The man is silent. He removes a welder’s helmet and reveals his face: tired, soaked in sweat and soot. He pulls a chair to the center of the room and sits, taking a cigarette out and lighting it. A crinkle in his eye betrays his stoic veneer, and a long and satisfying pull of smoke says more than words ever could.
The man is James Caan. Well, technically, the man is Frank, an expert-level safe cracker in writer/director Michael Mann’s Thief, but let’s face it: It’s Caan that sells the moment. Released a decade after Caan’s heart-tugging performance in Brian’s Song and his turn as hotheaded Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Thief might be the quintessential Caan performance. Watch any of his movies, and you’ll see Caan’s blunt-edge and sardonic humor regardless of the role. Hell, one of the best gags in 2003’s Elf is that Will Farrell’s dopey, pure-of-heart Buddy finds out his birth father is not kindly old Bob Newhart but Caan’s Walter—a hard-bitten book publisher who would just as soon sock Buddy in the mouth than he would trim the tree.
If careers could have a running gag, Caan’s would be at the top of the list. But death came to Caan, as it does to all, on July 6, 2022, stealing the last laugh. He was 82.
The Godfather will go down as the movie that looms largest in Caan’s credits—its shadow is one many actors have found inescapable—but his work as an actor is vast. He’s hilarious in Elf, sympathetic in The Godfather, and magnificent in 1974’s The Gambler. Yet, it’s Thief’s Frank, the consummate professional, a criminal with an ironclad code of conduct that might top them all. Back to that silent moment of satisfaction and appreciation: That follows Frank’s successful heist of $4 million in jewels. The safe was so thick Frank had to use a torch so hot another man stood by with an extinguisher to snuff out anything that caught fire. It takes a special thief to wield an instrument of that magnitude. Frank is that man.
As a cover, Frank sells cars. But as he explains to Jessie (the radiant Tuesday Weld) in bullet points, he wears $800 slacks and switches cars the way other men switch shoes. That’s not half of it. Frank wears his leather jackets and perfectly tailored jeans the way Julian (Richard Gere) wore Armani like a suit of armor in American Gigolo. That movie came out in 1980. Thief is from 1981. They dressed differently in those days.
You gotta see Thief—it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection. Frank’s language is coarse, and his temperament is volcanic. But he also cares deeply for Jessie, for the kid he wants to adopt, and for Okla (Willie Nelson), the master thief who taught him everything he knows. They met when Frank was spending 11 years up the river for stealing $40. Frank’s explanation of how those 11 years came to be might be one of the more captivating stories you’ll ever hear—a true testament to Caan’s abilities in front of the camera. If the camera doesn’t like a performer, it simply stares. With James Caan, the camera leans in.