Michael Mann brought a new sensibility to the American crime movie with his feature debut Thief (1981).
The cool, gritty crime movie stars James Caan as an ex-con known simply as Frank, the head of a small, high-end crew of professional safecrackers and the last of the true independents in the Chicago crime scene. Frank is a high tech thief with an old-school sensibility and Caan plays the role with a guarded, wary professionalism. But behind the armor is a romantic yearning for home and family and civilian life.
Mann builds the simple story of an independent pro who reluctantly signs up with a crime syndicate with meticulously directed heist scenes, a fastidious attention to the process of their trade, and a vivid, sleek style that ushered in the neon noir aesthetic. This is a film of city streets and rain-slicked alleys at night, shadowy bars, and shrouded industrial spaces, with pools of hard white light and shades of neon blue cutting through the darkness. Mann sets the tone with a steely yet moody electronic score by Tangerine Dream and gives the gritty edge of realism to the criminal culture with the help of former Chicago PD officers Chuck Adamson and Dennis Farina, former safecracker John Santucci, and former bank robber Gavin McFadyen. Not just technical advisors, they all appear in supporting roles.
Meanwhile, Frank pursues his dream and woos Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a wounded beauty working as a diner cashier. Weld is heartbreaking as Jessie, fellow romantic under the hard shell of armor built over from a life of disappointment. Their romance is not a business relationship, despite all the selling he makes for why she should be with him, but a shared gamble on future happiness. She’s all in after he lays himself bare.
Mann presents both the romance of the underworld code and the brutal Darwinism of the criminal work. In this world of terse professionals, actions speak for themselves and their code of respect and responsibility stands out in a corrupt world. But it cuts both ways. Frank devotes everything to making his dream of a perfect life come true, only to discover that such emotional connection makes him vulnerable in a way he has never been before.
It’s an accomplished piece of storytelling and the forerunner of the modern American crime thriller, and it anticipates the sensibility and style of Mann’s later crime thrillers like Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004). Caan claimed it as his favorite role and the film he’s most proud of. No small thing for an actor who earned an Oscar nomination for The Godfather.
I think the film is near perfect, a gem of a movie, small and carved with exacting precision, self-contained yet sparkling in every facet.
James Belushi made his film debut as Frank’s best friend and trusted partner, Willie Nelson is a fellow outlaw and father figure serving time in prison, and Robert Prosky is the seemingly paternal head of the criminal syndicate. And look for William Petersen has a bit role as a bartender. A few years later Mann cast Petersen, a veteran of Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theater Company, as the lead in Manhunter.
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Thief (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Thief (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD releases are mastered from a digital restoration of a 4K film transfer approved by the director. It features previously recorded commentary by Michael Mann and James Caan plus new video interviews with Mann, Caan, and Johannes Schmoelling of the band Tangerine Dream, which composed and performed the memorable score.