James Caan plays a blue collar criminal out for one last score in Michael Mann's "Thief." Credit: The Criterion Collection
'Thief' The Criterion Collection $39.95
The 1981 thriller “Thief” came at a peculiar time. The ’70s Hollywood style of feel-bad character studies — some of which featured the film’s star, James Caan — had come to an end. MTV was about to premiere, ushering in an era of pure, music-driven looks. “Thief” straddles both periods. It’s a gritty, grimy downer that also features long stretches that groove to the score by Tangerine Dream, when the film suddenly looks and feels like a particularly hypnotic music video. Director Michael Mann considered using a jazz and blues score, which may have fit in better with the Chicago setting. But electronic music makes it at once retro and progressive — one foot in the past, the other in the near-future. (It was also produced by future mega-testosterone blockbuster maven Jerry Bruckheimer, proof that anyone can one day have taste.)
Caan’s Frank, like many blue collar criminals before him, is out for that one last score. Hoping to settle down with his new girl (Tuesday Weld), he recklessly joins up with a local mob boss (Robert Prosky). (Among his dialogue-free henchmen is a still black-haired Dennis Farina, who would become a Mann regular.) This goes about as well as expected, but far less predictable are the specifics of how Frank attempts to extricate himself from an increasingly bloody situation.
Perhaps Mann, making his feature film debut, would have been just another rugged, downcast filmmaker had he emerged a decade prior. Instead, he came about in a time when style began to trump substance. Throughout his career — from “Miami Vice,” both the show (which he executive produced) and its 2006 film, to “Heat” to “Ali” to “Collateral” — he’s sought to meld style with substance. He’s in love with images and mood, and was one of the first major filmmakers to happily adopt digital video into his arsenal.
Along with being the debut of a celebrated auteur, “Thief” is also hot in the current zeitgeist for being one of the major films Nicolas Winding Refn ripped for “Drive.” (Walter Hill’s “The Driver” is another.) No knock on “Drive,” a deservingly cherished piece of cinematic drunkenness, but it lacks “Thief”’s soul. The Tangerine Dream score gives it an inhuman feel — appropriate for a saga about one man trying to find his way out of a machine. (William Friedkin was the first American to hire the German band, for 1977’s “Sorcerer,” but it wasn’t until after “Thief” that they became a film staple, defining a certain sound of ‘80s cinema.)
But the inhuman feel only stresses how human it is. Its soul-sickness runs deep. Starting here, Mann is drawn to the idea of careers that dominate lives, even as his anti-heroes try, and often fail, to inject romance into their tight schedules. In Mann’s films, people are their jobs, and the jobs are destructive, to others and to themselves. However much Frank wants to redefine himself, he’s trapped by his occupation. The film’s title is a prison that will forever contain him.
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