Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Thief (1981)

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It seems somehow anticlimactic to write about the work of director Michael Mann inside my house with the heat of the Arizona sun beating in through the cracks of my living room blinds in the late afternoon.

When it comes to Mann, a fitting tribute would be to dictate this piece from behind the wheel of a top-down American model ‘70s convertible while cruising through questionable urban landscapes with the radio blaring and the heat of the night growing cooler every time I drive through tunnels or atop bridges over troubled bodies of water.

For these images are so quintessentially Mann in nature that even his name lends itself to his masculine aesthetic of an oeuvre that’s perhaps most notable for the impact of his influential smash television series Miami Vice. And whether he’s working on the small screen or the big (as epitomized in his grandest epic Heat), Mann spends as much time visually fixating on shadows as he does on those who live in the gray area between what is black and white and wrong or right on both sides of the law.

A new kind of crime film landscape that can’t be categorized as Film Noir or even Neo-Noir, Michael Mann’s filmography focuses on the dark, shadow-strewn urban noir of the Baby Boom Generation where individuals strive to find the piece of the American dream they believe they were subtextually promised — via the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — by any means necessary.

And while those who’ve viewed his entire catalog know that this signature visual style and topical obsession is actually older than Vice, the Criterion Collection’s latest remastered classic gives everyone else the chance to see the character drama that first brought these ideas to cinematic life with the release of his underrated, understated, auspicious feature-filmmaking debut Thief.

In the filmmaker-approved Blu-ray/DVD dual format release, one of the most fascinating things we learn in the set’s behind-the-scenes special features is that these same aesthetic trademarks that populate his entire filmography had actually preoccupied Mann years before he ever picked up a movie camera.

As a native Chicagoan with an admitted "cynicism about institutions,” Mann’s fascination with the urban landscape first started to reveal itself through snapshots he took as a young man in his late teens. Drawn to the architecture of the city, Mann’s early photography was filled with dominant images of bridges along with overwhelming shadows and fog. Moreover, he found himself intrigued by the idea that when you put a figurative “lid” on top of the city (whether it’s via the tops of the buildings or the night sky), you become part of an urban maze.

Like a rat that’s trying to break free of the darkness and restraint, feelings of paranoia, claustrophobia, and a world-weary mentality naturally started to evolve from this visual symbolism. And years later when he made the move to filmmaking, it became clear to Mann that this was the exact mental state and aesthetic look needed for stories that centered on characters that played the angles — all trying to find a shortcut to escape the oppressive nature of the city that surrounded them.

Having filed away these images at the start of his career spent helming short films, television episodes, and documentaries, it wasn’t until he directed 1979’s TV movie The Jericho Mile on location at Folsom Prison that everything clicked for Mann on a visceral level.

Leading right into Thief, this one-two punch kicked off what would become Mann’s career-long study of right vs. wrong. While he would venture into other worlds from time to time, Mann was especially fond of exploring the law and disorder of police and thieves and the way that the sides have much more in common with one another than they’d like to believe.

And even when he found himself going as far back in time as The Last of the Mohicans, the men in his films still try to negotiate their environmental maze, deciding for themselves not only the meaning of their life but existentially just how far they’re willing to go to claim their own unique piece of the American dream.

While it isn’t nearly as splashy as his later films, Thief has a quiet power that still resonates today. Featuring a brilliant, dynamic turn by the so-often larger-than-life James Caan who trades in Sonny Corleone’s hot temper for a (mostly) restrained, emotionally cut-off character, Thief marks one of the actor’s strongest performances that even Caan agrees stands as one of the best “two or three” films he’s ever made.

Based on a confessional work penned by a real-life jewel thief which was published in 1975 under the title The Home Invaders, Mann not only culls a great deal from the printed source but also the man behind the book who portrays a corrupt cop onscreen as well.

Drawing on his Jericho Mile experience in addition to the technical advice of real-life thieves in order to execute a film unparalleled in its authenticity, Thief is notable for just how much it respects its audience.

Not spoon-feeding us with dumbed-down tough guy language, Thief relies on the real terms used on the street among fences and safe crackers to construct richly detailed sequences that illustrate the tricks of the trade and just how much work goes into any given heist.

Likewise knowing that as a thief, Caan’s Frank wouldn't let just anyone in on his secrets, he keeps us similarly at arm’s length in our introduction to the man who talks in code and uses a cover job as a used car salesman to ensure he can always switch to a different “work car” when needed.

Only using certain phones and relying on a strong system of allies in his loyalty-centric business, Mann lets us witness it all while at the same time never letting Frank be so accessible or easily charismatic that when he threatens someone early on, we’re still able to believe he’s an intimidating man of his word.

Having gone to jail for a mere forty-dollar theft as a young man, Frank’s two-year bid turned into a nearly two-decade long one after — being forced to protect himself from unspeakable harm — he added a manslaughter charge to his sentence.

Learning everything he ever needed to know about becoming a real live thief from his best friend, mentor, and father-figure inside the joint, Oklahoma (Willie Nelson), Thief isn’t shy about exposing numerous flaws in our justice system from prison as a criminal trade school to the unchecked corruption of appalling abuse that goes on behind cell doors.

Eager to put his life in order on the outside fulfilling all of the goals he’d made for himself on the inside in a magazine photo collage that he keeps in his wallet at all times, as the film begins, Frank is successfully pulling down two scores a month with his friend and partner Barry (James Belushi).

Yet when Frank’s greed and desire to obtain everything in that collage even faster gets the best of him, he signs on with Leo (Robert Prosky), an underworld figure eager to take on the role of father figure to Frank outside the joint by setting up fool-proof jobs with higher payouts and considerable more risk.

Previously a solitary man who wasn't interested in having so much as a conversation with someone he didn’t know, Frank’s slightly out-of-character decision to trust Leo does make us cry “foul” as it goes against everything we’d learned about him. Fortunately, this new alliance marks Thief’s only false note of contrivance in an otherwise flawless film.

Originally signing on with Leo for a test run only to realize fairly quickly that he may have gotten in over his head, Frank soon begins attracting unwanted attention on both sides of the law.

Jeopardizing not only himself but his burgeoning relationship with a diner cashier (played by Tuesday Weld) who, much like Frank has had more than her fair share of hard times, once Frank successfully talks her into taking a leap of faith and marrying him, his own leap of faith with Leo begins to spiral out-of-control.

Realizing that he must find a new way out of the urban maze of obstacles that have only grown more perilous since he joined forces with Prosky’s gangster, Frank discovers that the closer he gets to achieving his version of the American dream, the closer he comes to death.

Filled with gorgeous symbolism in its stunning frame composition and strong sense of style that helped foreshadow all of the Mann movies that would follow, the amazingly cleaned-up image on the Blu-ray transfer makes the visuals look as good as some of Mann’s newest films. Likewise, the Tangerine Dream film score has never sounded better, similarly serving as a great precursor to the way he’d go on to use music on TV in Vice and in film via the underrated Collateral in addition to many others.

Marking the feature film debuts of James Belushi and Dennis Farina in front of the camera as well as Mann’s behind the lens, Criterion’s release offers a bevy of worthwhile bonus features including an eye-opening interview between the director and Variety’s Scott Foundas.

Also boasting a commentary track, while the usually astounding essay included in the collectible booklet is a bit weak in its attention to detail (naming the wrong prison inhabited by our lead) and not quite as compelling as the ones included in recent releases such as Rififi and Nashville, the breathtaking attention to detail in Thief's restoration more than makes up for it.

While one can only hope that this dazzling release will be a harbinger of more Michael Mann on Criterion to come, it’s a stunning technical update and remarkable feature debut that reminds viewers that sometimes the first film a director makes can set the tone for an entire career.

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