Mann’s debut feature is a slick and assured crime-thriller that would bear the hallmarks of some of his finest works.
Dir. Michael Mann
1981 | USA | Crime/Drama | 123 mins | 1.85:1 | English
Not rated (likely to be M18 for violence and coarse language)
Cast: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Plot: Coming closer to his dream of leading a normal life, a professional safecracker agrees to do a job for the Mafia, who has other plans for him.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Distributor: MGM (Park Circus)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
Michael Mann’s feature debut was a terrific one, and much like the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984), Thief announced the arrival of one of the finest filmmakers to emerge from the US in the last 30 years. Better still, it revealed a filmmaker whose artistic sensibilities seemed fully shaped from the get go, yet he would go on to make such critical hits as Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999).
In Thief, he introduces to us his remarkable talent for telling stories about organised crime—the precise inner workings of syndicates, the explosive dynamics between professional criminals and the cops who chase them, as well as the atmosphere of locales.
Quite similar in vibe to the distinctive and stylised HK films of, say, John Woo, where crime, moral justice and brotherhood are central themes, Thief channels early 1980s Chicago with the requisite grime and its grim dog-eat-dog worldview, but Mann’s deliberate use of cinematography and music is what makes it a standout if unconventional work (at least at that point in time).
“What are you doing in your life that is so terrific?”
One of the most evocative opening scenes in ’80s American cinema surely comes from Thief, with the rain-soaked streets and glowing car taillights conjuring up the prospect of a noirish mystery, though it is difficult to label the film as a noir in the purest sense. Nick James in his article ‘Thief: Where Nothing Means Nothing’ even alludes these to be anticipatory of similar scenes in Blade Runner (1982).
In Thief, the famous Tangerine Dream (who did Sorcerer (1977) a few years back), lent their sharp and occasionally harsh electronic sounds to the film, sometimes even overwhelming entire scenes. (The early ‘80s were a great time for electronic film music, particularly with Vangelis’ breakthrough work for Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner paving the way forward.)
Tangerine Dream’s music can be jarring, but with good intentions as it plays almost parallel to the work that James Caan’s character, Frank, does—which is to mount elaborate heists with an assortment of tools. He drills, hammers, and in one unbelievable sequence, handles a long, custom-made burning rod to cut through a heavily enforced safe in a major bank.
Frank wants to quit scoring hits for crime syndicates, but he needs a huge payday in order to leave for good and live a good life with his new partner Jessie (Tuesday Weld). Thief charts his dilemma as problems present themselves that seem unescapable, while giving us an ‘underground’ view of how these professional criminals operate.