The American Action Auteur

Isaac Butler in the LA Review o Thieff Books:

THE CLIMAX OF THIEF, Michael Mann’s first feature film, is the kind of sequence it feels like only he can pull off. In it, expert safecracker Frank (James Caan) breaks into a vault to steal some diamonds for the mob. He’s been preparing for the job for much of the film’s second act — it’s the venerable last big score he needs to retire and finally get his personal life in order for good. He’s in the room; the alarms are hacked; it’s showtime.

We’re never in suspense, watching this scene. At no point do we worry that Frank will get caught. Frank doesn’t seem too worried either: just focused, determined, no-nonsense, something out of a Jules Dassin or Jean-Pierre Melville film. The thrill doesn’t come from narrative tension; it instead comes from what Mann is able to do with light, sound, and texture — the way he composes them all in a breathtaking dance. Breaking into the vault entails melting a hole in it with a thermal lance, a long metal rod pumping compressed oxygen, heated to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. One of his crew must stand beside the rod with a fire extinguisher, putting out the sparks of steel, aluminum, and titanium that fly off of it. Soon the frame is all fog, fireworks, and silhouettes — molten metal turned into lava floes. The scene is nearly wordless, aside from Frank declaring, early on, that his team “owns” the room. Just as the images reduce down to iconic flares of light and molten steel, the screenplay focuses on ownership, what ownership entails, and how you can own and be owned, one of the film’s dominant concerns.

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