This thief can steal Judge Patrick Bromley's diamonds any day.
Tonight, his take home pay is $410,000—tax free.
I'm a huge Michael Mann fan, but have never considered his debut movie Thief among my favorites in his filmography. Criterion's new Blu-ray of the movie has me convinced I was wrong.
Facts of the Case
Career criminal Frank (James Caan, The Way of the Gun) is looking to get out of the life. He's already done 11 years in prison; his best friend Okla (Willie Nelson) is currently behind bars. He's got a crush on a cashier (Tuesday Weld, Once Upon a Time in America) and wants to start a life with her. But when his fence is murdered and nearly $200,000 of Frank's money is stolen, he can't leave it alone. Attempting to recover his money leads him to Leo (Robert Prosky, Gremlins 2: The New Batch), a Chicago mobster looking to hire Frank to take down big scores. Things start looking up for Frank, until they don't.
Like James Cameron's The Terminator and David Lynch's Eraserhead, Michael Mann's 1981 debut Thief is the rare first film that offers perhaps the purest expression of a filmmaker's voice. There are a lot of movies one could argue as being Michael Mann's best. Thief deserves to part of that conversation.
For all the slick beauty in his photography, for as much as he romanticizes the city at night in his films (Los Angeles in several, my hometown of Chicago here), Michael Mann is not a romantic. He makes movies about cops and robbers but romanticizes neither. His ongoing concern with cops and criminals is in a professional sense—he is fascinated by the way both sides approach the job and how it begins to define their lives. Even the central relationship of the film—the "romance" between Caan and Tuesday Weld—is presented more like a business partnership. The scene in which the two sit together in a diner and lay out who they are and what they want out of life is at once heartbreaking, weirdly practical and almost romantic in how much both sides lay themselves bare. It is an arrangement of convenience between two people who have rough road behind them and are both tired. They want something more than what they have had. Easier said than done.
Thief works brilliantly as both a character study and a minimalist crime film. Mann is as concerned with the process of stealing diamonds as he is with what drives these people, and there is at least one long wordless sequence in the middle of the film that is clearly inspired by a similar set piece in Jules Dassin's Rififi. Thief feels very much like the French crime films of the '50 and early '60s, actually, in the way that it juxtaposes the daily life of the career criminal with a kind of existential dilemma. I love the way Caan never speaks in contractions; he always says "there is" or "it is" instead of "there's" or "it's." That way, there is no chance of being misunderstood. Frank's life is all about brevity and simplicity. He can leave no room for error. I love that detail.
Another detail I love: Mann cast actual cops and actual criminals in the movie, but had them switch roles so that the cops (among them the late, great Dennis Farina, who worked as the police consultant on the film while still working as a cop with the Chicago PD) played the criminals and vice versa. Mann is known for his slavish attention to detail, and his desire to get it all just right in Thief makes everything feel authentic even if it might not be. It's a movie with a code about men who live by a code, bleak and sad without sacrificing its humanity. As much as I love Sonny Corleone, I don't think James Caan has ever been better. Willie Nelson, who could have come off as just stunt casting, is terrific in his big scene. Even Jim Belushi, playing Frank's partner, is really good. Mann has a gift for casting actors who not only do some of their best work for him, but who also feel authentic. There's that word again.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Thief is so good that I now want them to put out every one of Michael Mann's movies. The 1080p transfer is among the best I've seen: a 4K restoration supervised by Mann brings out every nuance of the neon-soaked nighttime photography and has the depth, detail and beauty of 35 mm film. Having only seen the movie on the original MGM DVD, I never considered Thief to be among Mann's best-looking films. This Blu-ray has convinced me otherwise. The audio presentation is just as strong, finally bringing out the beauty and atmosphere of the Tangerine Dream score and keeping the story moving even during the long stretches with no dialogue. The A/V quality on Criterion's Blu-ray is so good that it's like seeing the movie for the first time.
The commentary track featuring Mann and James Caan that appeared on the 1998 DVD release has been carried over here; for a conversation that's now nearly 20 years old, it's still good. I like the new interviews with each of them even better, if only because both the director and star have two decades more perspective on the film and where it fits within the genre (particularly interesting is Mann disagreeing with the notion that Thief is a noir film). Mann's interview runs nearly a half hour; Caan's just over 10 minutes. Both are presented in HD. A third interview is included with Johannes Schmoelling, a member of Tangerine Dream, who speaks about the movie's score. The interview is in German and presented with English subtitles. Also included is the original trailer (presented in HD), Criterion's usual essay booklet and a standard definition DVD copy of the movie, as is now the studio's custom.
Few filmmakers make a movie as good as Thief their first time behind the camera. Though dripping with Michael Mann's '80s aesthetic, the movie's adherence to its main character and his code keep it timeless. It is a brilliant film from a director with his share of brilliant films. Criterion's gorgeous Blu-ray is now the only way anyone should see the movie.
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