Director-writer Michael Mann‘s Thief is a work of beauty for the most part, but it has two things wrong with it.

One, in the coffee shop scene James Caan explains his “this is who I am and how I operate” philosophy to Tuesday Weld. It’s basically a lesson he learned in prison — “nobody can hurt me if nothin’ means nothin’…if I don’t care about anything including myself.” It’s a variation upon Neil McCauley‘s “don’t get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Caan clearly isn’t lying or trying to sell Weld a bill of goods. He’s laying his soul flat on the formica table. But why would Weld want a serious home-and-kids relationship with a guy who lives by that kind of nihilist “nobody owns me” attitude? It makes no sense. He’s telling her “if anyone tries to crash my way of life I will grab a lead pipe and do the same thing I did in the joint.” This is a guy to have a casual week-to-week thing with, at most.

Two, the ending of Thief — Weld and kid sent away, destroy the house, kill Robert Prosky and his goons — fulfills Caan’s lone-wolf aesthetic, but it’s not satisfying from an audience perspective. Which is why Thief topped out theatrically at only $11.5 million instead of $20 million or higher.

Audiences knew Caan was an odd duck and a weird hardass, but they respected his craft and professionalism. The most serene and settled moment in the film is when the big extended-blow-torch safecracking job is finished and an exhausted Caan is sitting in a fold-up chair and smoking a cigarette. The film should’ve ended right there — a job well done. Ending Thief this way would have (a) qualified it as a major art film because it didn’t end on a plot point, and (b) made it more popular.

I honestly flashed on this during my very first viewing of Thief inside the old Magno Screening Room (now Dolby 88) in February of ’81. I literally said to myself at the end of the big-blowtorch scene, “This is it…end it here and it’ll be perfect,.”

Audiences didn’t want or need a resolution to the Caan-vs.-corrupt cops-and-gangsters subplot. What mattered was Caan affirming his El Supremo status as the greatest big-time thief in the Chicago area, and maybe beyond that.