James Caan as Frank, professional jewel thief
Chicago, Spring 1980
Release Date: March 27, 1981
Director: Michael Mann
Costume Supervisor: Jodie Lynn Tillen
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Michael Mann—born today in 1943—directed (and wrote) his feature-length debut, Thief, a moody neo-noir thriller that would portend his particular brand of stylized crime dramas to follow like Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral, as well as his work on the landmark series Miami Vice. The source material was the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by “Frank Hohimer”, a real-life criminal named John Seybold who served as an on-set technical advisor despite the pending FBI warrants against him.
As the eponymous thief, James Caan’s Frank establishes an early template for the professional criminals that populate Mann’s work, subdued in appearance and demeanor but ruthless against any target getting in the way of his payday…and his freedom.
Fronting his criminal enterprises, Frank owns both a car dealership and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a real jazz club in uptown Chicago that opened in 1910 and grew famous for its associations with Prohibition-era figures like Al Capone, “Machine Gun” McGurn, and Texas Guinan. Once Snorky’s tax evasion landed him in federal prison and McGurn paid the piper in a North Milwaukee Avenue bowling alley, entertainment once again became the primary focus of the Green Mill, attracting icons like Billie Holiday and featuring the longest running poetry slam in the United States.
Though things are going well for Frank, our pragmatic professional is smart enough to know to quit while he’s ahead, especially as he hopes to build a life with his new girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and adopt a son together. Unfortunately, the powerful Chicago Outfit boss Leo (Robert Prosky) has other ideas for how Frank could be useful to him.
What’d He Wear?
Last week, I put out an Instagram poll to see which of Frank’s leather jackets would be of more interest to readers, and his black flight jacket was the clear winner out of more than 2,500 votes… but the 500 or so received by the dark gray leather blouson ensured that it will see some coverage soon as well!
Frank’s hard-wearing black leather blouson takes inspiration from classic American flight jackets, specifically the iconic A-2 that was worn by U.S. Army pilots during World War II. The jacket has a fly covering the zip closure extending straight up from the ribbed-knit waist hem to the shirt-style collar. The patch hip pockets are covered with a single-snap flap and appear to have handwarmer pockets accessed from behind. The cuffs are finished with a ribbed knitting that echoes the hem.
The shoulders are finished with military-style straps (epaulettes) that are sewn down from the set-in sleeveheads through the center of each shoulder. Ideal for the extensive tactical shooting required during the finale, the “action back” jacket has side pleats that extend down the back from the center of each shoulder strap to an integrated self-belt across the back a few inches above the waist.
Frank’s black leather jacket would be the last of his leather trio to be introduced on screen, first seen when he strides into the Green Mill to confront Leo about the increased police surveillance he’s noticed since he agreed to take on the proverbial “one last job” for him. The bad news keeps on coming for Frank, who brings Jessie to see his former mentor Okla (Willie Nelson), now dying in the hospital shortly after being released from prison.
No doubt one of the silk shirts that he had earlier bragged about to Jessie, Frank wears a light blue self-striped shirt with a covered button-up fly.
Later, once shit hits the fan and Frank explosively erases every element of his life, he storms into Leo’s household with his long-slide .45 blazing and enough loaded magazines at the ready to eradicate the entire Chicago Outfit. He’s dressed solely for function; no need for dressy silk shirts as he instead wears a plain purple cotton crew-neck long-sleeved T-shirt with a narrowly ribbed crew-neck and ribbed cuffs. He keeps the shirt tucked in to avoid any flapping hems getting in the way of his reloads.
Eschewing the $150 slacks for everyday errands and tactical tasks, Frank wears his usual Lee jeans, constructed from a lighter wash blue denim. He wears them without a belt at the hospital, but he adds a brown leather belt for the finale, better for securing his pistol and spare mags in place while taking on the Outfit.
With this jacket, Frank always wears black leather boots with raised heels that hint at tall, cowboy-style boot shafts that remain concealed under the legs of his jeans.
Though Frank may not be as flashy as some screen criminals, the experienced jewel thief clearly takes pride in the oft-described “perfect D, flawless… 3.2-carat emerald-cut” diamond mounted in the gold ring that he wears on his left pinky finger. Let’s break down Frank’s ring using the “four Cs”, a system I for which I had to familiarize myself with while shopping for engagement rings last summer!
- Color: The “perfect D” refers to color and, indeed, D is said to be the highest grade of colorless diamonds on a 23-grade scale.
- Cut: Frank doesn’t give us any specific guidance regarding the correctness of the cut (“cut” does not refer to shape, so his “emerald-cut” description doesn’t apply here), but we can imagine that he would prefer an SI (Super Ideal) cut.
- Clarity: Frank twice calls his ring “flawless” which, rather than just being a superfluous description, refers to the clarity on a scale of 11 ratings that ranges from FL (Flawless) at the top end to I (Included) at the low range. To be considered “flawless”, a diamond must appear perfect with no internal flaws or blemishes at 10x magnification.
- Carat: Frank specifies that he wears a 3.2 carat diamond, referring specifically to the weight. It doesn’t refer specifically to size, though it’s reasonable to expect that a 3.2-carat diamond would fall around 9.5×7.5mm for an emerald cut (according to brilliance.com).
Taking just the color, cut, and clarity into consideration, a diamond like this would start at around $10,000 today, a dollar amount that you could realistically expect to be more than tripled for the 3.2-carat size. When I entered Frank’s specifications into a calculator at Washington Diamond, the final total was more than $154,000!
Frank struts into the Green Mill wearing a pair of semi-rimmed sunglasses with an amber-finished aviator-style frame and gradient tinted lenses, riveted on each side of the lens where it meets the arm and bridge. He quickly pockets them in this scene, but they can be clearly seen with other outfits, as well as during the brief vignette when he and his partner Barry (Jim Belushi) take their families to the beach.
On his left wrist, Frank wears a solid yellow gold watch with a white square dial on an expanding gold bracelet. When testing out the tool he needs for Leo’s “burn job”, he protects his hands (and his watch) with a pair of slate-gray napped leather work gloves.
Mann would later re-team with costume supervisor Jodie Lynn Tillen to design the costumes across the first season of Miami Vice, setting a standard for enduring ’80s fashion with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas’ pastels and linen suits.
Also to be established as a Michael Mann trademark would be his protagonists’ preference for .45 ACP pistols, such as the SIG-Sauer P220 carried by Robert De Niro in Heat, the Heckler & Koch USP-45 used by Tom Cruise in Collateral, and Johnny Depp’s twin 1911 pistols as John Dillinger in Public Enemies.
The venerable 1911 pattern designed by John Browning in the early 20th century has earned a position of esteem among many serious shooters, and thus Mann outfits Frank with a pair that he pulls from depending on the task ahead. One of the two is a chromed Colt Combat Commander with a shorter 4.25″ barrel that serves him more as a carry piece (though still substantially sized for concealed carry!)
For more tactical work like infiltrating Leo’s mansion and taking on the Chicago Outfit, Frank carries a blued Colt Gold Cup National Match pistol customized for the production by California gunsmith Jim Hoag of Hoag Gun Works.
The most instantly recognizable customization to Frank’s 1911 is the “long slide”, extended an extra inch to a full six inches. The users at IMFDB speculated that the base pistol was a Colt Gold Cup National Match by the long vertical cutout on the skeltonized trigger while further detailing Hoag’s customizations to include a squared trigger guard, a Bo-Mar adjustable rear sight, skeletonized hammer, and beavertail grip safety.
In addition to James Caan’s research with actual thieves to prepare for the role, the actor trained extensively with Galen D. “Chuck” Taylor of Arizona’s Gunsite Academy so that he would look convincing while clearing rooms, reloading, and performing techniques such as the double-tap “Mozambique drill” which would become another on-screen signature for Mann’s gunmen. (You can read more about Caan’s training with Taylor at Range365.com.)
How to Get the Look
For situations that don’t call for $800 suits or $150 slacks, Frank gets plenty of mileage out of the simple, timeless, and ultimately functional pairing of a black leather flight jacket and Lee jeans… with his less-than-functional expensive gold watch and diamond pinky ring.
- Black leather flight jacket with shirt-style collar, shoulder straps (epaulettes), set-in sleeves with ribbed-knit cuffs, snap-flapped hip pockets with handwarmer pockets, “action back” pleats, and ribbed-knit waist hem
- Light blue self-striped fly-front long-sleeve shirt
- Blue denim Lee jeans
- Brown leather belt with curved gold-toned single-prong buckle
- Black leather cowboy boots
- Gold pinky ring with emerald-cut diamond
- Gold watch with white square dial on gold expanding bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. In addition to being Mann’s directorial debut, it also marked the first feature film appearances for Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina (then a Chicago police officer), William Peterson, and Robert Prosky.
My money goes in my pocket.