This Tuesday sees the release to Criterion Blu-ray of Michael Mann's classic 1981 crime film Thief, and this strikes me as conspicuously well-timed. Not as conspicuously well-timed as a Christmas Day release would have been, but still not bad. I say this because now that Thief is about to be in the cinephile air again, the door opens to look at critically acclaimed movies that take a somewhat sympathetic look at criminals and ask "Why is this okay, but that isn't?" "That" being, in case you're not already ahead of me, Martin Scorsese's surprisingly controversial The Wolf of Wall Street. Not that one wouldn't expect a film like that to be controversial on some, or many, levels, but the particular way in which The Wolf of Wall Street has been controversial is, I'd say, most curious. And by the way, it's necessary to get this off the table before I even begin, and you'll believe me or you won't, but my issue isn't that some people don't like Scorsese's film, but that some who don't blame the film for being, itself, immoral, and a glorification of the animal behavior Scorsese depicts (or if they don't think the film goes that far, they at least believe unsophisticated viewers will take it that way, and wish to emulate the characters therein). Which I'll get to, but I think I was talking about Thief.
Thief was Michael Mann's feature debut, and though it's a touch over two hours long and also not my personal favorite of his films, it's perhaps his most tightly constructed -- simple and clear in its storytelling while allowing just enough room for Mann's aesthetic, rooted always, it seems, in the 1980s, to blossom, something he'd probably, after thirteen years spent in the then stylistically barren world of television, been aching to see happen. The film also features a possibly career-best performance by James Caan as Frank, an ex-con and professional thief who, like any working man, has his eyes on retirement. He knows what he needs to be happy, and he knows how much money he needs to make that happen. After one of Frank's confederates is killed, and one or two things lead to other things, Frank gets roped into a professional relationship with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky, who at 51 was here appearing in only his second film). Frank is wary, because part of his plan for his life depends on his professional independence, but the way Leo describes it he might get to his destination faster. It turns out that Leo is a liar and a sadistic piece of shit, but you knew that.
The thing is this, though. Frank is a criminal. He doesn't break into homes and whack people with clubs and take their life savings, but he still takes other people's money, and I'm pretty sure we can all agree that this is something that is wrong to do and should not be legalized. He's not Robin Hood, either, instead wallowing in the money, saying at one point to his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) "I wear $150 slacks, I wear silk shirts, I wear $800 suits, I wear a gold watch, I wear a perfect, D-flawless three carat ring. I change cars like other guys change their fucking shoes. I'm a thief." The idea of Thief, however, is that he should get to keep his money. "Better him than Leo," the thinking seems to go, but somehow never "Better the people he's stealing from than him." A curious aspect of the romantic outlaw ("in American culture," I feel compelled, but don't want, to add, so we'll call this parenthetical a compromise) is that unless they're literally Robin Hood, or have been transformed into Robin Hood by time, and by those who for their own reasons would prefer to see some criminals in that light ("Armed Thugs Shoot, Kill Our Beloved Dillinger" reads on headline in the Onion's Our Dumb Century), is that they're never remorseful. At best, they just want to stop, or they want to retire, like everybody else on the planet. Taking what doesn't belong to them is just a gig they happen to be good at, and about which they should feel no worse than if they happened to be good plumbers. Of course they'd never be plumbers because in order to live they need that juice!, but anyway, remorseless, is my point. If that thief seems like a nice guy otherwise, as James Caan's Frank certainly does, then hey bud, live your life. His name is Frank and the woman he wants to marry is named Jessie. There are no coincidences.
It comes down to execution. Not by the filmmaker, or in terms of craft, because the same thing can be done well or badly, but the execution of crime. In Thief, Frank and his partners are really good at what they do, and audiences and critics appreciate this. I'm not immune to it myself, and in fact my dad was an FBI agent who worked bank robbery cases for a long time, and he told me that the ingenuity of some of these guys was just plain admirable. This doesn't make it right, of course, but in movies like Thief the morality of it is not an issue. There are no victims of Frank's crimes, just money being hauled in a big sack with a dollar sign on it. The trick to fool your audience, and critics which is really my point here, is to have a worse criminal than your hero, and this Leo guy is really something else, but why should anybody fall for that old gag? Why should the only people questioning the morality at work in Bonnie & Clyde be the uptight dissenters (of which I am one, and here I'll move away from Arthur Penn's deeply off-putting milestone because I've gone on about this at length many times, but should curiosity grip you here is my more relevant post about it)? And why, so often, are we rooting against the cops, rooting that they fail to stop our hero criminal from doing something to someone else what we would never want them to do to us? (Because it's just a movie? Well, in part, indeed.) Because of half-formed ideas about The System, presumably, that allow for empathy for the criminals but not the police, and which allows for the bloodless gunning down of cops in Bonnie & Clyde (sorry!) because all the red stuff is being kept in store for the deaths that really matter. This isn't exactly Thief's bag, or anyway not Mann's, because while this specific film does feature some corrupt cops he typically portrays them as heroes, or with a fair amount of sympathy at least. But taking the cops back out of it and sticking only with the hero criminals, I hold none of this against Thief. It's an excellent film, for one thing, and that's pretty far from negligible, and because I understand that Thief isn't Mann's attempt to endorse robbery as a way of life.
One of the most interesting, and one of the strangest, films in the long history of criminal hero movies is Don Siegel's Charley Varrick, from 1973. In this film, the title character, a bank robber, is played by Walter Matthau, and as the film opens he and his crew are preparing to rob a bank. As they go through with this, some nearby cops, doing their jobs and appearing quite friendly and likable sort, follow up a hunch. In the below still, a deputy played by Rudy Diaz is about to be shot in the head by one of Varrick's partners. This partner is Nadine (Jacqueline Scott). Nadine is Charley Varrick's wife.
Anyhow, the morality of Charley Varrick, an otherwise lean piece of work, is about as crazy a jumble as you'll find in such a picture. The leader of the criminal group that murdered that man is now, somehow, supposed to be the guy we want to get away? Why shouldn't we be fine with Molly taking his head off with a shotgun? Movies allow for the expression of the kind of bloodlust we, the audience, might otherwise, though not necessarily, choose to either keep hidden or be practical and real-life about, so why do we let Varrick off the hook? More to the point is why is Charley Varrick not questioned? "How can Don Siegel endorse a man like Charley Varrick?" is a question that I've never heard critics ask about this movie, and obscure though it may be to general audiences, among movie freaks it, like Thief, is very well-liked. And I like it too, incidentally, but if Siegel didn't show Schallert picking those bits of grass from the dead cop's hat, I bet I wouldn't. If not for touches like that, we'd be left with a film that offered nothing within it to refute the idea that Varrick's crimes, and the crimes of his wife, which so far exceed in vileness what Thief's Frank ever does, do not therefore render him unworthy of our sympathy. But Charley Varrick does have those touches, and so I won't argue against or condemn a film that Siegel didn't make.
The things at issue here are various, and most prominent, though not remarked upon to my knowledge, is the fact that the kind thievery at play in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is Wall Street malfeasance, is currently politicized, has been for several years, and frustrates many because, and maybe the Hays Code had a point here, many of the real-world perpetrators have not been sufficiently punished, or punished at all. So they skate by in real life and now we gotta see these fucks skate by in the movies? On Christmas?? So there's that, and there's also the fact the film is funny, and everybody in it has a lot of fun and the thing only really turns dark when the Feds show up and try to pull the blinds on everything. Anyway, this is what has been said about the film, or this is roughly, in capsule form, what has been said about it. "Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining," said this person. This person says of The Wolf of Wall Street's characters "[Y]ou're supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald's and riding the subway alongside wage slaves." Even if those who criticize the film on these ground allow that Scorsese and his actors know that the behavior they are depicting is disgusting, they insist that they believe it is a disgusting hoot. What they somehow don't acknowledge is that no, it's just disgusting. The Wolf of Wall Street strikes a very grotesque note quite early on, when Oakmont & Stratton, the Wall Street firm run by Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort, makes a big trade (or whatever), and the celebration becomes a bacchanal. At the center of this, yet also somehow forgotten, is a woman who Belfort says agreed, for a price, to have her head shaved. Scorsese shows this happen, and the woman laughs and cries as her long hair is shorn away, beginning to look half-crazed, her head filling up with greed and regret and maybe even some unacknowledged fear. But it's all in fun. Scorsese just thinks this is fun. Don't do it, but come on it's fun. This is clearly a logical takeaway from this scene.
It's all about money, of course, and the political aspect of money, particularly now, and how Frank struggles for it while Belfort swims in it. Frank is just like us! Belfort disdains money as much as he loves it, and he really loves it a lot. Is that hard to see? For many, many years, critics have complained about films that hold the audience's hand, leading them to the one conclusion the filmmakers want everyone to arrive at, but now at least a portion of critics are complaining that their hands aren't being held firmly enough. And because, in a flagrant disregard of the Hays Code, nothing truly bad happens to Belfort at the end. Except what happened to Henry Hill in Scorsese's Goodfellas. Belfort has to stop drinking and using drugs and he punches his wife in the stomach and loses his kids. He's a schnook eating egg noodles and ketchup, but with a lot more money in his pocket. No one missed the "point" (God forgive me) of Goodfellas. And if you, like David Edelstein, think Kyle Chandler on the subway in The Wolf of Wall Street is saying "Who wouldn't want to live like Belfort rather than this dope?" then please think once again of the schnooks and the egg noodles and the ketchup, and think about who the schnooks are meant to be in Goodfellas, and all the implications of that, and why did no one ever get mad at that movie? I'll show you who's a schnook.