From the opening moments of “Thief”—which features a clockwork heist sequence that would make “Rififi” director Jules Dassin stand up and applaud—it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. With some documentary work and TV movie “The Jericho Mile” already under his belt, for his debut feature film, Michael Mann’s command of atmosphere and character arrives fully formed, with “Thief” staking a high bar that the filmmaker would leap from in his films for years to come.
Last month, fans and newcomers alike got a chance to revisit Mann’s 1981 movie with The Criterion Collection’s release of “Thief.” Arriving both on DVD and Blu-ray, the film now boasts a brand new digital transfer that allows the neon signs of late night Chicago to pop against the velvet shimmer of the rain soaked streets. And after using the new release as a pleasant excuse to dive into a full retrospective of the filmmaker, we decided to reach out to Mann to chat specifically about “Thief,” and he graciously obliged. Our discussion with the director touched upon creating character, the importance of authenticity as well as some details about what he’s cooking next.
But one can’t really start talking about “Thief,” without at least considering it in the context of “The Jericho Mile.” The 1979 drama, set within the walls of Folsom Prison and shot on location, which tells the story of Rain Murphy, a lifer convicted for murder, surviving his time on the inside by keeping mostly to himself while focusing on one thing that keeps him literally moving: running. And in fact, he’s gotten so good, he could potentially qualify for the Olympic team. And in speaking with Mann, he revealed that “The Jericho Mile” helped him gain insight into the character of ex-con Frank in “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,” he explained. Indeed, Frank has spent much of his twenties in prison, and back on the streets of Chicago, he’s somewhat a man out of time, trying with desperate determination to make up for the years he’s lost, and build a respectable life for himself, with a house, wife and child.
“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,” Mann said. “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.”
However, in the absence of social growth, Frank has become the consummate professional in his job cracking safes. And he would be the first in a series of men in Mann’s films who are obsessively focused on their work, and getting the job done with an exacting perfection, defined by their own personal code of conduct. The result are characters that are utterly compelling, but do they also reflect the personal qualities of Mann himself, or are these details borne out of research?
“It's simpler than that,” Mann responded. “I always find it interesting, people who are aware, alert, conscious of what they do and are pretty good at it... Whether it's a boxer like Muhammad Ali or a construction worker or a burglar or a guy running research in a tobacco company or pharmaceuticals company, like Jeffrey Wigand. I find those kind of people interesting. 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.”
Indeed, many of Mann’s films feature intensely focused protagonists, and in “Thief,” achieving a certain level of realism in the preparation and production was key. James Caan has stated he actually learned to crack a safe for the role, and Mann encourages that level of understanding with his actors and their characters. “ 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,” he revealed. “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.”