Michael Mann’s debut feature, the lean, neon-soaked noir thriller Thief, feels like the work of a seasoned pro. It’s efficient but rich in detail at the same time. Mann douses his Chicago streets with water and gives us the feeling that his characters are cut off from the world.
Thief also lays out a mission statement for Mann’s robust career in the world of cops and robbers, and for the characters to which he would so often return, broken men on one side of the law or another, barely hanging on and looking to a woman for salvation.
Whether it’s Will Graham in Manhunter, Crockett and/or Tubbs, or Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley playing opposite sides of the law in Heat, all of these conflicted men owe some bit of their existense to Frank, the safe cracking ace at the center of Mann’s 1981 classic. Frank is ready to leave his job behind, and he wants to start a life with Jessie, played with a charming intensity by Tuesday Weld.
As the second act begins, Frank and Jessie have coffee and discuss life and love, after Frank drags her away from her late-night scene, berating her choices all the way to the booth. It’s a moment of intimate power tucked in the middle of a taut thriller, and it lays the foundation for Mann’s men:
Frank bares his soul to Jessie. He is a crook and a con, and he knows it’s the juice that keeps him coming back for more, but now he’s looking across the booth at Jessie, and he sees salvation. He doesn’t care that Jessie can’t have children, he just wants her, now, for as long as he can hold onto her. Everything else can be figured out later.
It’s a moment of clarity for Frank, and Mann captures it in great detail while the cold, rain-soaked streets of Chicago diffuse into dots of street lamps and neon behind them. For a moment amid their chaotic lives, they are alone, and Frank is sharing more of himself to Jessie than he’d ever done in bed.
The men at the center of Michael Mann’s crime films are driven by the job, they are proud and they run in a tight group. And then a woman comes along, and Mann’s men see a way out of the only life they know. It is an awakening to the possibility of stability and love, concepts as familiar to most of us as they are undoubtedly romanticized and foreign to thieves, killers, and cops. It’s a world of masculinity Mann has been deconstructing for nearly four decades, never able to find a peaceful resolution.
And it all began here, in this small Chicago diner, in a scene I love.