Michael Mann’s ‘Thief’ (1981): Burn The System To The Ground

Released to widespread critical acclaim, ‘Thief’ laid the course for Michael Mann’s brilliant directorial career.


A quintessential Neon Noir, Thief is the story of a career criminal who just needs one last score. Based on The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer, Thief was written and directed by Michael Mann and produced by Hollywood legend Jerry Bruckheimer. The film was backed by United Artists studios and shot on location in Chicago for 5.5 million dollars.

Released internationally as “Violent Streets”, Thief debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palm d’Or. Following its full theatrical release in March 1981, the film earned 11.5 million and garnered positive reviews from audiences and critics. Retrospective critical assessments have framed Thief as an archetypal text in Mann’s broader cinematic corpus.

‘Thief’ (1981): Spoiler-Free Synopsis

James Caan stars as Frank: Chicago businessman by day, safe cracker by night. Frank is a brutal man, the product of a brutal childhood, a brutal penitentiary system, and the brutality of American capitalism.

Like every Mann protagonist, Frank is disciplined, methodical and ruthless. He’s developed a set of rules to keep himself safe and out of jail, rules from which he never deviates—unless a woman clouds his judgement.

James Caan as Frank.

Finally a success, what Frank really wants is a family. But his new girl has conditions: if she’s going to be his wife, she needs him to retire. Permanently.

Frank can’t go straight unless he puts away a pile of money. So when a mobster comes calling with an opportunity, he agrees to take the job. The diamond heist goes off so well, the mob wants Frank to keep working. In fact—they insist.

All Frank wanted was one last job, but the syndicate won’t let him go. It’s just like prison all over again: once you’re on the inside, it’s hard to get back out. Except Frank knows all about prison. He knows exactly what to do.

Frank’s not stuck with the mob.

The mob is stuck with him.

‘Thief’ (1981): Full Plot Summary

Perhaps fittingly, Thief opens with a robbery. We hear the police radio. We hear the rain. We see Frank in action with a small but capable crew, seasoned pros with every angle covered.

One man keeps watch outside, minding the airwaves. One takes care of the alarm. Frank works the the safe, cutting through the steel with an enormous hydraulic drill.

Once he cracks the safe, Frank rifles through its contents. Everything is up for grabs, but he only takes the diamonds. We are watching a disciplined man.

The next morning, Frank meets up with Joe Gags (Hal Frank), his usual fence. Frank pulls out the diamonds and Gags performs a quick appraisal right there in the diner. Frank’s cut comes in at $185,000.

Gags says his buyers want a face to face meeting with Frank, that they want to talk business, that there’s a lot of money to be made. But Frank declines the offer. On his way out the door, he stops to make dinner plans with a cashier named Jesse (Tuesday Weld).

Back at his used car lot, Frank opens a letter, addressed to him, from a state prison. For the first time, we glean that Frank is not just a thief, he’s also a convicted felon.


Later on, Frank stops by his bar. The bartender tells him he’s received an important call from Barry (Jim Belushi), his right hand man. Barry’s at a payphone outside Joe Gag’s apartment building. Gags has either jumped, or been thrown from his apartment window. Frank’s money is M.I.A.

Frank visits Gag’s buyer. Attaglia (Tom Signorelli) is an executive at a plating factory. When Frank barges into his office and demands the money, Attaglia pleads ignorance—until Frank pulls his gun. Under duress, Attaglia agrees to another meeting.

We cut to the visitor’s section of a prison. Frank meets with Okla (Willie Nelson), the friend who wrote him the letter. They catch up for a minute, then Okla cuts to the chase. He’s been diagnosed with a heart condition. He’s dying and he doesn’t want to die in prison. He needs Frank to get him out.

Frank (James Caan) visiting Okla (Willie Nelson)

After dark, Frank attends a meeting in a riverside parking lot. Frank gets paid, but not by Attaglia. The man at the meeting is a local mobster.

Leo (Robert Prosky) makes Frank an offer. A million dollars for four months work, pulling series of targeted heists. Frank is skeptical, but eventually accepts. He needs money to help Okla. He needs money to marry Jesse.

This scene also provides our first glimpse of the police: law enforcement has the mob under surveillance.

Frank meets Jesse for a drink. He’s two hours late. After an argument, they head to a nearby greasy spoon. We learn about Jesse’s past. She’s a widow. She’s had a difficult life. We learn a lot more about Frank too.

Consider this monologue, from Thief’s classic diner scene:

“Why? You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die. You gotta get to where nothin’ means nothin’. I’ll tell you a story all about it.

Once there was this Captain Morphis. This slob. He couldn’t write his name. And he had this crew of guards and cons. Prison groups, you know? Crews. They would go into these cells and grab these young guys and bring ’em up to Hydrotherapy, in the mental ward. Gangbang. If a guy puts up a struggle, they beat him up. He winds up in the funny farm, and…

…anyway, the word comes down that l am next. And l do not know what l am supposed to do. I, uh… I am scared. Eleven-thirty, twelve, the lights come on. I got this pipe from plumbing. And, uh, l whacked the first guard in the shins. I go through a convict and another convict and…Anyway, l get to Morphis, and l whack him across the head twice. Boom. And then they jump all over me, do a bunch of things.

I spent six months in the hospital ward, but… Morphis, he is also fucked up good. Cerebral haematoma…They pension him out – he can’t walk straight – and he dies two years later. Which is a real loss to the planet Earth. Meanwhile, l gotta go back into the mainstream population. And l know the minute l hit the yard l am a dead man.

So l hit the yard. So you know what happens? Nothin’. I mean, nothin’ happens. Cos l don’t mean nothin’ to myself. I don’t care about me. I don’t care about… nothin’. You know? Then l know from that day that l survive, because l achieved that mental attitude.”

The date ends with an implied arrangement. Somewhat reluctantly, Jesse agrees to become Frank’s new girl.

On a downtown Chicago rooftop, Frank and Barry and Leo are casing a bank. They’ve got schematic drawings. They know how the alarm systems work. They know how to get in and out. Frank says he needs four weeks to prepare.

Frank (James Caan) and Barry (Jim Belushi).

Frank stops by a metallurgy operation. He meet an old acquaintance, Sam, a safe-cracker and expert welder. Frank shows Sam the blueprint for the bank vault. With some trepidation, Sam agrees to build a cutting torch powerful enough to breach the vault door.

In a courtroom scene, Frank’s lawyer successfully bribes the judge into granting Okla an early release on compassionate grounds.

We cut to a ranch style mansion in a clean suburban neighbourhood—Frank and Jesse’s house warming party.

Frank and Barry discuss the bank job. It’s more complicated than they thought. Frank also has news for Barry. As soon as they’re done working for the mob, he’s going to retire. Frank and Jesse plan on adopting a child and moving to California.

Things don’t go well at the adoption agency. The case worker takes issue with Frank’s criminal past—and Frank takes issue with her. His anger escalates and Jesse ushers him out before he totally loses control.

Frank gets pulled over by the police. The cops that have been watching him are corrupt. The sergeant flat out asks for a ten percent cut of his next heist.

Back at home, Frank checks his telephone for bugs. Then he meets with Leo and tries to back out of their deal. Leo calms him down. He says he’ll look after the crooked cops. He also promises to get Jesse a baby. He never says how.

At the hospital, things aren’t looking good for Okla. He conscious, but hooked up to a number of machines. A moment after whispering something into Frank’s ear—he dies.

Jesse meets a woman in a hotel lobby. The woman hands her a baby wrapped in a blanket. They take the baby with them to a restaurant where a distraught Frank decides to name the baby “David”, his friend Okla’s real name.

Frank and Sam test out the custom-made welding torch. It works. Barry plants a bug at the bank so he can figure out the verbal passcodes used to arm and disarm the security system. The bank job is set.

The crooked cops take another run at Frank. They arrest him at gunpoint, then haul him down to the station and beat him up. Once again, the police demand their cut. And once again, Frank refuses.

The next evening, the cops start tailing Frank. He leads them on an elaborate slow-moving chase throughout the city. They eventually follow him onto the highway, and then all the way to Iowa. But Frank is not driver of the car.

With the police distracted, the bank job begins. We watch the robbery unfold through a series of scenes that illustrate the technical ability the heist requires. Frank and his crew work through the night. As dawn breaks, the robbery is complete: 4 million dollars.

Frank (James Caan) with Jessie (Tuesday Weld).

Frank, Barry and their wives celebrate on a brief vacation in San Diego. Upon his return, Frank meets with Leo to collect his fee. When he opens the envelope, the amount of money is much lower than it should be. Leo smugly lists all the reasons why. But as far as Frank’s concerned, this is the second time he’s been screwed over by the mob.

Later that night, Leo’s goons show up at Frank’s used car dealership. Barry is badly beaten. As Frank arrives, he walks into an ambush. Barry gets hit with a shotgun blast that kills him. Frank gets pistol whipped and knocked unconscious.

Frank wakes up in a chemical plant, surrounded by mobsters. In a long dramatic speech, Leo tells Frank the way it is. The mob owns him. If he doesn’t do as told, Leo will wipe out his businesses, his home, and his family too. Frank simply has too much to lose.

For her own protection, Frank tries to send Jesse away with the baby. When she refuses, he resorts to cruelty. He’d rather break her heart than let her to risk her life by sticking around.

With Jesse safely out of town, Frank gets to work. He blows up the house, the bar and the used car lot. He will not be held hostage by his possessions. Once again, he is a dangerous man with nothing to lose.

Robert Prosky as Leo

Frank drives to Leo’s house and breaks inside. In a tense home invasion sequence, he kills every mobster in the house, including Leo. Despite sustaining a gunshot wound to the shoulder, he also kills the guards stationed outside.

As Mann’s signature Pink Floyd inspired guitar music plays in the background, Frank slowly gets into his car and drives away.

Review: What is Michael Mann’s ‘Thief’ Really About?

Personally, I think Thief is really about the horrors of the administrative state. Throughout the film, and his life outside the text, Frank is continually punished by corrupt bureaucracies.

As a child, he is abandoned by his parents and raised in an uncaring state orphanage. As a young man, he is put in prison for a trivial crime. In prison he’s mentally and physically brutalized within the very institution responsible for his rehabilitation. Upon his release, he’s left to flounder, forced to navigate adulthood completely via trial and error.

But Frank beats the odds. He even pays his taxes. And just as he’s about to go straight, he’s forced into service by the mob and exploited by corrupt policemen.

As the plot unfolds, we watch Frank navigate another set of failing systems. The prison that won’t release to his ailing mentor. The slimy judge that needs a bribe before he’ll overturn the ruling. The adoption agency that claims he’s unfit to be a parent. And finally, after all Frank’s efforts, the hospital that can’t save his dying friend.

Ultimately, Thief is a condemnation of American decline.

In the end, Frank achieves salvation only when he steps outside the rules that govern his relationship with systems.

He burns his possessions. He abandons his family. He murders anyone that may pose a threat. He is only safe from harm when he completely severs his relationships with others: people, groups, institutions and systems.

Through Frank’s story, the film rejects bureaucratic institutions, extols the virtues of self-reliance, and promotes a libertarian capitalist ideology.

Unlike Heat (1995), we watch the story unfold strictly from Frank’s point of view. Aside from his small crew, every other character is an enemy: his handlers, the crooked cops, the mob. All of them circle him like sharks, waiting until he pulls a heist so they can snatch a bite for themselves.

There are no good guys in Thief. Everyone is rotten. Everyone is damaged. Everyone is on the take.

Frank is the standard anti-hero. Not quite good and not quite bad, trying in his own way to transcend the limitations of his circumstances.

Frank is as much the product of an unfair system as he is his own decisions. Incarcerated at a young age for committing a trivial crime, in this respect, he is not unlike Mersault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942).

While paying tribute to established tropes, Thief’s ending also expands the genre. As fans of Noir, we are already familiar with the lose/lose ending. We know the Noir hero must ultimately choose between two bad options.

In Thief, Michael Mann ups the ante.

Frank becomes subservient to the mob precisely because he achieves his dream: he finally has money, security, and a family. When the mob threatens to take those things away from him, instead of doing what he’s told, Frank razes his entire life to the ground himself.

He sends away his wife and child. He blows up his own house. He burns down his bar and sets fire to his used car inventory. Frank chooses to lose. No one else controls his destiny.

Frank hurts himself worse than anyone can hurt him.

Only then does he achieve true freedom.

Is ‘Thief’ Worth Watching?

Thief is essential viewing for all Film Noir enthusiasts, an impressive debut from an all-time great director. Its rain soaked streets live on in films like Drive (2011), The Town (2010) and Good Time (2017).

With Dennis Farina, William Peterson and Willie Nelson in supporting roles, the cast of Thief foreshadows the amazing casts Mann would later put together for The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004) and Public Enemies (2009).

Its groundbreaking soundtrack, composed by Tangerine Dream, paved the way for musicians like Cliff Martinez, Trent Reznor and Mark Mothersbaugh to move from pop music into feature films and video games.

Most importantly, without Thief, there would no Heat (1995), Mann’s masterpiece and by all accounts, a modern classic.

Thief can be rented on most streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime Video. A low quality version is (usually) available on The Internet Archive.

In 2022, Michael Mann released Heat 2, a novel, co-written with crime novelist Meg Gardiner.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our post about Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012).


Director: Michael Mann

Date Created: 2023-12-07 20:48

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Tod Molloy is a freelance writer from Toronto. His first novel, Port Lands, was published in 2022. His second novel... Read more