FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!
The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.
The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!
Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.
Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.
Watching Thief also brought to mind an idea that I have been kicking around for a little while. I remember once reading about the experiences of a college lecturer who had spent decades teaching Albert Camus’ The Stranger to undergraduates. What the lecturer noticed is that students’ reactions to The Stranger were largely dictated by the cultural values of the moment. In other words, back in the 1960s, people read Meursault as a rebel struggling to find ways to define himself rather than allowing himself to be defined by the people around him. However, by the 1980s, many undergraduates were puzzled by Meursault’s refusal to sort his life out and become a fully-functioning member of society. A similar process of hermeneutic drift has shaped people’s responses to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as many people now interpret Bartleby’s absurdly defiant “I’d rather not” as a sign of clinical depression… because not wanting to become successful is always a sign of mental illness… apparently.
I touched upon Bartleby and Meursault when I wrote about my own lack of ambition a few years ago but Thief‘s use of noir-ish imagery and existential implication prompted me to wonder what emotional state it is we are talking about when we talk about alienation. Alienation is perhaps the defining emotional power chord of existential literature and yet the concept has its roots in sociology rather than literature, poetry or psychology. The Wikipedia entry for alienation cites Hugo Grotius and Marx before hooking up with the various trains of thought that left the existential station around the middle of the 20th Century.
Upon re-reading The Stranger, it occurred to me that alienation is less a distinct emotion than it is an act of linguistic hand-waving. Existentialism combined beautifully with hard boiled crime fiction because hard boiled crime fiction is full of isolated men who experience a suite of negative feelings relating to society and the people that surround them. Critics talk about characters being ‘alienated’ when they should talk about characters feeling betrayed, powerless, morally confused or reluctant to trust. Alienation emerged as the power chord of existential literature because a lot of existential literature was written by and for men and it would not do to suggest that men experienced complex, detailed and frequently incoherent emotional states. Watching Thief, I identified Caan’s character as a figure who was alienated from middle-class life but a closer reading of the text (in particular the speech in the coffee shop) suggests that he is deeply traumatised and literally incapable of trusting the people around him even when he knows (on a rational level) that he should be forming bonds and trying to live a normal life.
Naturally… when I say this about the Caan’s character, I am falling into the same trap as those confused undergraduates. The current cultural moment encourages us to view ourselves as victimised post-political subjects who are simply too broken and vulnerable to exert any degree of agency over the world. Therapy-speak has saturated our language and when I see Caan’s character as profoundly traumatised and dysfunctional, I am casting him in the role of the post-political subject… the same role that many of us would seek to inhabit as it lets us off the hook about taking responsibility for making positive changes in our lives. It is interesting to watch Thief with these sorts of question in mind as Caan’s character definitely ticks all the boxes marked ‘brutalised victim’ and his wife even warms to him on the assumption that beneath the fuck-off vibes and tough guy swagger lurks a wounded puppy. However, the coldness with which Caan divests himself of all familial ties suggests that he is anything but a victim… burning his own house to the ground is not a moment of traumatised madness but an act of cold, calculated agency.
I’m not yet ready to push this analysis any further and I really am just thinking out loud but it is interesting to watch a film like Thief with both the existential and the therapeutic model of the self in mind.