When people think of the ultimate Chicago movie, they usually think of The Blues Brothers or The Untouchables. Or perhaps they think of The Sting – a great movie but derived from a Chicago of the mind. It was very obviously filmed on the Universal lot.
For me, there is no contest: 1981’s Thief stands alone as the greatest Chicago movie ever.
Director and writer Michael Mann filmed it here, before downtown got all prettied up, and he makes Chicago look simultaneously grimy and glowing. It’s a beautifully shot film of a city that looks like, as Algren would have said, a lady with a broken nose.
Why isn’t Thief a bigger movie – on par in the popular mind with The Blues Brothers or The Untouchables? I think it’s because Thief is very dark – literally and figuratively. It ends on a violent note of despair.
Thief stars James Caan as a high-level safe-cracker who makes a Faustian deal with a local mob chieftain, played brilliantly by Robert Prosky, who manages to come across as simultaneously avuncular and evil. The rest of the cast is equally amazing – including a very young James Belushi and Dennis Farina (my favorite Chicago actor) before he went gray.
But wait. It gets better.
Caan’s love interest is played by Tuesday Weld, who is just incredible to look at. (I mean, holy smokes.) Her role is the weak link in the movie, but she brings it off and manages to make her and Caan’s efforts to adopt a child instantly compelling. Mann does not write women characters well, but Weld’s presence humanizes Caan.
But probably my favorite actor in this movie is – wait for it – Willie Nelson. That’s right, the Red Headed Stranger himself makes an appearance in this movie as a convict who is Caan’s surrogate father and best friend.
I’m a huge Willie Nelson fan; who knew the guy could act, too? Is there no end to this man’s talents?
His big scene with Caan is subtly heartrending. You can see the regret in his craggy face as he imparts hard-earned wisdom to Caan and makes one last desperate request.
Mann gets Chicago. He does the details right. He’s not like one of these Washington, D.C. pundits who pop into town every few years, stay at the InterContinental and write a column based on a stroll down Michigan Avenue.
No, in this movie, Caan owns an auto dealership on Western Avenue. And it’s a dealership on Western Avenue. He also owns – get this – the Green Mill. (Spoiler alert: The bar gets firebombed at the end.)
Corrupt, violent cops hound Caan, wanting their cut of his revenue. When he refuses to comply, they beat the crap out of him. And there’s a brilliant scene in which a lawyer negotiates a bribe with a Cook County judge via hand signals.
The lawyer later asks Caan for the cash: “I need six thousand for Earl Warren.”
Like I said, Mann gets Chicago.
Editor’s Note: Thor‘s last post for The Third City was Vacation Reading….
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