Thirty years ago, it took a "Thief" to showcase authentic Chicago

January 13, 2011

I saw clips of the upcoming Fox drama "The Chicago Code," and....I just don't know. There are shots of the skyline and cops busting in doors in real Chicago neighborhoods--not the mean streets of Toronto acting as a stand-in--native Jennifer Beals pulls of good Chicago accent and Delroy Lindo looks ready to take a seat in the City Council. And that is well and good.

They make good visual use of the city's architecture and structure--even bridges--and that's also a good sign. But judging by the promos, the show seems a little noisy; a little too high-octane. And although I will be watching "Code," I've always thought a real Chicago drama should be a little darker, a little more brooding. Kinda like Thief, director Michael Mann's 1981 masterpiece starring James Caan which was released 30 years ago this year.

In Thief, Mann puts Chicago and its environs to good use, creating a dark, closed and ominous world where streets are rain-slickened, danger lurks in shadows and, for James Caan's character, options appear limited. The Division Street bridge at Goose Island, old Lower Wacker Drive--with its ghoulish green lighting--appear in the film, as does the Green Mill (which gets blown up in the movie's end.)  A nighttime sequence in which Chicago's long-gone rialto, Randolph Street downtown, is reflected off the dark hood of Caan's car is worth the price of rental all by itself.

I liked seeing Dennis Farina in his first role, playing a henchman while the actor was still a Chicago cop in real life. His partner-in-crime in the movie is Nick Nickeas, whom I used to know when I was a cop reporter back in the 1990s at the Sun-Times (it's true; I was a pretty good cops-n-crime reporter before I turned soft and started covering architecture). Nick was head of Belmont Area Violent Crimes unit over at Belmont and Western. John Santucci, a former Chicago thief in real life, plays a plainclothes officer--which must have gotten a few laughs on the set. Santucci and Farina later had starring roles in Mann's late, great set-in-1960s-Chicago TV series, Crime Story.

I should stay away from movie criticism, but I won't. Thief is James Caan's best role since The Godfather; a tight, coiled performance that should have cemented his rightful place alongside Pacino and DeNiro. Mann also got a heck of a performance out of Tuesday Weld. Had the movie Casino been filmed five or 10 years earlier, Weld would have made a great Ginger.

Also worth watching in Thief: A young William Petersen getting shoved in one scene; Jim Belushi's character flying through the air; Chicago legend Del Close as a mechanic in a brief scene; and the Mighty Joe Young band singing "Turning Point."

A parting shot: A scene with Caan and Weld filmed in an old style, glassy Miesian modern Illinois Tollway Oasis restaurant (weren't those restaurant's Howard Johnsons back then?). Some mighty fine acting here (although fair warning: the language is course), punctuated by the sound of cars passing underneath: