Thief (film)

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For other films by this name, see Thief (disambiguation).
Thief 1981.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Mann
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Ronnie Caan
Screenplay by Michael Mann
Story by Michael Mann
Based on The Home Invaders by
Frank Hohimer
Starring James Caan
Tuesday Weld
Robert Prosky
Willie Nelson
Music by Tangerine Dream
Cinematography Donald Thorin
Edited by Dov Hoenig
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • March 27, 1981 (1981-03-27)
Running time
122 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5.5 million[1]
Box office $11,492,915[2]

Thief is a 1981 American neo-noir film written and directed by Michael Mann. The film is based on the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by "Frank Hohimer" (the pen name of real-life jewel thief John Seybold).

The film stars James Caan as the titular thief and Tuesday Weld as his girlfriend.


Frank (James Caan) is a highly experienced jewel thief and hardened 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 lucrative criminal enterprise, Frank sets out to fulfill the missing part of his life vision: a family beginning with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a cashier he has begun dating.

After taking down a major diamond score, Frank gives the diamonds to his fence, Joe Gags (Hal Frank). However, before Frank can collect his $185,000 share of the score, Gags is murdered by being pushed out of a 12th-story window for skimming off mob collection money. Barry (James Belushi), Frank's friend and associate making the pick-up, discovers that a shady plating company executive Gags was working for, Mr. Attaglia (Tom Signorelli), is responsible for Gags' murder and stealing Frank's payoff. In a tense confrontation at Attaglia's plating company, Frank demands his money back.

This leads to a face-to-face meeting with Attaglia's employer, Leo (Robert Prosky), a high-level fence and Chicago Outfit boss. Unknown to Frank, Leo has been downing Frank's "merch" from Gags for some time. He admires Frank's eye for quality fenced goods and professionalism, and wants him taking down contract scores all over the country working directly for him, offering Frank large profits. "I'll make you a millionaire in four months," Leo states at their jargon-filled meeting, which is monitored from a distance by police surveillance – as well as a hidden Barry armed with a rifle, in case the meeting goes bad.

At first, Frank is reluctant to consider Leo's offer, not wanting to "deal with egos" or the added exposure. But later that night at a coffee shop, an emotional bonding with Jessie changes the game when she agrees to be part of his life after he relates a harrowing tale of prison survival by way of a toughened mental attitude. To hasten his plans, Frank now agrees to do just one big score for Leo, telling Barry that this will be their last job. With a little help from the paternal Leo after being rejected at the state adoption agency, Frank is even able to acquire a baby on the black market, a son he names David after his recently deceased mentor and closest friend from prison, nicknamed Okland (Willie Nelson).

Things start heating up on account of Frank's new association with Leo. After resisting a shakedown from a group of corrupt police detectives, then subsequently ditching their surveillance, Frank and his crew are soon involved in a large-scale West Coast diamond heist organized by Leo. All goes well with Frank's "burn job" and he is expecting the agreed-upon sum of $830,000 on $4 million wholesale of unmounted stones. But when Frank returns from the job, Leo tosses him an envelope containing less than $100,000, the "cash part" according to Leo, who says he has invested the rest of Frank's cut in shopping centers, an idea Frank had flatly rejected. In addition, Leo sets up a Palm Beach score for Frank in six weeks without consulting him. An irate Frank bluntly tells Leo that their deal is over, takes the envelope of cash as he leaves and demands the rest of his money in 24 hours or " will wear your ass for a hat."

Frank drives to his car lot unaware that Leo's henchmen have already beaten and captured Barry, and are waiting in ambush for him. In the set-up, Frank is knocked out with the butt of a carbine and Barry is killed by several shotgun blasts from Carl (Dennis Farina), one of Leo's main enforcers. Frank awakens with Leo staring down at him, surrounded by his henchmen. Leo coldly informs him that he, Jessie, their child, and everything he owns are Leo's property. He threatens to prostitute Jessie and "...whack out your whole family" if Frank does not continue working for him. Leo warns Frank to "tighten up" and focus on his responsibilities; meanwhile, his henchmen dispose of Barry's body, dumping it into a plating tank.

Frank goes home to contemplate his next move, gradually sinking into a hardened apathy akin to his prison days. He coldly orders an uncomprehending Jessie out of their house, telling her their marriage is over. He instructs an associate to drive her, the baby and $410,000 in cash somewhere where they cannot be found, informing Jessie more money will be coming at regular intervals, but that he will not be joining her.

With nothing to lose, Frank blows up their home in a fiery nighttime blast using high-explosive charges. He then drives to his business establishments and does the same, destroying his bar in a violent explosion then setting fire to his car lot. 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, who is hiding, armed with a .357 Magnum revolver. Leo is inevitably located and gunned down. Frank then pursues Attaglia as he tries to escape from the house, but is promptly confronted in the front yard by Carl and another henchman. In the ensuing gunfight, Frank is shot, but manages to kill the trio. Frank loosens what appears to be a ballistic 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 movie 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.[3]

Mann made James Caan do research as a thief for his role.

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.[3]

Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan served as the film's producers.

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.[4] 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."[5]

Being Michael Mann's feature film directorial debut, Thief showcases many of the cinematic techniques that would be his trademarks in the years to come. Chief among these is the cinematography, 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.

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 henchman. Conversely, John Santucci, who plays the role of corrupt cop Urizzi, was a recently paroled thief and acted as a technical adviser on Thief. In 1986, Farina and Santucci both were cast in Michael Mann'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 bouncer at a club.

Michael Mann originally intended to score the music with Chicago Blues. 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.”[3]

Originally titled Violent Streets, the film debuted at the 34th Cannes Film Festival.[6] 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.

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.


Mann has gained a reputation as a director on the cutting-edge when it comes to the music for his films. Thief's moody soundscapes were composed and performed by Tangerine Dream, providing the first of many notable film compositions they had in the 1980s. The film was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Musical Score.[7]


The movie received widespread critical acclaim. It holds a 96% rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 26 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. Roger Ebert described Thief as "one of the most intelligent thrillers I've seen" and gave the film 3.5 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."[8]


  1. ^ Movies: James Caan: Frustrated star talks tough about his career Tough talk from a frustrated star Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune (1963–Current file) [Chicago, Ill] May 11, 1980: d2.
  2. ^ Box Office Mojo – Thief
  3. ^ a b c Jagernauth, Kevin (6 February 2014). "Interview: Michael Mann Talks Making 'Thief,' The Importance Of Authenticity & What's Coming In His Next Film". Indiewire. 
  4. ^ James Caan, Thief DVD audio commentary
  5. ^ At the Movies Chase, Chris. New York Times (1923–Current file) [New York, N.Y] April 3, 1981: C6.
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Thief". Retrieved 2009-06-03. 
  7. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (1981). Thief, accessed May 1, 2014

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