Michael Mann, on the other hand, has always been a visual stylist as a director -- that flair was one of the things that made the mid-80s Miami Vice such a buzzed-about show. Thief (1981), Mann's first feature as a director, showcases many of the scenes he would use in Vice and his other TV attempt, the 1960s-set Crime Story: Long shots of rolling car tires on wet streets, lights and signs reflected of those same streets and other wet surfaces, scenes broken up by lines and patches of shadow and dark blues, and so on.
James Caan plays Frank, an ex-con who uses a bar and used-car dealership as cover to mask his main job as a thief and break-in artist. Professional and independent, a mistake by his fence enmeshes him in the larger organized crime scene in Chicago at a time when he's trying to move himself to the "dream life" he's long envisioned. A confrontation following a successful job will push Frank to extreme lengths that may mean he has to sacrifice either his independence or his successful "cover" life.
Mann used reformed safecrackers and thieves to advise the production crew on the tools they would use and to train the actors to actually use them -- he had an actual specific safe rather than a mockup bought so it could be broken into more realistically. He also hired some Chicago police officers for smaller roles -- the mighty Dennis Farina debuts as a mob soldier -- and mentioned that when the crooks and the cops talked between takes they found out they had probably crossed paths before in real life.
Caan is phenomenal and the supporting cast with an exception or two matches him. Tuesday Weld, as Jessie, the woman with whom Frank tries to build his dream life of a family and home, has a smaller role but is by no means a throwaway. She's as strong as he is and insists on her own vision for their life together as well. James Belushi as Frank's partner Barry resists mugging for the camera and Robert Prosky as mobster Leo is alternately paternal and terrifying in his debut role (in one scene, Mann shoots Leo from Frank's point of view as the latter lays on the ground, with the upside-down view of Prosky lending his threatening words extra ugliness). Why Willie Nelson has the role he does is something only Mann can explain, but he's not onscreen enough to damage too much.
Mann would revisit some of the same themes in his 1995 Pacino-DeNiro epic Heat, but already in Thief he was demonstrating his excellent eye for scene composition and use of visuals to communicate emotions and narrative without using dialogue. It's the first chapter in several great careers.
At that time best known as the colorful rogue gambler Bret Maverick in the 1950s TV Western of the same name, Garner plays Luther Sledge -- a man who is not at all a colorful rogue but instead a journeyman robber with a wide and vicious ruthless streak. When he learns of a regular and immense shipment of mined gold, his intent to rob it disrupts his relationship with his gang enough they consider deserting. His eventual plan, to get himself inside the same federal prison where the gold is stored at one stop on its journey, doesn't ease their misgivings much. But longtime partners Ward (Dennis Weaver) and Hooker (Claude Akins) decide to go along. Naturally, the plan goes other than smoothly, even once the gold is in the robbers' possession, and its bright lure will test longtime allegiances.
Garner is an amazing actor usually given less credit than his talent deserves, but he's miscast as the obsessive and cruel Sledge. That he does well in the role doesn't change the fact that a watching audience expects James Garner in a caper movie to out-clever the dull authorities with a wink and fast patter. The Vic Morrow - Frank Kowalski script flashes that kind of dialogue and scene all too rarely. It also uses a strange poker game featuring the movie theme song instead of dialogue to introduce some later conflict among the gang, a technique that pretty much shouts "weird 70s movie bit."
Even though the movie was shot in Italy, features a number of Italian actors and was produced by Dino De Laurentis, in contrast to the usual spaghetti Western practice the majority of the main cast are Americans and tough-guy actor Morrow directed as well as co-wrote. He probably should have gone ahead and cast himself as Sledge, as the role seems much better fitted to his violent onscreen image than Garner's. As it is, A Man Called Sledge is a dish that needed some different ingredients and more time in the oven to be appetizing.