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Thief (1981)

I know it’s late. It’s late in the month; it’s late in the evening and it’s time to tune into this month’s Retro Movie, Michael Mann’s THIEF 1981. 

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Sam Haine is simply a writer born on the East Coast who enjoys cooking. He is the contributor of the monthly Retro Movie Review and the recurring ‘Remember This…’

email: sam.haine@newretrowave.com

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James Caan” Thief Movie Poster (1981)

I know it’s late. It’s late in the month; it’s late in the evening and it’s time to tune into this month’s Retro Movie, Michael Mann’s THIEF 1981. 

            Michael Mann’s directorial debut (also screenwriter, producer) about a career criminal, thief, safe cracker, set on the streets of Chicago. 

            Frank (the thief) played by James Caan, in one of his best performances, lives life one score at a time. To the everyday world he’s just a used car salesman. He is single with no real companionship other than his accomplice played by James Belushi. He takes jobs when the money looks right. He cracks safes, bi-passes security and figures out the angles of entry for the big payoff. 

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           Frank is the hopeless dreamer you often find at the center of some neo-noirs. Ever since being released from prison his only goal is to never go back and by any means necessary fulfill some kind of stability. He keeps a makeshift collage of pictures in his wallet to remind himself of the things he wishes to have. Things that most of us take for granted, like a home, a family, a new beginning. 

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            James Caan has stated in some interviews that this is one of his favorite roles and the most difficult – “I like to be emotionally available but this guy is available to nothing.” 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. 

            The film is also the film debut of former Chicago Police Officer and late actor Dennis Farina. Farina who later starred in 1986’s Manhunter and Mann’s short-lived TV series Crime Story, plays a henchmen to Robert Prosky’s  Leo chara

cter. Robert Prosky, who auditioned numerous times, delivers a cold-blooded portrayal of a hardened crime boss with the keys to the kingdom for a price. William Petersen makes a brief appearance as a night club bouncer. 

            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. 

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            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). As Hohimer, Seybold served as the technical advisor on the film’s Chicago set, with FBI warrants outstanding. 

            The films score was composed by Tangerine Dream and is the first of a long string of classic film scores from the group including Sorcerer, Risky Business, The Keep, Firestarter, Near Dark and Legend. 

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            The film is a must have for any fan of the neo-noir or crime film genre. The lighting and use of shadows and music would later be signature traits of Michael Mann’s future films. This is a must watch. A must watch. 

            Normally I’d put a trigger warning or some type of disclaimer here reminding you that you are watching a great film from a time when films were great expressions of collaborative art. There will be harsh language in this film and depictions of violence because; it’s a film about criminals and what professional criminals actually do. 

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            Now take off your shoes and relax your feet and recline back into your lazy-chairs with the mug of hot milk that reads “Best Mom Ever” and press play. This month’s Retro Movie is THIEF(1981) directed by Michael Mann and starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi and Robert Prosky. Stay sharp, looks smart, keep it cool and always keep your finger on that Rewind Button. 


A misanthropic fiction writer and pop culture killer, originally from NYC as well loiterer of the Philadelphia area. The author of a handful of spoken word albums. Member of the Jade Palace Guard; a collective of underground lo-fi artists. Creator and author of HAINESVILLE. Currently residing in Tucson, AZ.

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