Thief (1981)

As a script consultant and script writer for hire I love a well developed main character in a screenplay.  Despite what some of the ‘scriptwriting gurus’ say.  You don’t always need to have a ‘likeable’ main character to make a interesting and enthralling film.   Michael Mann’s Thief is a perfect example.

‘Frank’ played by James Caan, is a career criminal, a safe cracker and robber who specialises in diamonds.   The film is based on a novel, but we know that Mann is an expert on crime and will have done tons of research to make sure than his main character was well informed and a realistic depiction of a career criminal.

We learn about ‘Frank’ and his philosophy of life (which was mainly formed in prison) and we follow him as he begins to lose control of his own destiny as a man and as a thief.

This is probably the best film in which James Caan plays the lead role.  Caan is great as Frank, and he’s not bothered about coming across as arrogant and nasty. His developing relationship with Jessie played by Tuesday Weld is realistically played, even if Frank sometimes comes across as a bully.  

So, the audience might not like Frank, but we believe in him, we understand his method and his madness, and we know the pain he feels when things get out of his control and he starts to lose ownership of his money, job, career and life.  We know he will fight back, whatever the odds, because it’s the fight that matters, not the winning, it’s the fact that he won’t back down – this more than anything defines him.

So, Frank can be cold, cruel, bullying, harsh and nasty. But we’ll watch him, because we understand who he is and why he’s become like that.

Thief is a great film, it still looks fabulous. And James Caan is very, very good. This was a comeback performances for Caan after being off screen for a few years. It’s a knockout comeback, Frank would approve.

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor  and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. His UK script coverage service, Script reading service and script development service are highly sought after.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.

You can contact Matthew directly to purchase his ebook The UK Soap Opera Script Writers Handbook.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham was released in 2020. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.