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Cat's Cradle: The Case for James Caan's 'Thief'

The recent passing of acclaimed actor James Caan has resulted in a moment of mourning and reflection. His career has spanned generations with Caan bringing something new to every role. From gruff mobster to fearful writer, James Caan delivers in every role. 

James Caan has played several famous roles, including Sonny in the Godfather, the prickly father of Buddy the Elf in Elf, and his turn as the victim in Misery. In every genre, Caan has found a foothold, but his true standout role is found in the crime-thriller Thief.

Thief follows Frank (Caan), a jewelry thief offered a big break in the form of his greatest heist yet. The film follows the meticulous planning operation as Frank attempts to establish himself as a self-made individual. Though, things become complicated as his desires and morals begin to conflict.

Thief is the directorial debut by Michael Mahn, who came into fame later in his career with features like Heat and Ali. Mahn’s film is meticulous, neon-soaked and noir, inspired by Mahn’s work in Folsom Prison while filming the tv movie The Jericho Mile. His time working in the prison pushed Mahn to reflect on his place in life, and the impact prions have on everyday people. This attention to human factors carried over to consultants, since Caan worked with real safe-crackers on the film.  

The true stand out of the film is the performance by Caan. From the jewelry store heist to the film's climax, Caan brings a blue-collar tenacity to the character. This comes across regarding Caan’s hands-on approach to scenes and his characterization. 

An example of Caan’s physical approach is the opening shots where he drills the safe door. Caan does the stunt himself, with the guide of professional safe-crackers. He describes the process in interviews as involving specific skills which Caan replicated. The result is a scene that feels real as Caan cuts into the door and breaks away the lock. 

Caan’s favorite scene of the film, however, is the diner scene. After meeting Jessie, the love interest, Frank invites her to a diner where they connect. What transpires is a highlight of the film as each character discusses their time in prison. 

What drives home the scene's theme is Frank’s dream board. Up to this point of the film, Caan has portrayed Frank with cool masculinity, yet the moment of reflection allows Caan to delve deeper into a dramatic performance, giving Caan room to flesh out the humanity of his character, as their desires to have a life removed from crime shows a deeper emotional aspect of the film. For Caan, the scene was a clear way to show and ground himself in the character's motivation.  

Often overlooked in Caan’s stellar career, his turn as Frank is something to witness. Equal parts talented and human, Caan’s role as a jewelry thief looking to retire has inspired the modern heist film, particularly Drive. In this moment of reflection, look no further than one of James Caan’s best films to remember what made him a household name. 

Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him

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