Thick as Thieves (1999): Scott Sanders’ Crime Noir, Starring Alec Baldwin

Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 29, 1999–Harsh critics may regard Thick as Thieves as an Elmore Leonard wannabe, but more discriminating ones will recognize the contribution of Scott Sanders, a gifted writer-director, to a genre that’s familiar and popular but still holds room for witty twists and innovations.

A sexy, cool Alec Baldwin shines throughout as a consummate career thief with a retro taste for quality jazz on vinyl and soft heart for his aging dog. With the right handling that will separate this item from the rest of the pack, October could score with a goofy, offbeat noirish crimer, which boasts idiosyncratic humor and deftly drawn characterizations, played by a terrific cast, including Michael Jai White, Rebecca DeMornay, David Byrd, Richard Edson, and others.

Macklin (Baldwin) embodies the ultimate definition of a consummate pro: He gets his jobs done smoothly, then quickly and quietly withdraws into his privacy, listening to his old jazz records and taking care of his dog Wally, whose health is slowly deteriorating. Sharply contrasted with Macklin is Pointy (Jai White), a local gangster who considers himself a renaissance man. Boasting strong organizational skills–or so he believes–he masterminds heists, and then, just like Macklin, cherishes his leisure, spent in learning “fine” culture and going over fabric swatches.

The plot gears up for a clash between these two forces and, indeed, when Pointy sets up Macklin, the latter has no choice but to retaliate. The irony is that the men, and their loyal honchos, find themselves in the midst of a war neither side particularly wants–or enjoys. Nonetheless, constricted by a code of honor and a set of rigid behavioral rules that define their work, each party pursues its target to some disastrous–and hilarious–results.

Tale gets considerably more intriguing and entertaining, when Sal Capetti (David Byrd), an old Italian mafia boss, enters into the scene. A vet with more years of experience than Macklin and Pointy jointly combine, Sal acts like an angry parent, reproaching his errant children for mal conduct. Byrd acts in a playful, self-conscious manner that brings to mind the eccentric gangsters in Prizzi’s Honor and Leonard’s books-to-films, most recently Out of Sight. Further complicating the action is a stern female police officer (DeMornay) who, intrigued by Macklin’s style of operation, is trying to figure out the mess. In a climactic restaurant scene, which is not particularly well-staged, all the protagonists meet and then miraculously go their own separate ways.

A more experienced director would have given this sly, frisky, postmodern material a more stylish treatment, for which neophyte Sanders lacks the skills right now. Nonetheless, helmer shows a particularly sensitive ear for a shifty, fluent dialogue and quirky, multi-nuanced characterization. Though his picture lacks the somber, more resonant tone of Melville’s male-oriented noir thrillers, Sanders, like the late French master, understands the lyric, romantic, melancholy aspects of petty thieves and hit men’s lives. Indeed, Macklin’s remorseless, world-weary career thief treasures his quality time with his music and dying dog.

Arguably inspired by Cary Grant’s star turn in To Catch a Thief, Baldwin plays Macklin with a tremendous sense of panache, accentuating minor details and gestures that illuminate his character much more perceptively than the action he’s involved in. He spends considerably more time and energy brushing his dog’s teeth, taking him to the vet, choosing the right cemetery than executing his job.

Thick as Thieves is not sufficiently atmospheric and formally elegant to make it into a great mood piece, but a talented ensemble elevates the film way above its spotty mise-en-scene. Andre Braugher and Rebecca DeMornay have done good work before, but the real surprises are Jai White, last seen in a pale performance in the comic strip movie Spawn, who’s much more poised here, and Byrd, as the vet, amoral mafia boss, who doesn’t care who’s right or wrong so long as he can have a peace of mind.