James Caan’s Best Performance is the Most Compelling Scene in ‘Thief’

Michael Mann’s debut feature film contains arguably the ten best minutes late actor James Caan ever put to celluloid.
Thief James Caan Diner

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine James Caan’s performance in Michael Mann’s Thief.

If you read any interview with James Caan, you’ll come away with one clear picture. The dude was an old-school man’s man, cut from the same cloth as John Wayne and his cowboy-era swagger. But this is also what I find interesting about Caan. The outwardly masculine persona he embodied can appear incongruous with the sensibilities required of an actor. 

Traditional masculine stereotypes of the mid-20th century, like those shared by the aforementioned Wayne, undervalued men directly showing emotions. But that’s not something you can really do as an emotive actor. You must engage deeply with a spectrum of emotions to create a believable representation of someone you are not–even though you’re always cognizant you’re just playing professional make-believe.

The old-world machismo of Caan would seem to be at odds with the idea of a grown man in a costume telling a made-up story. But despite his rough-around-the-edges exterior, Caan absolutely was an artist with his acting performances. He could let go of his own ego and surrender to an imagined world of given circumstances with brilliant specificity. His performance in Michael Mann’s Thief is the perfect showcase of his work.

Thief follows the story of Frank, an ex-con who’s been out of prison for four years. In his time on the outside, he’s become the owner of a used car lot and a dive bar – all of which are supported by his career stealing diamonds and cash as an expert safecracker. After his go-between man is murdered by the associates of a mob boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), he’s coerced into an offer he can’t refuse. One score so big he can finally retire and start the family he’s been dreaming about ever since his incarceration.

Michael Mann’s films, from Heat to Collateral, often focus on the emotional underpinnings of classical forms of masculinity. If Heat centers on the interpersonal relationship between ethical men on opposite sides of the law, and Collateral focuses on the friction between two representations of modern virility, Thief’s focus is more subtle. Mann’s commentary on the psychological toll prison inflicts on men is evident in the story. But it’s Caan’s Frank who articulates this theme with simplicity in a moving monologue delivered to his love interest, Jessie (Tuesday Weld.)

As the two sit in a late-night diner, Caan gives us an accurate picture of who Frank really is that informs how the audience empathizes with his character throughout the rest of the film. Frank’s monologue tells his story of being in prison for eleven years, specifically in the mental fortitude he needed to survive that traumatic ordeal. He was first sentenced to two years in prison for petty theft of $7. Later, after protecting himself on the inside, he lands a manslaughter charge and nine more years on his sentence.

As Frank tells his tale, Caan gives the language zero sentimentality. Rather than playing into the trauma the audience can sense is at the heart of his story, Caan’s Frank is simply relaying facts. Part of that simplicity comes from the way Caan delivers his lines; as he told Rolling Stone,

“Frank is a pe­culiar character. He has a passion about not being owned. I chose this way of speaking, very, very slowly…When you are in a hurry, you don’t want to have to repeat yourself. You want to make sure you are understood.”

That sense of urgency is apparent in Caan’s performance as Frank attempts to explain who he is to Jessie. He has this burning desire to make up for the time he lost in prison that drives him to take the job with the mob. But as his story turns to how he overcame a moment of victimization by a group of guards and convicts, we see all of Frank’s emotions Caan has suppressed suddenly emerge.

“Anyway, the word comes down that l am next. And l do not know what l am supposed to do. I am scared,” he says as his eyes dart from Jessie to the window, to the ceiling, struggling to put into words what happened. “Eleven-thirty, twelve, the lights come on. I got this pipe from plumbing, and l whacked the first guard in the shins. I go through a convict and another convict and…Anyway, l get to Morphis, and l whack him across the head twice. Boom. And then they jump all over me, do a bunch of things.”

Frank doesn’t elaborate on what the crew did to him exactly, but we can sense just how deeply the trauma runs in the complex pain that suddenly reverberates through Caan’s physicality. Frank may be voicing one emotion, but Caan is concealing another that gives his character three dimensions. In contrast to the methodical tone and pace of his line delivery, Caan is showing us in this scene the tiny cracks in Frank’s facade that give his character added complexity.

As he concludes his monologue, Frank tells Jessie he was able to survive because he stopped meaning anything to himself, “I don’t care about me. I don’t care about… nothin’. You know? Then l know from that day that l survive because I achieved that mental attitude.” Caan wraps this declaration from Frank in a cloak of pride that thinly masks the hurt Caan has sowed into his character’s past. He may be speaking pridefully, but there is a troubled unrest behind his eyes that is both soulful and heartbreaking.

This isn’t the only moment in Thief where Caan allows us to see Frank’s true pain. Later in the film, as Frank and Jessie are denied the chance to adopt a child, Frank erupts. Not just at being denied the opportunity to be a parent. But because he’s reliving a moment of childhood trauma. “I got some ABC-type information for you, lady. I was state raised, and this is a dead place,” he screams at the agency worker with incredulous, apoplectic rage. “A child in 8×4 green walls. After a while, you tell the walls, ‘My life is yours.” Between the gruff outbursts, a scared expression flashes across Caan’s face. A look we can only imagine comes from Frank’s childhood trapped behind those four green walls. 

While Frank says he doesn’t feel anything, the genius of Caan’s performance is that he really does. Even if his character won’t admit it. Frank talks about how his steely exterior allowed him to survive trauma. But Caan lets us still see – and most importantly feel – his pain in the brief moments in-between. Those hesitations when Frank chooses his words more carefully so as not to let on that he actually feels everything deeply

Frank’s warring emotions are why Thief is an exceptional showcase of James Caan’s brilliant approach to creating a character. The actor may have had a cowboyish reputation, but beneath that macho image was a true artist. Caan was in touch with his own emotional vulnerabilities to create vital connections between himself, his character, and his audience.

We’ll likely never see another actor quite like Caan again. But he leaves behind a legacy of bringing characters to life with flourishes of surprising artistry. As Michael Mann told Rolling Stone on the eve of Thief’s release in 1981,  “James Caan is an artist. I don’t care about the image or whatever he puts out there – hanging out at Hefner’s, the rodeo. This man, inside, is an artist, and he sees himself as an art­ist.”

It’s safe to say we do too.

Jacob Trussell: Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)