The Quarantine Stream: 'Thief' Is Michael Mann's Stylish Feature Directorial Debut

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The Movie: ThiefWhere You Can Stream It: HBO MaxThe Pitch: James Caan plays a jewel thief who's trying to get out of the game. But when he gets entangled in the web of a Chicago gangster, extricating himself from the world of crime proves more difficult than he anticipated.Why It's Essential Viewing: If you're a fan of Michael Mann movies like Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice, Thief is essential because it's the foundation on which all those other projects are built. To quote a term from the Black Check podcast, it's Mann's Rosetta Stone movie: the one which announces his intentions as a filmmaker and reveals pretty much everything you need to know about his style and interests. (Plus, the fantastic score by Tangerine Dream lives up to the hype.)

Caan is excellent as Frank, a thief who refuses to take shit from anyone. He's physically imposing even at 5'9”, but it's his attitude, one that puts professionalism first but can turn on a dime if he's crossed, that makes him scary. His courtship with his girlfriend (Tuesday Weld) is not what I'd call "ideal," but it's clear he wants to put his heisting days in the rearview mirror in favor of becoming a family man. A key scene between them at a diner (pictured) contains an early example of what would become one of the defining sentiments in 1995's Heat: when it comes down to it, survival is the top priority – and for that to be the case, one needs the ability to not care about anything or anyone.

Many safe cracking scenes in movies involve either quietly listening as the dial clicks through the numbers, or stealing the whole safe so the thieves can break into it later. But the heist sequences here are unlike any other that I've seen: they feel realistic and physically difficult instead of just being some cool thing one could do in two minutes if you slip into a back room at a crowded party. The big one in this movie, which involves burning straight through a steel vault, is fiery, sweaty, and tactile, and since Mann used actual thieves as technical advisors, there's a sense of authenticity that you rarely find elsewhere.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

One of the most novel things about this movie to me is what happens near the end. After Frank's pal (Jim Belushi) is murdered by the mob, and the mob boss (Robert Prosky) threatens Frank's family if Frank doesn't continue to work for him, Frank does something I can't recall another movie character doing in quite this same way: he starts burning his own life to the ground. He literally walks into the two businesses he owns – a bar and a car dealership – and blows them up, and he sets off a bomb at his own house for good measure. Typically in thrillers like this, villains hold power over the protagonist with the threat of destroying what he cares about. But after Frank convinces his girlfriend to leave town, he decides to blow up all of his own stuff and takes that move off the chess board for his opponents. It's the type of flex that only works if you know you're either going to die in a big gun battle at the bad guy's house, or you're going to wander off into a whole new life after barely surviving. And luckily, Frank is a pretty good shot.