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THIEF – Michael Mann’s Classic Back on the Big Screen

March 11, 2018

Yesterday, I introduced a special screening of Thief at Picturehouse at Fact cinema Liverpool. Set in Chicago in the early 1980s, Thief is one of the greatest crime films of modern times, and we were able to bring it back to the big screen in Liverpool via Ourscreen, which is also how I arranged a screening of Sorcerer last December (and my friend Dan Slattery organised a Christmas screening of Die Hard).

For such an esteemed noir tale, the plot of Thief is relatively straightforward. James Caan plays professional jewel thief Frank. When the fence from one of his heists dies in suspicious circumstances, Frank finds himself in the crosshairs of the Mafia. Mob Boss Leo offers to make him ‘a millionaire in four months’ if he will do heists for him. Frank’s plan is to do one or two really big scores and then go straight, but will his violent new employer let him? The narrative takes second place to the character study of Frank and the people around him: his beautiful girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld), his likeable and trusted accomplice Barry (James Belushi), and his jailhouse mentor Okla (Willie Nelson). Frank is the archetypal sympathetic criminal that often populates Michael Mann films (think Larry Murphy in The Jericho Mile or Neil McCauley in Heat). He wants to raise a child and lead a normal life with Jessie, and he wants to arrange parole for Okla before a heart condition dooms him to die in prison. But to do all that he has to take down scores, and the people he loves the most will suffer for his sins.

Thief is based on Frank Hohimer’s memoir The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar. Hohimer was the pseudonym of professional thief John Seybold who wrote the book in his jail cell after turning informant and vowing never to go back to a life of crime. Seybold narrates his criminal career in a hypnotic street-wise prose, and is not an entirely unsympathetic criminal, but is a much meaner and rougher character than Frank his movie counterpart. Seybold specialised in home invasions, but Frank tells Leo in Thief that he will only rob from department stores and businesses. Also, Seybold was a suspect in the unsolved murder of Valerie Percy. Miss Percy was found beaten and stabbed to death in her bed on September 18, 1966. Seybold came under suspicion, alongside numerous burglars, as the Percy family lived in a plush Kenilworth mansion (Valerie’s father Charles was elected to the United States Senate) and it was assumed to be a case of a burglary gone wrong. Seybold denied any involvement, but admits in his book that he lied to the police about the case. He refrains from discussing the murder until the brief final chapter of the book, but, strangely, the photographs printed in the centre of the memoir certainly dwell on the case. Seybold spends much of the text ranting about the corruption of Chicago’s Criminal Intelligence Unit and how they were determined to frame him, but I can’t help feeling that he may have been fitted up for the Valerie Percy murder by his own book editor. This may have been for commercial reasons. The book sold well on its initial release (possibly due to interest in the Percy murder), but is almost entirely forgotten today and its fiendishly difficult to get a hold of a copy. I had to borrow my copy from the British Library who, I suspect, have the only copy available in the UK. In recent years Mann has tried to distance Thief from the book on which it was based, although in some respects the film is a fairly literal adaptation. Okla’s prison letter to Frank, for instance, is almost word-for-word identical in book and film. In an essay for the Blu-Ray edition of the film, Brad Stevens claims the film is based on the criminal exploits of John Santucci (stage name of John Schiavone), who acted as a technical consultant on the film and played the corrupt detective Urizzi. In another one of life’s little ironies former Chicago cop Dennis Farina makes his acting debut in the film as one of Leo’s hitmen. Farina had once arrested Santucci on burglary charges. Seybold himself is said to have been a technical consultant on the film, despite there being an outstanding FBI arrest warrant out on him at the time. Seybold would wind back in prison. Another problematic ‘technical consultant’ on the film was former CIU Chief William Hanhardt. He would later be convicted of running a jewellery theft ring and sentenced to prison.

Yours truly introducing Thief at Picturehouse at Fact in Liverpool

Thief is one of the best films for portraying the thin line between cops and criminals, and it is significant that it was one of the first films produced in Chicago after Mayor Richard Daley left office. Daley had made it difficult for studios to get filming permits for Chicago (there was a de facto 20 year hiatus) during his tenure as Mayor of the Windy City. Daley was apparently angered at the portrayal of Chicago as a haven for crime and corruption, and while Chicago native Michael Mann doesn’t shy away from the grit and grime of the city, it is clear he still loves its colourful and characterful bars and nighthawk diners. Fans of Heat and its famous diner scene with Pacino and De Niro will recognise a precursor to that scene in Thief. In many ways Thief is a stronger film than Heat. Upon revisiting Heat I found there to be far too much windswept hair, sunglasses and Armani suits. Thief is a far more realistic portrayal of criminals and the day-to-day drudgery of the criminal life, and yet Tangerine Dream’s pulsating score and Mann’s now trademark neon cinematography imbue the film with a haunting beauty.

It’s still a classic 37 years after its original release, and it was a privilege to bring it back to the big screen.

Postscript: As The Home Invaders is such a rare book today I felt it would be worthwhile sharing one of the anecdotes from its pages with you. Hohimer/Seybold describes burglarising an Indianapolis home and waking a ‘really beautiful blonde’ woman. He finds her unexpectedly chatty considering she has just surprised a burglar.

She said, “Could I talk with you a few minutes first?”

I said, “Sure why not it’s your home.”

Now I was mentally alert for any type of trick. She pointblank asked me how much I would charge to kill her husband (like I am an authority on murder and it has a set price). I said, “What would it be worth to you?”

She said, “Well I have never done this before so I don’t know, would ten thousand be correct?”

I said, “What about more like thirty thousand?”

“All right”

“Fine, we are in business. Do you have the money here in the house?”

“No.”

“Well how about a down-payment.”

“I have no money here, I can go to the bank tomorrow and get it.”

If she had the money in the house I would have taken it anyway and done nothing. I said, “Honey that would really be a smart move for me. I come to meet you and the police are waiting.”

“Oh no I wouldn’t do that.”

I was glancing at a phone book. I opened the first page and saw the FBI number and closed it. I said, “Honey I’ll tell you how we are going to work this so we can both be safe. Do you have a pencil handy?” She started to open a drawer, I said, “Don’t open that drawer, I’ll get it for you.” I was not about to take my eyes off that bitch for one second or let her stick her hand in no drawer. She was one cold blooded mother-fucker. We had just gotten through discussing the terms for murder and it meant no more to her than you discussing the latest book you read.

I gave her the pencil and the phone number. I said, “Now you call this number three days from now. When I answer the phone I’ll say FBI and that way you can be sure you’re talking to me, and you tell me what you want and I’ll be sure it’s you.” She wrote it down. I said, “Now I have to tie you up to make this robbery look good.” She said she understood, the maid would untie her in the morning.

When we got back to our car, I told Barry what the broad said, he wouldn’t believe me. To this day he thinks I am bullshitting. I been in a lot of homes and I never had that request before or after. I wonder if she made that phone call.

Each chapter of The Home Invaders begins with an illustration of an item from Hohimer’s burglary kit

 

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