Very loosely based on "The Home Invaders" by cat-burglar-turned-author Frank Hohimer, Michael Mann's debut feature Thief (1981) is a true exercise in style. Having already cut his teeth on the well-received 1979 telefilm The Jericho Mile (still not available as a domestic home video release!), this taut character study stars James Caan as Frank, a skilled ex-convict well versed in the art of jewel heists. Frank is all business on the surface, but his personal relationships show a side of him that's possibly willing to give up a life of crime. He cares deeply for his mentor and father figure David AKA "Okla" (Willie Nelson), who's stuck in prison with a terminal illness that'll probably kill him before his sentence is served. He's also got a fondness for Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a pretty local cashier who's had a difficult life of her own.
Basically, there's a part of Frank that wants to settle down and have a family, but his life's experience---and his recent dealings with Chicago mafia boss Leo (Robert Prosky)---may prove too big of an obstacle to overcome. Leo sees big money in Frank's abilities as a thief, so they agree to a one-time partnership...but, as the latter insists, he only steals jewels and cash covered by insurance companies. Unfortunately for them, both career criminals have been monitored by the police, but they proceed as planned with a high-profile diamond heist which includes an $830,000 share for Frank. Law enforcement and the difficult heist aren't Frank's only problems, as Leo's shady financial dealings and continued interest in Frank almost ensure that this job won't be his last...and if it is his last, well, it'll probably be his last.
On the surface---and to those who have only seen Mann's later, better-known efforts like Heat, The Insider and Collateral, to name a few---Thief doesn't seem very complicated. But this multi-layered, superbly acted character study carries much of the same tension, weight and visual prowess that define Mann's very best efforts. Thief's cold palette, striking compositions and tight structure show a director firmly in control from beginning to end...so it's safe to say if you're a relatively new fan of Mann, there's a lot to enjoy here. Sonically, there's a lot going on as well, especially via the electronic score by prolific German act Tangerine Dream. Together with the oppressive Chicago landscapes, deep blacks and attention to detail (with several real-life thieves serving as advisers to the production), Thief absolutely drips with style and atmosphere. It may not be Mann's very best effort...but it's a damn good start, that's for sure.
Designed to replace MGM's 1998 non-anamorphic DVD release, this new "Dual-Format" Edition from Criterion is a welcome upgrade for new and established fans of Thief. Featuring a director approved A/V presentation and a small but informative mixture of supplements, this is a fairly well-rounded package for a film worthy of the extra attention.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
As evidenced by the teal-heavy images seen in this review, Thief typically leans towards a very cold appearance. However, there doesn't appear to be any James Cameron color-shifting going on here (see: The Terminator and, to a lesser extent, Aliens), at least according to Criterion's technical essay included in the accompanying booklet: apparently this new 4K master, down-converted to 1080p and presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, used director Michael Mann's original 35mm answer print as a color reference. Image detail is predictably strong at times, with a steady grain structure and crisp textures during close-ups and outdoor shots. Black levels are rock-solid in all but the darkest sequences. Digital imperfections are completely absent, even during challenging scenes like the smoke-heavy "thermal lance" break-in. For obvious reasons, this director-approved transfer is just a phenomenal effort from start to finish...and even if MGM's 1998 non-anamorphic DVD didn't pale in comparison, this would still knock your socks off.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
Equally impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which does a fantastic job maintaining a thick, effective atmosphere from start to finish. This was Tangerine Dream's second film score (after William Friedkin's Sorcerer) and it suits Thief like a glove, alternating between tension and an almost calming hypnosis. Dialogue and other sounds are typically limited to the front channels but panning effects and separation are present on many occasions. Like Heat, Collateral and the bulk of Mann's other films, gunfire also sounds punchy and accurate. Overall, Criterion serves up a strong effort that substantially improves upon the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. Optional English subtitles are also included.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate on both formats. This two-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with overlapping hubs and adorned with attractive two-sided artwork. The accompanying Booklet
features a reprinted essay by film historian Stephen Prince.
Not too much on paper, but what's here is of reasonably good quality. The most lengthy bonus feature is a full-length Audio Commentary
with Michael Mann and James Caan, originally recorded in 1995 and also included on the 1998 DVD. It's a decent enough track, but there are
plenty of gaps in the action and both contributors have a habit of narrating what's on screen at certain times. Also ported over from the previous release is the film's original Theatrical Trailer
New material comes in the form of three separate Interviews, roughly 10-20 minutes apiece and recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2013. Featuring Mann, Cann and former Tangerine Dream keyboardist Johannes Schmoelling (in German with optional English subtitles), these three sessions include a compact but interesting assortment of personal stories, reflections and other thoughts on the film's inception, production and lasting influence. Schmoelling's comments are particularly interesting; having just joined the prolific group before Thief's soundtrack was recorded, his memory for specific details is evident from start to finish. It's a shame these three couldn't have recorded a new commentary.
Michael Mann has made more refined (Heat), layered (The Insider), and accessible (Collateral) films during the last 30+ years, but there's something irresistible about his first big-screen production, Thief. Featuring an intense, charismatic performance by James Caan, a wildly effective score by Tangerine Dream and early examples of his trademark style, this riveting character study is back in full force on Blu-ray. Criterion's "Dual-Format" edition serves up a director approved A/V presentation that easily outperforms the small but informative mixture of bonus features. With a little more work, this package would've earned top marks...but "near perfect" will have to do in this case. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.