Thoughts on Thief

November 19, 2023

Last week, I got to watch Thief on 35mm at The Prince Charles Cinema. I'd already seen it before, on my laptop, years ago, but I wanted to give it another look. It was a double bill with Heat, which is mostly why I went, but this screening really surprised me and made me see the film in a whole new way. I don't know why I hadn't held the film in as high a regard as I've held Mann's other films — maybe it's because those other films are grander and have bigger canvases, or maybe I was just not ready to appreciate Thief's many pleasures. I now think Thief is one of the best debut films from a director of all time.

One of the elements that really stood out to me in this watch is how Mann uses blue throughout the film. Once you notice it, it's everywhere. Frank often dresses in blues and he drives a blue car. He often wields a welding torch that lights a blue flame. Heck, Mann uses blue for the credits.

So what's with all the blue in the film? One explanation comes from Frank's scene with Okla when he visits his mentor in prison — Okla wears blue prison fatigues. Even though Frank is a free man, he's still in a prison of his own construction. What gives him his free lifestyle — theft — is also what keeps him trapped. Mann subconsciously suggests this throughout the film; he even links Okla's visiting area to the vault Frank cracks at the end of the film through their designs. These subtextual connections are eventually brought to the fore when Leo squeezes his hand around Frank's neck ("I own the paper on your whole fucking life!").

Mann wasn't done with the use of blue in his filmography after Thief. He returns to it time and time again. Watching Heat right after Thief brought blue back to the fore, specifically in one of Heat's (and one of Mann's) most iconic shots: Neil McCauley looking out at the ocean in his apartment.

Here again, we have a master thief with a moral code who desires freedom but is trapped by his work. He lives right by the ocean, where he could go anywhere, but he can't, at least not yet. You could say that this image in Heat collapses all the symbolism Mann draws out in Thief. We don't need an explanation of how McCauley feels, we get it. They're even thematically linked with the ocean, a location that recurs in several Mann films. In Thief, it's where Frank experiences the most happiness, surrounded by his friends and family, right after his landmark heist. In Manhunter, FBI investigator Will Graham's familial bliss is located right by the ocean in Florida. In Collateral, cabbie Max Durocher takes a vacation a dozen times a day by staring out at his photograph of the Maldives Islands; he wants to give prospective customers the same experience with his business Island Limos. I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones that stand out to me right now.

Mann's films are often highlighted for their style — their strong compositions, colors, and sounds. Watching Thief this time reminded me of how much of an emotional filmmaker he is as well. I completely forgot about Okla before this viewing of Thief, but the prison scene between Okla and Frank brims with emotion. Frank is high on his own supply when he shows his watch and ring to Okla, then he's concerned about how things might go with Jessie, then he expresses his gratitude at Okla's advice to him. Finally, Okla shares the news that he doesn't have long to live and needs to get out and Frank shares his anguish, entirely in his eyes.

Similarly, Frank and Jessie's scenes are always emotional. The diner scene is often discussed in relation to them, but even more minor scenes between them have an emotional core to them that gives the film real stakes, like when Frank and Jessie check out their new house or when they've received the news that they can't adopt a child because of Frank's background as an ex-con.

But any discussion of Thief is incomplete without making mention of its style. The bold compositions, the look of the light reflected on the rain-soaked streets of Chicago, the melding of Tangerine Dream's synthesizers with Donald Thorin's painterly frames. When Mann moved to digital as a way of further grounding himself in the reality of his stories in 2004, he consciously shifted from a 20th century to a 21st century look. While I do miss the look of Thief and Manhunter in his later films, the tradeoff allowed Mann to invest in further immersion as an audience. Instead of admiring his frames, we are now in them with the characters. I'm curious how this will be reflected in Ferrari, although I suppose I might get an inkling of what he might go for by watching Public Enemies.

Some more thoughts:

  • It's funny how Frank poses as a used car salesman in Thief. Mann brings it full circle in 2023 by telling the story of a man who made some of those cars in Ferrari. He started out telling stories of people on the lowest rungs of society, crooks, and eventually moved up to telling the stories of icons like Muhammad Ali and Enzo Ferrari.

  • I might do another piece on the long shadow that Thief casts. One example that comes to mind is Albert Brooks' character in Drive (2011) - he's essentially Robert Prosky's character in Thief transposed to Los Angeles. You don't need to fix something that isn't broken.

© Nikhil Venkatesa, 2023.

(I own everything on this site, everything!)