WEEK 21-- "T"

Nominees:  Tender Mercies, Thief, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Winner:  Thief

Background:  Thief, from 1981, was the directorial debut of renowned filmmaker Michael Mann, who we have previously viewed via Manhunter earlier in the Alphabet Movie Club.  Starring James Caan and Tuesday Weld and featuring the film debuts of Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina, William Peterson, Thief was Mann's first foray into the theme of "one last job" that occupies so many of his movies from Manhunter to Heat.  

Caan stars as Frank, an expert safe cracker who prefers to work with just his guys, like Jim Belushi's Barry.  He specializes in jewels or cash and avoids things with darker paperwork and trails.  His scores keep him anonymous, a business owner of two fronts, comfortably in the green, unconnected to organized crime, a fan of his craft, and in the affections of Jessie, the woman he wants to start a family with.

After his latest diamond heist, Frank's usual fence turns up murdered.  When Frank and Barry trace the money to the culprits, they find Chicago Outfit heavy Leo (Robert Prosky).  After a face-to-face meeting with Frank, Leo flexes his boss muscle and slowly convinces him to get on board with some highly profitable contract scores for the mob.  He dangles money and the chance at adoption for Frank and his girl Jessie.  In typical "one last score" movie fashion, Frank says yes and immediately bites off more than he can chew, getting involved with the wrong kind of people.  The fastest thing he can do to steer clear of what he's gotten himself into is to finish the job.

Reaction:  3 STARS-- With the rest of the talent and pedigree among the other "T" nominees, I'm going to call Thief's win the biggest upset we've had so far during this Alphabet Film Club.  There are some incredible movies left on the table.  Touch of Evil is better than last week's The Stranger.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is classic Humphrey Bogart.  Robert Duvall won his only Oscar for Tender Mercies and The Third Man is the best of British film noir.  With all of that, you all vote for a James Caan gangster from Chicago?  I'll hand it to you guys.  You've got eclectic tastes to buck the usual authority.

For me, this was my first trip through Thief, but it's been on my Michael Mann radar (along with The Keep) since we watched Manhunter.  The film is loaded with great Mann style, from the Tangerine Dream 80's electronic music to masterful work with light and the camera.  I'm always impressed by how Michael Mann knows exactly when to view things close and when to observe from far away.  That coffee shop/diner scene in the first hour is a clinic, not just for James Caan's performance, but for how Mann views the scene as it progresses.

Still, I can't discount the technical detail and panache put into the heist scenes.  Word is Michael Mann hired actual world-class thieves as technical consultants.  Many of the tricks and tools of their trade show up on screen in the hands and in the actions of James Caan.  Our chief Alphabet Movie Club leader, Tim Day, was right to call this Caan's best performance.  I can't argue with that.  By the time the movie is all said and done, you can begin to understand the movie's appeal.  As Mann's debut, you can see the beginnings of his art and talent.  As Caan's best, you can appreciate a nice meaty lead performance from a guy who usually has to play second fiddle to someone else.  

Thief is far from the scope of Manhunter and Heat, but I'll still tip my hat.  Great vote, Alphabet Club, this was a worthy selection to see as a first-timer.

LESSON #1: IF YOU WANT TO MEET PEOPLE, GO TO A COUNTRY CLUB-- Well said, but I need to see some follow-through, Mr. Caan.

LESSON #2: JAMES CAAN IS THE LAST GUY IN THE WORLD YOU WANT TO F - - K WITH-- Speaking of Mr. Caan, he may attempt to hold professionalism dear with no violence, but, once he's crossed, watch out.  By the way, that "last guy in the world" line is horizontal one, not a vertical one, composed of James Caan, Chuck Norris, and dozens of other movie tough guys.

LESSON #3: THEY WON'T JUST LET YOU SHOP AND ADOPT BLACK OR "CHINK" KIDS AT THE ADOPTION AGENCY-- Who knew?  I thought they were given away as "doorbusters" on Sunday sales at Sears.  You mean there's strict policies on adoption?  You mean being an ex-con is an issue?  Really?

LESSON #4: THE ADVANTAGES OF WORKING FOR YOURSELF VERSUS WORKING FOR AN OUTFIT-- While the "outfit" I speak of is the actual criminal Chicago Outfit, I will open it up to broadly mean working for any boss.  Frank shows how nice it is to be your own boss and to not have to play puppet to a crappy puppeteer.  As Frank puts it, it's "dealing with egos."  Have the wrong puppeteer and you are owned.  There are advantages to working both ways, but, more often than not, it's nice to score, earn, and work on your own.

LESSON #5: IT'S A MOVIE LAW THAT YOUR "ONE LAST SCORE" OR "ONE LAST JOB" WILL BE HARD AND NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE-- Franks smells this from the start with the new big-talking fence, the increased risk, and increased exposure when working for the mob instead of working for himself.  Naturally, every "one last job" catches every movie character at their most desperate when they absolutely need that big money over their usual work.  I tell ya, it's a vicious cycle, just like wearing your ass for a hat.