Michael Mann's theatrical debut, "Thief," is a slow and methodical neo-noir film. The movie tells the story of a safecracker and jewel thief named Frank (played by the late and great James Caan), and goes into intricate detail surrounding the dangerous profession Frank has decided to pursue and, later on in the film, leave. Mann leaves his mark on the noir genre in this neon-filled tragic portrait of a man attempting to leave his criminal life behind. The film is nowhere near as popular as Mann's other films such as "Heat" or "Collateral," but it feels like a unique introduction into the mind of the director.
One distinct quality of " Thief " is how slow-paced the movie is. Despite all the danger and intrigue, Frank's life feels monotonous as it builds up to its cathartic and violent conclusion. The story is also authentic and grounded in the real world, which gives purpose to the movie's leisurely pace. Even Caan's speech in the starring role reflects the film's slow cadence, and the actor's delivery ended up being crucial to the story as some classic scenes were affected for the better because of how it made Frank come across as extremely calculating.
'Haste Makes Waste'
Frank's unapologetic and careful nature in "Thief" is one of many reasons that James Caan decided to be more deliberate in his approach to delivering his lines. In a 2021 retrospective piece from The Ringer on "Thief," the actor went into detail about the work that went into his character's dialect and Chicago accent. "I never have to repeat myself," Caan explained about his approach to speaking as Frank, which included never using contractions. "Haste makes waste."
Michael Mann apparently hadn't noticed what Caan was doing with his performance until they were deep into shooting. When the director brought it up to Caan and asked the actor "what the f***" he was doing, the actor candidly replied, "Welcome to the party. It's only been about three weeks since we've been shooting."
Mann and Caan's playful banter speaks to the positive working relationship that helped make "Thief" as unique and compelling as it is. Caan's decision to refrain from using contractions when playing his character also overlapped with Mann's direction for the other actors in the film, as Jim Belushi recalled:
"[Mann] said, 'Buddy, these moments of communication between these men, one mistake could get them killed or in jail. So they never speak in contractions. Ever.'"
From Script To Screen
Michael Mann's "Thief" is undoubtedly a compelling story when reading it on the page, but translating it onto the screen is another conversation entirely. With that transition comes discussions about production design, casting, cinematography, and various other technical and artistic choices. Going further into those choices are actors like James Caan, who go out of their way to reinforce the characteristics already written on the page with their own quirks. The result of such collaboration is classic scenes like the diner conversation between Frank and Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a woman he is interested in. Frank opts to be completely candid about his career to Jessie, a story choice that subverts the expectations of thieves in pop culture, who usually lie to keep their livelihood a secret.
The scene played into Mann's unconventional and grounded heist story as well as the blunt and straightforward way Caan decided to speak. To the director, taking the time in a tense heist movie for two characters to have a meaningful conversation was special:
"It's a whole reel. It's 10 minutes. It's huge, and to stop the movie right in the middle for somebody to go sit in a booth and tell a story, it's a little bit strange, but I think wonderful."
Overall, "Thief" is a remarkable first theatrical feature for Mann. The film is a starting point for many themes in his other films, such as "Heat" and "Collateral," which examine the emotional foundations of hardened thieves and killers. Moreover, Caan left his mark on this work in particular because of his dedication as an artist. The film is arguably some of his best work, and the line delivery is just one of many aspects that went into his subdued yet enthralling performance.
Read this next: The 23 Best Heist Movies Of All Time
The post James Caan's Slow And Deliberate Approach To Thief Even Extended To His Speech appeared first on /Film.