Shot at night in a rain battered Chicago; bathed in cool blues, blood pumping through it to the rhythm of Tangerine Dream’s icy synth-pop;Thief is the sort of film that truly sings, having been treated to one of Arrow Video’s now renowned hi-def remasterings. The first theatrical release from Michael Mann (already established in street-level crime telly), this urgent 1981 neo-noir features James Caan as a pro-thief who, on the verge of going straight, is suckered into One Last Job when Robert Prosky‘s mob boss Leo dangles an offer before his eyes like a diamond encrusted carrot.
Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, revels in the nihilism of the story, itself based on a book penned by real life thief John Seybold. An inspiration for much of Mann’s later work as well as a wealth of subsequent crime films (the opening scene is remarkably reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive), Thief holds up particularly well today, its influence felt in the oil-slick visuals and a near obsessive level of authenticity.
Distinguishing it from the more pedestrian thrillers of the time, Mann finds an emotional hook in James Cann’s Frank who, having spent most of life in lock-up, is forced to keep the modern world at arms length. We catch up with him as the allure of criminal life is beginning to loosen its grip and the prospect of a gal on his arm – specifically, waitress Jessie played spunkily by Tuesday Weld – is glowing brighter than a cash-lined briefcase.
When Frank arrives two hours late for their first date, he handles the situation with little grace, grabbing and shouting as she swears and scolds in humiliation. He’s acalls-em-as-e-sees-em type’a guy with little time for nuance, making such delicate situations run as smoothly as the tightening of a screw with a pneumatic drill.
At first glance, Caan’s tough-guy performance is serviceable but by no means outstanding, but under closer scrutiny his skilled understanding of the character emerges. The following ten minute long diner date between Jessie and Frank (which Mann would recall, along with a number of other scenes, to legendary effect in his crime epic Heat) showcases both Caan and Weld on sparkling form, each of them nervously flitting between tones and emotions like a pair of hummingbirds. He is imposing, and adorns his person with gold watches and silk shirts, but Jessie begins to scratch at this veneer and his fragility begins to emerge.
Mann’s penchant for authenticity extends past his understanding of a criminal’s psychology through to his practice and, from the opening scene, he imbues the scenes of thievery with an obsessive level of detail. With Donald Thorin behind the camera, everything glistening with a fine film of Chicago drizzle (one can see why the DoP was hired to give Purple Rain it’s neon twinkle three years later), these tense, methodical set-pieces draw the audience in making us complicit in Frank’s vocation. It’s a stylistic choice which un-mystifies the acts and leads to an appreciation of the craftsmanship, thus aligning us with this compelling antihero and making the inevitable third act nothing-left-to-live-for stand off all the more compelling.
One of the more refined genre films from a decade saturated with mediocrity and disposable pop culture, Thief is a delight to revisit in HD. Encrusted in a limited edition slipcase and complete with an array of extras (not quite a comprehensive collection but studded with gems, particularly the Arrow produced, feature-length examination of the film, The Art of the Heist) this release is essential swag for Mann completists and noir-o-philes.
Thief is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Films and Video