The American Action Auteur

By Isaac ButlerFebruary 5, 2016

The American Action Auteur

Cinema has to be more experimental, it has to transport people away, it has to provide them with a suspension of disbelief, a feeling they’ve been swept up into another reality they can’t get when they’re bigger than the image.

— Michael Mann

I am Joe the Boss of my own body.

— Frank, in Thief


THE CLIMAX OF THIEF, Michael Mann’s first feature film, is the kind of sequence it feels like only he can pull off. In it, expert safecracker Frank (James Caan) breaks into a vault to steal some diamonds for the mob. He’s been preparing for the job for much of the film’s second act — it’s the venerable last big score he needs to retire and finally get his personal life in order for good. He’s in the room; the alarms are hacked; it’s showtime.

We’re never in suspense, watching this scene. At no point do we worry that Frank will get caught. Frank doesn’t seem too worried either: just focused, determined, no-nonsense, something out of a Jules Dassin or Jean-Pierre Melville film. The thrill doesn’t come from narrative tension; it instead comes from what Mann is able to do with light, sound, and texture — the way he composes them all in a breathtaking dance. Breaking into the vault entails melting a hole in it with a thermal lance, a long metal rod pumping compressed oxygen, heated to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. One of his crew must stand beside the rod with a fire extinguisher, putting out the sparks of steel, aluminum, and titanium that fly off of it. Soon the frame is all fog, fireworks, and silhouettes — molten metal turned into lava floes. The scene is nearly wordless, aside from Frank declaring, early on, that his team “owns” the room. Just as the images reduce down to iconic flares of light and molten steel, the screenplay focuses on ownership, what ownership entails, and how you can own and be owned, one of the film’s dominant concerns.

The vault heist is a riot of sensation and style — an elongated stretch of heightened reality that approaches pure abstraction until the moment the door finally gives way — but the sequence is rooted in deep research and a sedulous approach to realism. The vault door is a real vault door. The thermal lance — complete with fire extinguisher — is the real way you’d crack it. Frank’s crew and their methods are drawn from real life thieves, at least one of whom is in the film. The attention to detail is remarkable, right down to the score, which is silent until the door falls apart, when, ever so faintly, a high synth string drone, tuned with the F-minor of the fire extinguisher, paves the way for a rhythmic figure of synth bells in E. At no point is style deployed for its own sake; we never feel the antic need to keep us entertained. Rather, Mann’s directorial hand is here as steady and single-minded as those of the thieves he’s capturing on film. Mann has won few awards, and many of his films have lost money, but the obsessive perfectionism of his vision, which will be fully on display in a month-long retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, has guaranteed his critical reputation.

Thief features at least one other sequence that is just as brilliant as its climax, even though there are no pyrotechnics and the camera work is naturalistic, steady, and minimal. Earlier in the film, we follow the first date between Frank and his eventual wife, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). The date is made up of three scenes. In the first, Frank enters two hours late for the date and demands that Jessie go somewhere with him so they can talk. She’s understandably furious with him and storms out, at which point he forces her into a car, threatens bystanders who try to interfere, and leaves.

The second scene, a bit longer, is in Frank’s car. Like a fuse burning down to its payload, Frank is scary, not just to Jessie, but to us. And then, something odd happens. Frank calms down for a moment, and says, “I am a straight arrow. I am a true blue kind of a guy. I am cool. I am now unmarried. So let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance!” It’s one of the few legitimately funny moments in Mann’s entire filmography (he doesn’t seem to like jokes very much), and as out-there as it is — Jessie asks him if he’s insane — Caan’s reading of the line brings a real humanity to it, a real warmth, that presages what comes next.

Soon we’re in a diner, and Frank and Jessie begin to circle the possibility of making a life together. The scene starts with Jessie referencing an earlier conversation that we didn’t hear about her late boyfriend — a drug smuggler that she took up with in South America — and moves to Frank explaining his time in prison. As with the safe cracking scene, everything is in the details: the way that Frank takes off his jacket when he’s pretty sure Jessie won’t leave, and the way that Jessie finally also takes off her coat, and you know that she loves him. It’s in the way that Weld and Caan smile at each other even as they fight, or the way that their fighting makes them sound like an old couple, or the way Frank asks for new cream for their coffee (“Why? Because it’s cottage cheese”). It’s in the way that we learn how tough Jessie is, not only because she’s a survivor, but because of the way she describes what she’s had to survive. “I was alone,” she says, “I had no money, no clothes, no visa standing on the corner of Bogotá and Columbia. Things did happen. Where were you in prison? Would pass the cream please?” It’s also in the way that Jessie makes clear that she is terrified of being abandoned again, a fear that will prompt Frank to finally open up about who he is, who he wants to be, and, through asking her to be with him, to promise to be that new man. It’s a promise that he’ll fail to keep, of course. Running throughout the scene, barely mentioned, is a decision that Frank is chewing on, a way to get to his new life faster, before his time runs out. That choice will both give him the life that he craves and turn it into a trap.


Michael Mann’s directorial style is so assured in Thief that it can be easy to forget that, when he made it, he was far better known within the industry as a writer. He wasn’t the premier auteur of American action cinema. He wasn’t the pioneer of digital video or the man who changed television with Miami Vice. He was a graduate of the London International Film School who had shot documentaries and commercials in Europe before moving back to the States, where he worked as a journeyman writer, doing an uncredited rewrite on the film Straight Time, and working on TV shows like Police Story and Starsky & Hutch. Mann’s first directorial effort was the TV movie The Jericho Mile, a film shot on location (and in 35mm) in Folsom Prison. It won him an Emmy for writing.

In interviews throughout his career, you can feel Mann trying to force the conversation back to his writing, back to meaning and away from the idea of himself as a “stylist.” He insists that, even at his most dazzling, each gesture and camera movement flows from character, theme, and research — from an effort to externalize psychological reality. What makes Thief so special isn’t just the beauty of its tracking shots, or that its editing rhythms are perfect, but that it announces Mann as one of the singular voices in American screenwriting, along with the major themes, gestures, and motifs that he will return to, and obsess over, throughout his career.

Thief introduces us to Mann’s fixation on stopwatches, water, love at first sight, prison, postcards where his protagonists store their dreams, tough guys, big scores, cars gliding at night, beginnings in medias res, and synthesizers. It also introduces the hallmarks of Mann’s writing: a heightened hardscrabble lyricism, often devoid of contractions and rooted equally in classic gangster cinema and real life vernacular; episodic plot structures made out of sequences that feel like the chapters of a novel; and storytelling through implication instead of exposition. Mann’s dialogue, which is generally as serious and sincere as it is stylized, can flirt with unintentional ridiculousness. When Vincent Canby, panning Thief in The New York Times, complained that the writing is filled with “juice[d] up” moments that “have nothing to do […] with clean-cut movie making,” he was launching a complaint that would follow Mann throughout his career. For those who love Mann’s films, lines like, “Kids are special, a miracle. A little hoochy-coo. A drop of energy. wham-bam magic Sam, there’s something sacred there,” are charming in their utter lack of taste.

With Thief, Mann works through what he has called “stylized realism,” marrying his love for German Expressionism and Alain Resnais to fastidious research and an exacting attention to detail. His research for Thief took many forms, some of which would have lasting effects on his career and work. The film is based on The Home Invaders, a jailhouse memoir from 1975, written by Frank Hohimer. Originally published by the then-fledgling Chicago Review Press, Hohimer’s book tells the improbable story of his life as a cat burglar, largely working for a mob-backed ring of thieves who would take down scores in people’s homes. Mann appears loath to give much credit to his source material. In the DVD commentary track to Thief, he speaks of throwing the book out after reading it, and, in a bit of dialogue that feels like an act of resentment, Frank explicitly refuses to do “cowboy shit,” including “home invasions.”

If it’s true that Mann threw out the source material, his memory is extraordinary. Thief contains characters, plot incidents, and scenes drawn verbatim from The Home Invaders, including two key sequences: one in which Frank gets an offer he shouldn’t refuse from a mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky), the other in which Frank purposefully insults an Italian cop by calling him Puerto Rican.

The Home Invaders resembles the hardboiled crime farces of Elmore Leonard. In it, Frank quickly establishes himself as one of the best and most discreet cat burglars in Chicago, creating several front businesses and false identities, and quietly raiding homes all over Illinois. Eventually, the mob comes calling in the form of a fence named Leo, and he gets in bed with them, traveling the country and stealing millions of dollars of merchandise as quietly as possible. The relationship turns sour, and, disillusioned with the mob, he tries to get out.

This is when the book turns comic. Presented with the retirement options of being murdered or going to jail for the rest of his life, Hohimer decides that a feasible and smart plan is to get enough heat on him that he can’t pull down scores, but not enough to actually take a pinch. It doesn’t work. After the mob — or, as he calls it, the outfit — tries to use corrupt cops to kill him, Hohimer winds up in jail, escapes thanks to a mixture of bribery and expert lock-picking, changes his name, flees to New England, where he opens an IHOP and eventually, at the behest of his wife, turns himself in. While in jail, he turns state’s evidence and sets about writing The Home Invaders, unsure of his future. “If I go tomorrow, that is the way the good Lord sees fit for me to go,” he writes, “If I am released tomorrow the government will never as long as I live take me off of parole. But that does not matter to me because I will never be back inside of a jail.”

While Mann didn’t quite throw out Hohimer’s memoir, he did make major changes to it, largely by blending it with his own interviews with criminals and cops, several of whom he cast in the film. Chuck Adamson, one of the film’s technical consultants, had not only arrested Hohimer in real life, but his tracking and killing of the real Neal MacCauley forms the basis of Mann’s masterpiece Heat (1995). Adamson eventually became a writer, co-creating Mann’s television show Crime Story. A second consultant, John Santucci, had a minor acting career and was eventually busted in a failed vending machine heist. Thief also introduces a Chicago cop named Dennis Farina, who would go on to be, well, Dennis goddamn Farina.

The biggest change that Mann made from The Home Invaders takes place in the soul of Frank, even as he often says the exact same things as his namesake in the book. It’s impossible to imagine Thief’s version of Frank writing about coming to peace with whatever the good Lord intends, because Frank is the first in a long line of Mann’s Romantic Outsiders — loners and misfits who chafe against the expectations that societies, institutions, and systems place on them. Like many of his compatriots in 1970s crime cinema, Frank lives by his own code, striving to be his own man. Mann’s films return obsessively to this idea. They ask whether being your own man is even possible, while probing the tension between a man’s — and it is always a man’s — desire for perfection and his ultimate humanity.

The Mannography explores this tension in one of two ways. Either the protagonist is self-secure, and the story of the film is his attempt to assert his unstoppable force on the unmovable object of the world. Or his self is in flux, he does not know who he is, and he is torn between being and Iceman and, well, a Schlimazel. This internal conflict is then pressurized by the external events of the film until it is resolved, generally in a clarifying act of violence. The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, Public Enemies, and Blackhat all belong to the first group, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Thief belong to the second.

As in Patricia Highsmith’s novels, the latter set of Mann’s films use the device of doubling to explore these selves in flux. In his later work, it will be the protagonist who is doubled, but in Thief, it’s Frank’s twin father figures, Okla and Leo, both of whom come from Hohimer’s book. Frank describes Okla — played by Willie Nelson at his most heartbreaking — as “a master thief, and a great man, he was like a father.” It’s Okla who counsels Frank to be honest, vulnerable, human with Jessie. And, we learn, it’s Okla that, “taught me everything about what I do.” Mann softens the Okla of The Home Invaders — omitting that he’s in jail for murdering his wife — making him into a pure mentor.

Leo, played with astounding paternal menace by Robert Prosky, is the mob’s bank for “half the fences” in Chicago. When he and Frank first meet, and Leo proposes their going into business together, he explicitly says, “I’d be your father,” not once, but twice. Leo, however, is a very different kind of father than Okla. He is motivated by selfishness, pure capital, a nearly Satanic figure in both the classical Jewish sense of the tempting angel, and in the Christian sense of heartless evil.

Thief charts Frank’s journey from Okla to Leo to himself. As Frank tells Jessie in the diner scene, in order to survive the brutality of a prison assault, he’s become a man who “don’t mean nothing to myself. I don’t care about me. I don’t care about nothing, you know? I know that from that day I survived, because I achieved that mental attitude.” He explains that on the inside you’re “on ice” unable even to “die right,” divorced from the cycle of career, children, death, legacy that makes life — particularly middle-class life — work.

The Iceman is tired of being on ice. He wants to be a Schlimazel, to quit, and to become a normal man with a wife, kid, and a house in the suburbs. Five minutes earlier in the film, Frank boasts (in another near-verbatim sequence from the book) of wearing $150 slacks, silk shirts, $800 suits, a gold watch and “a perfect D-flawless three-carat ring.” It’s the watch and the ring that Frank points to as a response when Okla asks him how he’s doing at the beginning of the film. Yet Frank is willing to part with the ring in a heartbeat if it will bribe a social worker into letting him, a felon, adopt a child.

Leo gives Frank everything he wants: a house in the suburbs, a score big enough to retire on, and even a child purchased from his mother like one of the used cars Frank sells. “You state your model,” Leo says. “Black, brown, yellow or white. Boy or girl.” It’s only then, when Frank realizes he could have a son, that he could finally fulfill the vision of his life that he’s been keeping on a postcard in his pocket, that he warms to Leo, that he allows Leo to touch him, to rub his head like they’re father and son, and to playfully tell him to get outta here.

Frank’s desperation to be normal catches him up in Leo’s web. We can see it coming — Frank can even see it coming — but love for Jessie has made hope possible, and hope has made self-deception possible. When the trap finally springs, and Leo invests Frank’s part of the score instead of giving it to him, Frank tries, and fails, to threaten his way out of the situation. As Leo puts it:

You treat what I try to do for you like shit? You don’t wanna work for me? What’s wrong with you? And then you carry a piece in my house. You one of those burned out, demolished wackos in the joint? You’re scary, ’cause you don’t give a fuck. But don’t come on to me now with your jailhouse bullshit because you are not that guy. Don’t you get it you prick? You got a home. Car. Businesses. Family. And I own the paper on your whole fucking life.

Leo’s the bank, you see. He told us this already. And as a bank, he’s made Frank’s middle-class life possible. He owns Frank, just as banks own our debt, and his ownership entitles him to demand what capitalism increasingly demands of us all: work until you’re broken, or else your wife and kid will end up on the street. The theme of work and labor exploitation comes up again and again in the screenplay, from Leo telling Frank to “join a union” if he’s upset at the terms of their deal, to Frank asking a corrupt cop, “Did it ever occur to you to try to work for a living?”

Frank refuses Leo’s terms of course. How could he not? Rather than work for the mob, he ends his marriage, burns down his businesses, throws away his postcard, and goes on a murderous rampage. He rages against the dying of the light, but he might as well be dead. As he staggers away at the end of the film, an instrumental paraphrase of “Comfortably Numb” blares over the soundtrack.

Thief doesn’t seem a particularly political film on its surface, but Mann’s focus on the iconoclastic individual throughout his filmography is more conflicted, and at times more political, than it might seem. In 1983, he gave an interview to Film Comment where he said, “Satan could almost be played by John Wayne. I mean the Reaganite, independent, individualist spirit. It’s all bullshit, but that’s the cultural myth that the appeal taps into.” He considered it a “home run” if his viewer left Thief doubting his control of his own destiny. Frank himself has bought into that John Wayne myth; it’s allowed him to survive, but it can’t give him a life worth living. Thief offers Frank a binary choice: be a miserable working stiff, or be profoundly alone, on ice, dead to the world. Schlimazel or Iceman: Mann offers two different forms of doom.


Isaac Butler is a writer and director. His latest major project, Real Enemies, premiered as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival in 2015. His writing has appeared in Slate, The Guardian, and American Theater, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Isaac Butler is a writer and director. His latest major project, Real Enemies, premiered as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival in 2015. His writing has appeared in Slate, The Guardian, and American Theater, among other publications.


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