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Thief (1981)

High-class jewel thief Frank (James Caan) attempts to settle down and lead a normal life with his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) but reckons without the intervention of Mafia hoods determined to prevent him from going straight.

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 but 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 because 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, his car dealership and the bar, then goes to Leo’s home for the final shoot-out.

Director Michael Mann made an auspicious feature debut with this crime drama that pins its story of a professional jewel thief to a near-abstract idea about the criminal’s urge to self-destruct, despite the meticulous way he plans his life.

The terrific opening sequence, involving a diamond robbery set to the music of Tangerine Dream, establishes the mood and style for a movie that’s almost too intellectual for its own genre.

James Caan
Tuesday Weld
Willie Nelson
James Belushi
Robert Prosky
Tom Signorelli
Dennis Farina
Nick Nickeas

Michael Mann