence. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  13. ^ "CPDP". Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  14. ^ Kennard, Matt (November 6, 2016). "Gavin MacFadyen obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved March 25, 2023.
  15. ^ Harris, Will (July 28, 2021). "When It Comes to Finding Del Close Stories, My Interviews Are Not a Wasteland". That Thing They Did.
  16. ^ James Caan, Thief DVD audio commentary
  17. ^ Chase, Chris (April 3, 1981). "At the Movies". New York Times. p. C6.
  18. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0.
  19. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Thief". Retrieved June 3, 2009.
  20. ^ Ebert, Roger (1981). Thief, accessed May 1, 2014

External links[edit]