Frank (James Caan) is a special type of thief. He can break large safes and vaults. The film gets underway with the drilling of a safe. The team arrive at night, which is atmospherically shot. The sequence lasts several minutes with little dialogue and just Tangerine Dream’s score over the top. Frank owns a car dealership and a bar but funds his expensive lifestyle by stealing diamonds. He is estranged from his wife who we don’t see, but gets friendly with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and yearns for the ideal family life.
Frank’s fence is killed by Attaglia (Tom Signorelli) whom he was working for. He goes to see Attaglia who owns a plating company and demands his money for the safe job. Frank ends up meeting Leo (Robert Prosky) who runs it all. Leo has fingers in every pie and suggests Frank should do several high-end jobs for him. Frank and Jessie have got married and try to adopt a child. Because of his ex-convict status, they are denied. In addition, the cops are on Frank’s back. He sees Leo who arranges a black-market baby. Leo can sort anything out.
Frank and his two partners Barry (James Belushi) and Joseph (William LaValley) have been working up to the big job for Leo – a vault with a large quantity of diamonds. A thermic lance is acquired from one of Frank’s contacts and the alarm systems of the vault building investigated. The day finally comes. Under the cover of night, the team cut a hole in the roof of the building, bypass several alarms and are finally at the vault door. In a memorable scene, we see the thermic lance lit and used to cut through the door like butter.
When it comes to the final payment, Leo appears to have made a number of investments for Frank’s future. He isn’t happy and threatens Leo. Leo and the gang kill Barry and make it quite clear that everything Frank owns – his house, family and business are essentially Leo’s. Frank goes home, tells Jessie to disappear with the baby and some money. He destroys the house, car lot and the bar, then goes to Leo’s home for the final shoot-out.
Michael Mann’s first full feature film is remarkable and showcases a number of elements he would use in subsequent films. A strong electronic score, well shot night scenes (water was used to keep the streets wet for atmosphere), slow motion shots, extended dialogue between two characters and careful attention to technical realism. The equipment used in the film is genuine and Mann had advice from former criminals including John Santucci who plays Urizzi – the corrupt cop (himself, an actual jewel thief).
Casting is superb. Caan is brilliant and brought many of his own ideas and improvisations to the character. Prosky is convincingly unnerving and the film is surprisingly his big screen debut. Willie Nelson plays a convict friend of Frank wanting to die outside of prison, quite poignantly. The various supports are made for their roles. The film’s ending is perhaps, satisfyingly abrupt. There is no happy family reunion and Frank walks off injured into the night.
One criticism is that time appears to pass without really being marked. We jump from Frank getting on with Jessie, to being married and living together. The whole film presumably spans several months, but feels like a couple of weeks. A stylish film with grit. Music by Tangerine Dream and Craig Safan (ending music).
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.