Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann (based on the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer)
Stars: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. Brown (Mitch) ), Norm Tobin (Guido), John Santucci (Urizzi), Gavin MacFadyen (Boreksco), Chuck Adamson (Ancell), Sam Cirone (Martello), Spero Anast (Bukowski), Walter Scott (Detective D. Simpson)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
Thief: Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo
ThiefMichael Mann’s moody existential crime thriller Thief was one of the last of its kind. It was produced in the early 1980s, a time when the Hollywood studios were starting to move away from the kind of edgy, director/auteur-driven movies that typically centered around complicated protagonists who could be written off as “losers” (think Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or just about any film directed by Robert Altman in the ’70s) in favor of a more comforting, audience-friendly Reagan-era sensibility that focused on high-octane protagonists who buck the system and win (think Beverly Hills Cop or Top Gun or even Rambo: First Blood Part II, which is a very different film thematically and tonally from First Blood). Interestingly, one of the producers on Thief was Jerry Bruckheimer, who would go on to partner with like-minded producer Don Simpson and define the ’80s blockbuster and its ethos of power, victory, and style.

Thief is the absolute antithesis of that ethos, and one could image that had it been proposed a few years later it would have been either shelved or turned into something very, very different. Based loosely on a novel by Frank Hohimer, Mann’s theatrical debut centers on a hardened career criminal named Frank (James Caan, appropriately world-weary, but not yet entirely cynical) who is an expert safecracker. He’s the best around and he knows it, which is why he works alone, thus assuring his financial and professional independence. He calls the shots, he makes the decisions, and he profits from his own sweat and blood. He does work with a few trusted assistants, particularly Barry (James Belushi), his right-hand man, and he maintains a close relationship with Oka (Willie Nelson), a professional thief who mentored him in prison, but otherwise he goes it alone.

A guarded ex-con who spent most of his 20s and 30s in the slammer, Frank knows the torment of being caged and he is determined to never let it happen again, which is why he is focusing his criminal career on building enough wealth that will allow him to retire and lead what he imagines to be a normal life. To this end he persuades his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to marry him so that they can start a family and shift their existence from the shadows of the criminal underworld to the legitimate mainstream. It is testament to Caan’s performance that we completely buy into his dream even as we recognize how completely ill-suited he is to bourgeois complacency.

Unfortunately, Frank compromises his instincts and better judgment by agreeing to go to work temporarily for Leo (Robert Prosky), a powerful organized crime boss who recognizes Frank’s skills and wants to harness them for his own benefit, specifically for a major jewelry heist that involves cutting into a massive specially designed safe that is all but un-crackable. Frank takes the gig because it pays a lot and will ostensibly accelerate his retirement plan, but it comes with the risks associated with being under Leo’s wing and possibly never being able to escape. Prosky, in his feature film debut, makes Leo into the most frightening of monsters: the kind that presents itself with kindly, paternalistic care. Frank is working for Leo, but Leo insists on treating him like family, offering him protection and resources and, most importantly of all, an adopted baby to complete his and Jessie’s newly formed family (having been in prison all those years makes legitimate adoption all but impossible for them). Of course, Leo’s apparent benevolence is really just a trap, an invitation into a world from which he will never let Frank escape, and when he turns on him, it is truly terrifying.

Although Thief does not necessarily offer anything new narratively or thematically—it is very much a reworking of the classic heist film and all those heady existential European crime movies like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (1970) with additional emphasis on the politics of class—Mann shapes the material in a way that makes it feel sharp and innovative. Having spent his career up until this point working in television, writing for shows like Starsky and Hutch and Police Story and making his directorial debut with the made-for-TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann clearly relished working on the big screen for the first time, and he layers Thief with a now immediately recognizable aesthetic of glistening streets, reflective surfaces, and intense neon lights, all of which is scored to Tangerine Dream’s thudding electronic beats. The film’s stand-out sequence is, of course, the big heist, where Frank spends hours cutting into the safe with a massive thermal lance, which produces so much heat and fire and sparks that the film becomes almost abstract in its flaming hypnotic beauty. This was a period before Mann embraced handheld video, hyper-ragged editing, and erratic framing, and the film is much better for it, revealing a personal style that is flamboyant, yet completely attuned to the emotional textures of the material. Thief is a visually “showy” movie, presaging in many ways the visual style that would come to dominate Hollywood in the ’80s, but it never comes at the expense of the characters and their plights.

We feel for Frank and his desire to go legit, and when the walls start closing in around him as a result of his own choices, the tragedy is palpable and disarming, as is the raw decision he makes to turn his back on everything and face his fate alone. Caan gives a standout performance, investing in Frank a sense of determination that runs contrary to the fatalistic drive of the narrative. Mann would go on to make much bigger films, some which are arguably better, but in Thief it is clear that he was an artist almost fully formed, completely in control of the medium and his own thematic intentions, even if those intentions were quickly falling out of step with the Hollywood mainstream, which is perhaps why Thief fell through the cracks back at the dawn of the Reagan era and is now being justifiably rediscovered.

Thief Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Audio commentary by director Michael Mann and actor James Caan
  • Video interview with Michael Mann
  • Video interview with James Caan
  • Video interview with Johannes Schmoelling of the band Tangerine Dream
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Nick James
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 14, 2014

    Criterion’s 4K transfer of Thief, which was supervised start to finish by director Michael Mann, was made from the original 35mm camera negative, with Mann’s original 35mm answer print serving as a color reference. It should be noted that the version of Thief presented here is not the original 1981 theatrical version, but rather a slightly altered version that first appeared on laser disc in 1995 billed as a “Special Director’s Edition.” The differences between the two versions aren’t overwhelming, as they consist primary of one brief deleted shot, a more substantial scene that has been added in (this scene was transferred from a 35mm internegative, since it doesn’t exist in the original negative), and a few alterations in transitions and speed of action. Both the visual and the sound quality of Thief are outstanding. The high-definition presentation highlights the intense color saturation, the strong contrast, and the fine details in each shot without compromising the film-like look of the image. The overall color tone leans toward the greenish-blue, which is clearly intended. Blacks, which are prominent throughout, are dense and smooth, which emphasizes the noir-ish overtones of the film’s style. The original two-channel soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm 4-track magnetic audio stems, digitally restored, and then remixed into 5.1-channel surround. The resulting soundtrack is fantastic, especially for fans of Tangerine Dream, as the expanded soundscape emphasizes their thumping beats even more. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the gunshots, explosions, and other pyrotechnics carry plenty of weight on the low end.

    Criterion’s high-definition resurrection of Thief is nicely contextualized via the supplements, starting with director Michael Mann and actor James Caan’s informative audio commentary, which was originally recorded for the 1995 laser disc and also appeared on the previously available DVD (they were recorded together, and as such the track has a slightly relaxed vibe that works for the film). Along with the original trailer, there are also three new video interviews: one with Mann (25 minutes), one with Caan (10 minutes), and one with electronic musician Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream (15 minutes). Taken together, the supplements help flesh out the film’s themes and its various inspirations, as well as the impact it has had on subsequent genre films.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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