“‘My money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labor.’
‘Why don’t you join a labor union?’
‘I’m wearing it.'”
It’s tempting to look at a director’s first film as a translation for the cipher of their career. There we can often see a director’s style in its rawest form, unrefined by time and experience. But like Athena, Michael Mann’s style emerged fully-grown from its creator’s forehead with Thief, his theatrical debut.
Here’s a potential corollary: Can we look at movies from early in a decade as blueprints for that time-frame’s cultural obsessions? Thief was released in 1981 – 35 years ago this week – at the opening of a decade popularly defined by the self-destructive opulence of peak American capitalism. By and large, the ’80s movies whose hooks stuck in the zeitgeist are about the brash, the rich, the loud, the powerful, the secretly sociopathic. People who get everything by doing nothing and caring about themselves – these are the decade’s idols. And yet here’s Thief, a film about a middle-class man whose mildly lavish lifestyle is the result of his hard work, practiced skill, and a desire for normalcy on his own terms. “I am Joe-the-boss-of-my-own-body,” Frank (James Caan, whose brow does more acting ) insists to Leo (Robert Prosky) during their first meeting. Frank resists the contradiction of ’80s individualism with ’80s corporate sublimation. His little vision board postcard may resemble “the American dream,” but it’s his dream first and foremost.
How does he achieve that dream? Work. Mann’s fixation on process, and with characters who are just as fixated on their own processes, shows up from the first frames of Thief. Mann shoots the opening heist methodically, all straight lines and balanced framing. The Mann of Thief is a formalist making films about formalists. His camera doesn’t exactly salivate over the details of Frank’s work – his approach is far too clinical for that descriptor – but he can’t help himself from getting as close as possible to it. One bravura shot zooms into the hole made by Frank’s drill, halting at the lock’s tumblers. (This foreshadows the camera zipping through wires and cables in last year’s Blackhat.) Montage is a dirty word for Mann; to edit around the process would be to disrespect the process. Halfway through the film, we watch as Frank and his crew cut their way into a massive safe using a hacked-together blowtorch. By which I mean, we watch it. Every second, until they’re through. Frank has to earn his dream, and Mann makes us earn it too.
What’s in the way of that dream? Systems. Twice in the film, Frank confronts people who have his money in their pockets. In the first case, it’s literal – his fence got pushed out a window with thousands of dollars of diamonds on his person. The second case comes later, and it’s the source of the quote at the top of this article. Leo is holding the product of Frank’s hard work. He thinks he can get away with it because Frank has no systemic recourse. What’s he supposed to do? Call a cop? Leo works as the head of his own system, and it blinds him to the capabilities afforded by Frank’s individualism. That Frank can walk into his house with a gun is surprising enough to him. Frank coming back with the intent to use that gun is even less expected. Furthermore, Leo can’t understand what Frank has against him. He’s given Frank so much, even the child that Frank and his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) couldn’t have on their own. He thinks he’s paid Frank in generosity, in friendship. He, the patriarch, has provided, and he takes it for granted that Frank will play the part of the grateful underling.
Frank doesn’t work in systems, and he never works in a submissive position. Most movies would have this attitude be part and parcel of the masculine platonic ideal. Never smile, never settle, never submit. This is the mold that Frank initially appears to have come from. Then we get the famous diner scene, and Mann flips the entire archetype on its head. After dragging Jessie to the diner despite her protests (his greatest show of traditional masculinity thus far), Jessie starts talking about her past. She mentions an old boyfriend in Columbia, and her time with him working in the drug trade, and what happened after the relationship ended. Frank shows anger at her ex-boyfriend for putting her in that situation and concern about the things that could have happened to her. “Things did happen,” she replies. Things happened because she was alone in a foreign country, out on the streets with no money, no clothes, no place to stay. “Things did happen.” It’s clear that she’s talking about rape. She doesn’t need to say it. As these things go, Thief handles Jessie’s past with extraordinary sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
At this revelation, Frank starts talking about his time in prison. He talks about achieving a mental and emotional fortitude which allowed him to survive. Specifically, he talks about a nasty inmate whose crew would grab new prisoners to be gang-raped. He tells a story about the night that it was his turn. He says that he fought back violently, viciously. “Then they jumped all over me,” he says, “and did a lot of things.” Frank, who up to this point has been presented as a tough guy stereotype, is talking about being raped in prison. For the first time, but hardly the last, Mann is examining masculinity as a glass cannon: as powerful as it is fragile. Frank isn’t less tough because of what happened to him, but his toughness only exists as a shield against the rest of the world. He says as much at the end of the monologue. He survived in prison because he learned not to care about himself or anyone else. He learned to be the emotionally detached male stereotype that’s always been valorized by American society, and he did so as a defense mechanism. In this way, Frank is the inverse of the ’80s protagonist. He doesn’t act the way he does to dominate others, he does so to avoid being dominated. He rejects the intertwined societal blueprints of patriarchy and corporation. He won’t be a cog in a machine. He’d rather drill straight through.