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!
Considered by many to be one of the director’s best movies, Michal Mann’s debut Thief was released in theaters 40 years ago today. Thief established many of what would become Mann trademarks, from its “principled” yet ruthless professional character who expertly handles a .45 to the setting city elevated to a secondary character itself, particularly its less glamorous underbelly as photographed at night. (Originally titled Violent Streets, even the one-word title would become a Mann signature as evidenced by his future features Ali, Blackhat, Collateral, Heat, and Manhunter.)
Mann adapted the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by real-life thief John Seybold (writing as “Frank Hohimer”) for his screen debut, retaining the first name of Seybold’s nom de plume for the taciturn thief that would be memorably played by James Caan, who celebrated his 81st birthday yesterday.
After Frank gets stiffed following a big heist, he requests a meeting to demand his cut… leading to a “business” opportunity with Leo, a dangerous yet deceptively avuncular Chicago Outfit boss played by Robert Prosky in his first credit screen role. The meeting may be professionally fortuitous for Frank, but it dents his personal life by making him late for a date with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), the attractive waitress at his favorite diner. The two make amends over late night coffee, during which Frank opens himself up to her by sharing a story of how his mental attitude helped him survive eleven years in prison, resisting brutal inmates and guards while adopting a sense of pragmatic nihilism:
So you know what happens? Nothing. Nothing happens. ’cause I don’t mean nothing to myself. I don’t care about me. I don’t care about nothing. And I know from that day that I survive, because I achieved that mental attitude…
Caan’s acclaimed monologue is considered a high point in Thief, and the actor has stated that he found this particular scene to be a shining moment in his career.
What’d He Wear?
When you think of a leather jacket, what comes to mind? A classic brown goatskin flight jacket or maybe a weathered black horsehide motorcycle jacket… what, no gray?
James Caan’s wardrobe as Frank boasts not one but two gray leather jackets, one a trendy blouson and the other a longer belted coat. Today’s post focuses on the former after the response to my last post about Frank’s black flight jacket signaled there would be continued interest in learning about his style.
Frank generally wears timeless clothing, though this dark gray leather blouson may be his most significant concession to trending fashions of the early ’80s. The hip-length jacket has a convertible standing collar with a button to fasten at the top that can be flattened into narrow but widely notched lapels, finished along the edges with sporty welted stitching. Three low-slung buttons are positioned below the right lapel and the straight-hemmed bottom of the jacket.
Not that the famously square-shouldered Caan needs the boost, but the shoulders are padded with shirring along the seams at the top of each raglan sleeve. The sleeves are finished at the wrists with swelled-edge, squared cuffs that close through two buttons, though Frank typically wears these cuffs undone. A slanted opening is cut into each side for Frank’s hand pockets, and the two set-in chest pockets each have a horizontally positioned brass zipper to close.
I wear $150 slacks! I wear silk shirts! I wear $800 suits! I wear a gold watch, and I wear a perfect D, flawless, 3-carat ring! I change cars like other guys change their fuckin’ shoes! I’m a thief, I been in prison, alright?
Frank uses his expensive wardrobe to justify the complexities of his work. Though his leather jacket and jeans wouldn’t qualify into the $800 suit or $150 trouser categories, the sheen and soft folds of his garnet long-sleeved shirt back up his stated preference for silken cloths. The shirt has a point collar, though Frank keeps the top two buttons of the plain “French placket” front undone, wearing the shirt open over the neck and upper chest. Unlike the jacket, Frank wears the shirt’s barrel cuffs buttoned.
Despite their reputation for quality, “I wear Levi’s jeans!” wouldn’t have been much of a boast if Frank was truly to prove how much he could afford to spend on clothing as a new pair of 501s could be purchased for around ten bucks at the time. Frank wears his blue denim Levi’s sans belt.
Frank wears tan nubuck leather work boots with heavy lugged soles and five or six derby-style eyelets for the flat beige laces.
And now that “perfect D, flawless, 3-carat ring,” which he later specifies is “3.2-carat emerald cut.” An experienced jewel thief, Frank would have exactly the ring he wants, wearing this shiner mounted in a gold pinky ring worn on his left hand. 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’s yellow gold watch hasn’t been conclusively identified (at least not by any sources I’ve seen), though we see some details in the coffee shop with Jessie when he flashes its flat squared case and the white square dial with black Roman numeral hour markers.
The nighttime-set opening scene shows Frank leaving the scene of a heist, pulling an almost identical gray leather jacket from the back of his Cadillac and pulling it on over a bright blue cotton raglan-sleeved sweatshirt tucked into his blue Lee jeans. We can tell these are Lees and not Levi’s because of the “Lee”-printed tan leather patch on the back right of the belt line as well as the smaller black branded patch—with “Lee” embroidered in yellow—along the top of the back right pocket.
Though the jacket is only briefly seen worn with this outfit, the promotional photo of Caan wearing it over his blue sweatshirt while leaning against a pillar supporting an L-train on the darkened streets of Chicago has become an enduring image from Thief, even used at the top of this page! (Note the slight differences between that jacket and the one worn in the diner; this earlier-seen jacket has a leather band across the jacket’s center while the diner-worn jacket lacks this band and has zip-closed chest pockets.)
The bold color of Frank’s blue sweatshirt portends the iconic pastels that costume designer Jodie Lynn Tillen would make famous in her next collaboration with Michael Mann, dressing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas across the first season of Miami Vice.
Like all criminal pros in the MCU (Mann Cinematic Universe), Frank relies on the stopping power of the .45 ACP cartridge for his primary sidearm. Depending on the work ahead of him, Frank cycles through a pair of 1911-style semi-automatic pistols. A “longslide” Colt Government 1911 customized by Jim Hoag for the production gets pressed into action for heavier-duty work like infiltrating Leo’s home, while everyday carry calls for the slightly smaller Colt Combat Commander, chrome-finished and—according to IMFDB—customized with an adjustable Bo-Mar rear sight and skeletonized hammer.
The pistol is most clearly seen when Frank pulls it from his jeans to intimidate a bar bouncer (William Peterson, making his screen debut). While not as sizable as a full, 5″-barreled 1911 service pistol, Colt’s downsized Commander variant is still a substantial and heavy pistol for concealed carry, particularly when slung in the waistband of Frank’s jeans rather than in a holster.
Colt developed the Commander after World War II, in response to the U.S. military’s request for lighter alternative to the M1911A1 that could be issued to officers. The government stipulated that this new pistol should weigh no more than 25 ounces and measure less than seven inches long; for reference, the standard, 8.5″-long M1911A1 weighed 39 ounces. To account for the downsizing, the government stipulated that the pistol be 9×19 mm Parabellum rather than .45 ACP.
Colt modified John Browning’s original 1911 design to address these parameters, using an aluminum alloy frame and shortening the barrel length to 4.25 inches to lessen the weight to 27 ounces. This was evidently close enough, as the design was approved over competition from Fabrique Nationale, Inglis, and Smith & Wesson. The Colt Commander went into government and civilian production in 1950 as the first mass-produced semi-automatic pistol to have an alloy frame as well as Colt’s first 9mm handgun, though variants were offered in the high-pressure .38 Super and powerful .45 ACP from the outset. As the Commander grew steadily more popular, Colt refreshed the weapon in 1970 with an all-steel frame that offered the shooting experience of a full-size 1911 in a Commander-size package. This new model was designated the Colt Combat Commander while the lighter, alloy-framed pistol was renamed the Colt Lightweight Commander.
Despite these lighter options available, Frank still chooses the heavier steel-framed Combat Commander in .45 ACP for his daily carry, only three ounces lighter than a full-size 1911. Dick Williams explains why serious shooters may still opt for the heavier model in his 2018 history of the Commander model for Shooting Illustrated: “Shooting a lighter 1911 with a shorter slide does pose some problems, particularly for relatively inexperienced shooters. For example, when shooting the .45 ACP original lightweight Commander after firing a full-size, all-steel 1911, the 3⁄4-inch shorter slide and 9 ounce lighter gun can’t help but make you notice the increase in felt recoil, even for an experienced shooter.”
How to Get the Look
Frank may brag about his ability to spend hundreds of dollars on his suits, slacks, and shirts, but he can also dress fashionably on a budget, wearing a unique gray leather blouson detailed consistent with ’80s trends as well as his function-informed Levi’s jeans and work boots… though the silky wine-colored shirt, gold watch, and diamond pinky ring arguably increase the net value of his ensemble.
- Dark gray leather blouson jacket with convertible notch lapels, low 3-button front, raglan sleeves with two-button cuffs, straight-zip chest pockets, and slanted hand pockets
- Garnet-colored silk long-sleeve shirt with point collar, plain front, and button cuffs
- Medium-dark blue denim Levi’s jeans
- Tan nubuck leather derby-laced work 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.
I am a straight arrow, I’m a true blue kind of a guy. I been cool. I am now unmarried, so let’s cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance!