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Back in the 1950s Hollywood had several directors that elevated the crime thriller: Phil Karlson, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur. The Production Code discouraged realistic portrayals of the endemic corruption in law enforcement and the justice system, but these filmmakers frequently slipped through vivid impressions of the bleakness and cruelty of the criminal lifestyle. One thinks of Phil Karlson's nearly sublime The Brothers Rico (1957), whose appalling vision of organized crime is marred by a pasted-on happy ending. By the late seventies the reigning kings of this kind of picture were William Friedkin, Walter Hill and newcomer Michael Mann. No longer restrained by de facto censorship, these men established new trends in docu realism and trendy stylization.
Michael Mann's startling debut film Thief (1981) is like a beacon pointing to the future. Its story of a pro safecracker pared down to essentials is unafraid to portray the less savory aspects of criminal life. Filmed in glossy color on the winter streets of Chicago, the movie wastes not a single superfluous shot in its mission to flesh out the existence of a hard-bitten but ambitious ex-con, and his spectacularly professional, technically impressive robberies. It's surely one of the best films of its macho star James Caan.
Mann's script alternates between dialogue-free images of thieves at work, and intense passages in which the leading character bulls his way through social and personal obstacles, in search of his dream of wealth and security. Frank (James Caan) and his assistant Barry (James Belushi) use a special 200-pound electric drill to cut into a safe holding a fortune in diamonds. When Frank's fence dies owing him $185,000, Frank presses his attentions on the organized crime outfit likely responsible for the killing. Mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky) returns Frank's money. Impressed with Frank's near-magical ability to cut his way into any safe in existence, Leo offers him an attractive deal -- a high fee to bust into another jeweler's safe, with all the research work done in advance. Having spent most of his adult life in prison, Frank see's Leo's offer as a short cut to his dream of success -- money, a loving wife and child, and the company of his 'adopted' father from prison, old-timer Okla (Willie Nelson), the man who taught him his criminal trade. To this end Frank all but batters diner cashier Jessie (Tuesday Weld) into listening to his crude but heartfelt marriage proposal -- she'll fit perfectly into his planned picture of the perfect future. Herself an abused loser, Jessie is touched by Frank's blunt, impassioned offer.
Michael Mann would soon move on to his TV show Miami Vice, a glitzy style & fashion- oriented fantasy about unorthodox cops in Miami; its signature image of sleek cars speeding to new pop songs, with neon signs reflecting in their paint jobs, was a major image for excess in the '80s. Despite boasting a highly expressive visual (and aural) surface, Thief is a much grittier and complex construction. At least half of the film is devoted to wordless heist scenes a la the classic Rififi. Following the theory that any safeguard man can devise, can be defeated by men, Frank and Barry expertly neutralize multiple alarm systems and cut through parts of buildings to reach high-security diamond vaults. In one fairly amazing (and authentic) scene, Frank uses a specially formulated metallic 'burning bar' that generates thousands of degrees of heat. He literally slices a new doorway through a formidable, sophisticated steel vault.
Frank's ultra-materialistic plan is to make up for his lost years by rushing directly to a lavish lifestyle. The outwardly paternalistic Leo wins Frank's trust by greasing the path for an illicit adoption; Jessie readily accepts her lavish new standard of living and joins with Barry's wife in supporting their spouses. But Frank's dream falls apart as soon as he ceases being a lone wolf; Leo's syndicate insists on more and more control. Frank maintains a bar and a used car lot as cover activities; these assets and his new family make him vulnerable when Leo begins to 'alter the deal'.
Frank finds that his association with the mob raises his visibility with the local cops, who function as a mob of their own. They try to intimidate him into handing over a percentage of his earnings, to 'spread the wealth around' and make the system work for everybody. Frank can handle the cops to some degree, but can do little when Leo announces that he's now 'owned' by the mob just like anybody else. Instead of his agreed-upon profit split from the million-dollar robberies, Frank is expected to take a pittance and keep working, under threat of violence to his family. This goes against Frank's highly nihilistic personal code, and initiates a violent confrontation.
In a fairly abbreviated part, Tuesday Weld is completely believable as a pragmatic but hopeful woman willing to commit to a man after one meeting in a coffee shop. Robert Prosky is excellent as the mob boss who can behave like Santa Claus one moment, and Satan the next. James Belushi has a promising early role as a technically savvy pro, a man capable of sorting through hundreds of alarm wires in just a few seconds. In real life a high-stakes thief, John Santucci plays the unpleasant detective Urizzi. Santucci was the model for Okla and Frank, and also served as the picture's technical consultant.
A novel idea presented by Michael Mann in Thief is Frank's 'outlaw code' that says, if push comes to shove, he must be ready to abandon all personal ties and relationships at a moment's notice. This becomes a major theme in Mann's later Heat (1995), where Robert de Niro professes a samurai-like willingness to walk away from everything he loves. Conceived after much research into the reality of life for professional criminals, the lean, intense Thief is an important entry in the modern gangster genre.
Criterion's Dual-format Blu-ray + DVD of Thief is a strikingly handsome presentation of this richly textured picture with a 'new look' for the 1980s. Of special note is the highly effective music score by Tangerine Dream, which generates the feeling of a high-tech industrial process whenever Frank pulls a caper. Rather than simply laid over the picture, the music is carefully scored -- electronic tones and rhythms add 'musical' presences and sometimes takes the place of natural sound effects.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui assembles an illuminating group of extras, starting with a commentary by director Mann and star James Caan. Three separate on-camera interviews with Mann, Caan and Tangerine Dream's Johannes Schmoeling are excellent. Mann covers all bases, starting with Thief's genesis after his completion of his prison-oriented TV film The Jericho Mile. Caan speaks almost reverently of his participation in the film, his co-stars and Mann's attention to realistic detail. Schmoeling gives us a brief history of Tangerine Dream and details the work and creativity that went into this music score. Following the lead of Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Morodoer, the '80s saw synthesized music scores dominating the movie world.
A trailer is included, as well as an insert essay by Mann biographer Nick James.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thief Blu-ray + DVD rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.