Michael Mann, known for his genius storytelling with taut and explosive thrillers such as Heat and Collateral, made his film debut writing and directing Thief. Thief is both a stylish thriller and engaging character study, starring James Caan as Frank, an ex-con who lives by his own existential creed. Frank is beginning a relationship with a waitress, played by Tuesday Weld. She doesn’t know his true profession as a theif first, but he reveals himself in a dark and intense monologue, made flawlessly believeable by James Caan’s masterful acting. According to Caan, it is his favorite scene of his career. Michael Mann has said that this scene makes all the effort in directing all the more worthwhile when he is able to direct a performance as good as Caan in this scene.
The monologue is a moment of darkly tragic and humorous pure release, where Frank spills his guts about his history in prison, his wants and needs, and everything that led to his current philosophical moral code. Frank went into prison at an early age, and ended up spending many years of his adult life behind bars, isolated from the world. Frank reveals that he only survived the harshness of prison because he achieved the mental attitude of meaning nothing to himself. “I don’t care about me. I don’t care about nothin’ you know?” His state of nihilism is what made him stronger in the end.
Frank then brings out a collage. Since most of his life was spent behind bars, the expectations of his life and what it means to fit into society is dictated from magazine cutouts. Now that he is out of prison, he tries to construct the life he imagines just like the happy people in “Better Homes and Gardens”. He wants Tuesday Weld to marry him. You like a girl, you marry her and have children- no matter what. But this isn’t natural to Frank, so he’s going to put the pieces of his societal ideals together in the most mechanical way possible.
“Inside, you are on ice from time. Can’t even die right, you know? And here? Here, people grow. They get old. They die. Children come after.” There is life on the outside and Frank wants it, but he fears he is running out of time. He has lost so much of time from his life already.
Michael Mann and James Caan determined that since Frank was a man trying to make up for lost time, he would have a way of speaking slowly and methodically, so he never has to repeat himself. Frank never uses contractions. Through Mann’s writing and Caan’s acting, together they craft a captivating character. Another interesting note is that Michael Mann manipulated the sound effects, mostly of the traffic noises, to give the scene a sense of build.
This isn’t the only famous diner scene in Michael Mann’s repertoire, Heat features an infamous scene where the two great actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally meet.
For Thief, this diner scene is an arresting moment in the fantastic and emotive crime-drama. It is a marvel to see an actor truly living as a character, as James Caan demonstrates in his fine work as Frank. Watch the scene below.