Michael Mann, Thief, 1981, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes. Frank (James Caan).

MICHAEL MANN’S crime-film oeuvre, guided by codes of masculinity and professionalism, begins with James Caan confidently heaving an electric drill against the front of a safe, which the whirring bit enters in mesmerizing close-up. In the shots leading up to the break-in, Thief (1981) lays down the notes for Mann’s many cool nocturnes to come—the warm, precise globes of glowing titanium-white street lamps and red taillights, streets and other surfaces turned gleamily reflective (here shot by Donald Thorin), evenly cruising motion and harbor-gazing stillness, both seductive and self-contained. And before the pastel-clad boom-time Miami of Crockett and Tubbs, there came Caan’s Frank, “Joe the boss of my body,” straight-shooting Chicago safecracker with a used-car lot as a front.

Unlike other selections in Film Forum’s “Heist” series, the failed escape in Thief comes not after a botched job or double cross but when Frank compromises his own independence. Accustomed to running the show and going home with the proceeds, he enters the employ of a crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). He hardheadedly believes he really can buck an entire system of mob-family ties and corrupt cops (who beat him in a room painted the same institutional green as those he laments to an adoption official from his “state-raised” days). But Frank is not a fatalistic solitary wanderer held over from the 1970s—when, in fact, the character was still in jail, like the beloved mentor he visits there, played by Willie Nelson. His desired out is to start a family (with Tuesday Weld), but exposing this feeling, then reverting to prison-taught nihilism, is what does him in.

Having written a bracing, tight script from a burglar’s memoir, Mann shoots in rough neighborhoods he remembers from his childhood, when his uncle used to take him on architectural tours. Fatherhood is in trouble in Thief: Frank seeking a dad in Nelson’s master thief, getting brutal godfather Leo, wanting his own son at any cost. But, stating his facts to whoever-the-fuck with contractionless enunciation, Caan puts across a no-nonsense craftsman hero for the early ’80s (one who Leo mockingly suggests should join a labor union). The much-maligned Tangerine Dream synthesizer score is like sheets of factory-cut metal, brutally beautiful and hard, suited to the industrial imagery of the drills. The break-in tricks come from safecrackers, aka “technical advisors”; actual cops (like then detective Dennis Farina) play crooks, and vice versa; the guns are handpicked; and, above all, the urgency of making a go of life before time runs out feels real.

Nicolas Rapold

Thief plays on October 14 in “The Heist” series at Film Forum in New York, which runs October 1–21. For more details, click here.