I grew up with James Caan, in a manner of speaking; that is to say, I grew up with him the way we all did…while watching his films.
I don’t know much about his life other than he was born and reared in the Bronx and that he has a reputation of being a tough guy.
…And if my mother was alive, she’d be his age now, which is 80.
James Caan is one of many Hollywood tough guys–on screen and off. A tender heart and a threadbare vulnerability differentiated him and his characters, making it almost impossible to root against them and–existentially–him. And that made him a blue-collar superstar in the late 60’s to the early 80’s and fueled his resurgence in the 90’s.
James Caan is sexy. Women like him. Men like him.
In Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature film, Thief (1981), Caan’s “Frank” is a career criminal on top of his game. The only footsteps he hears behind him are from Father Time.
Frank, takes down big scores. He deals only in cash and diamonds that he procures with a skeleton crew of trusted professionals in elaborate, carefully orchestrated heists. He isn’t greedy. And he stays clear of the mob.
Frank lives very comfortably. And he lives alone.
He is nearing his forties. He wants a family and a normal life.
To that end he becomes acquainted with a pretty cashier/hostess in the cafe where he takes his meals. There is an attraction, a familiarity, though they do not know each other. Her name is Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and Frank pursues her immediately, with blatant determination so honest, so desperate that she agrees to be his soulmate on a whim.
Jessie too, has a criminal past that she has been keeping at a respectable distance. Frank assures her that he is one big heist away from being able to retire in style.
And style is very important to Frank. It is the one thing that slows the dogged pursuit of his own self doubt.
Jessie tells him she can’t have children. Frank shrugs it off. “We’ll adopt,” he says.
Michael Mann takes these familiar troupes of noir and runs with them in Thief, starting with his own screenplay that borrows from the memoir of jewel thief, John Allen Seybold’s Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar. Seybold served as a consultant to the film while he was being hunted by the FBI.
It is fun to watch Mann’s directorial signatures taking shape before anyone knew who he was. Signatures like wet streets with neon colors reflecting off them, elegant camera work capturing the frailty of life through the lens of grindhouse spectacle and intricate attention to the art of the heist and sporadic violence, all of it set to a pulsing, synthesized soundtrack.
Yet, for all that (and one of the greatest heist sequences in movie history in which the industrial arts inform the cinematic) Thief is essentially a tragic character study, wrapped in the trappings of a neo-noir. It is the story of a man who has spent his entire life on the outside looking in, a man who takes great pride in his work but can barely speak of it.
It is a story of a thief with principals shaped in foster homes and prison cells who will set his dreams ablaze for the sake of them–and for revenge.