From "To Catch a Thief" to "The Italian Job" (both of them) to "The Thomas Crown Affair" (both of them) to "Ocean's Eleven" (both of them), moviegoers have long had a romance with big-time thievery and high-class capers. TV viewers are now getting a taste of that, too, with NBC's recently debuted "Heist," in which thieves plan to hit Rodeo Drive jewelry stores during Oscar week.
There's another project in the same vein, the six-episode series "Thief," premiering Tuesday, March 28, on FX, created by Norman Morrill ("The Visitor"), who executive-produces with David Manson and Gavin Polone. What sets it apart is its utter lack of romance.
At first, it seems like another caper, with robbery-crew leader Nick Atwater (Andre Braugher, "Homicide: Life on the Street") planning to steal $40 million from the U.S. government in partnership with his fence (Linda Hamilton).
The ensemble cast also includes Malik Yoba, Yancey Arias, Clifton Collins, Mae Whitman, Will Yun Lee and Michael Rooker.
By the end of the pilot, though, any hopes of a breezy tone or a fun romp have been dashed, most notably by the sudden tragedy that befalls Nick's wife (Dina Meyer), which leaves him in charge of her teen daughter, Tammi (Whitman).
While he's kept his criminal affairs and his family separate -- he maintains a legitimate front as a vintage-car dealer -- Nick now faces an agonizing choice when it looks as though Tammi may have stumbled onto his wrongdoing.
Set against the backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans (after the hurricane, the production decamped to Shreveport), "Thief" follows Nick's efforts to hold his disintegrating crew together in the face of dogged pursuers and to figure out what to do about the problem of Tammi.
"I think he's a fundamentally decent man," says Braugher of Nick. "Maybe I'm too close to the character. People are outraged by thieves; there's no doubt about it. They're outraged by liars, too. He has a lot of faults. But I have to say, Nick Atwater does a lot of transforming in this series.
"In the six episodes we're going to go through, he comes to understand himself as a man. He embraces his loyalty to his wife as well as his stepdaughter. He becomes the kind of man that he always wished he had been.
"There are many times in which Nick wants to walk away. It would be a smart thing to end this thing now and walk away. But he doesn't do that. He can never live a straight life. He wants to live the straight life. He wants his cake, and he wants to eat it, too. We all go through this."
To everyone but his crew members and fence, Nick lives the fiction of being a businessman, and Braugher isn't sure that's just because he wants to avoid jail.
"I'm not sure he refuses to reveal to his wife that he's a thief because he's afraid of going to jail, but his motives are mixed. On some level, he lies because he wants to protect himself from her disappointment, her anger. He wants to leave certain things behind and re-create himself anew. He wants to live the straight life, and if he says it enough, maybe it will be true.
"He wants to repudiate his own nature, his own identity as a thief."
Braugher also acknowledges that, in many ways, "Thief" is the opposite of the usual caper story.
"We do romanticize thieves," Braugher says. "We romanticize the cowboy, too, and 'Unforgiven' put an end to that, didn't it? The outlaw and the thief all meet the same end. Those [caper movies] are our fantasies in a way. What those movies always have a tendency to skip over are the consequences. The interesting thing about 'Thief' is that we live by the sword and die by the sword. We have created an unjust world.
"You were never going to end up with Grace Kelly [like in 'To Catch a Thief'], because you're not that kind of man. You didn't earn it. So consequently, even if you steal it, you can't keep it. Certain things are impervious to simple theft.
"You can't walk out, woo a woman and marry her and create [a new life], using the money you've stolen, the proceeds of a lifetime of crime. You can't maintain it; you can't hold onto it unless you earned it.
"Consequences are important. Fooling yourself is really the most dangerous sort of mind-set you can possibly have. I don't think 'Thief' is a straightforward morality tale, but I will say that everyone's eyes are opened in this piece, and what we suspected about ourselves is not true."
For example, Nick may rationalize that he's not a bank robber, that he doesn't kill people, that he's really stealing from insurance companies and not people. But when Tammi realizes something's not right, Nick faces a tough decision, and Braugher believes he goes down some dark roads before making it.
"I don't think that's his first consideration, the girl," he says. "His first consideration is the heist, the score. The girl is a complication. He tries to get rid of that complication, push it aside. He thinks about killing her. He thinks about a variety of things. If she didn't look like her mother, I think she'd be dead today."
But, despite the threat she poses, Tammi survives, and Braugher says, "Nick fails, which may or may not be his redeeming value. Either it's a horrendous mistake, or it's the first right thing that he's done in a long time. Only time will tell."
As to whether one is to infer from this that Nick has a tiny shred of conscience, Braugher says, "He's got more than a tiny shred of conscience. He's got a helluva lot of conscience. He's not some psychopath. In that line between the totally good person and the totally evil person -- the vast majority of us live in that continuum between perfectly good and perfectly evil."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times