The most surprising thing about director Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief is how prescient it was. Of course, being prescient as a negative connotation brings a sense of tragic irony to the table, either because the film wasn’t appreciated or it didn’t find the right audience when it was released. Simply put, it was a bit ahead of its time, and so Criterion has now gone ahead and dropped it in our laps to devour and realize just how important a movie Thief truly is.
With its seemingly contradictory gritty realism and meticulous stylishness—along with its brooding, existential protagonist trying to make good in a dead-end urban sprawl—Thief anticipated the thinking-man’s blockbuster capers of Christopher Nolan or even the idiosyncratic studies of singularly bad men from something like Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. But it exists as something more than just a pre-cursor, something that came from the exceedingly authentic crime dramas of the 1970s as if it were a distant cousin to William Friedkin’s The French Connection attempting to claim a spot for itself. Thief is both of its time and removed from it, all in the same breathe.
James Caan plays Frank, a Chicago jailbird who makes due and then some by pulling off highly choreographed diamond scores and moonlights as the owner of a used car lot. He’s years removed from lockup and wants to get clean, trying to straighten out his life with his new girl Jesse (played by an inordinately gorgeous Tuesday Weld) and by visiting his old prison pal Okla (played by the surprisingly understated Willie Nelson). He quite literally keeps the images and people of his life all together with a collage he keeps in his back pocket—a metaphor that some may find a bit too literal until they think that a guy like Frank would probably really do something like that in real life. Unbeknownst to Frank, things start going south when a pick-up for a job goes wrong and he’s put in the company of Leo (the perfectly cast Robert Prosky), a high-level Chicago mob boss who seduces the desperate thief to pull off one last seemingly impossible job for him.
Though he’ll inevitably be remembered as the volatile Sonny Corleone from The Godfather, Thief is quite obviously Caan’s best moment as a lead actor. The way he conveys Frank’s outwardly no-nonsense attitude undercuts his performance as a human being who has led a life of disappointment and nonfulfillment. Nowhere is this more evident than the film’s famous diner scene, where Caan’s reluctantly vulnerable Frank spills his guts to Weld because he’s a man who has been at the bottom and is determined to confront his past and rebuild a life that includes the both of them. The most underrated performance is from Prosky, whose slimy mob boss hits just the right amount of benevolent paternalism that slowly gives away to reveal a frightening exterior ferocity in a scene that sets Frank on a firm nosedive back to his nihilistic roots, culminating in the film’s anarchic finale.
The real bond that keeps the movie together is Mann’s impeccable direction. He maintains a unique sort of tactility with his images, conjuring a scrupulous filmic attitude that pervades virtually every moment onscreen. Much has been said about the look of the film, and the only thing I can do is plainly reiterate those sentiments here. Mann renders Chicago as a maze from which Frank cannot hope to escape, made of permanently midnight-black skies; long, wet boulevards; and luminously reflected neon hues. There’s a claustrophobia to Frank’s world that is an ingenious extension of the character himself, and Mann handles his character’s diligence with a subdued, lyrical eye.
When Thief was announced a few people were ticked off that it was a bit light on supplements considering it was a title that’s been a long time coming. The 4K digital restoration of the film itself is worth the price of the release alone, making the previous MGM release seem like a completely different movie. The commentary with Caan and Mann included here is carted over from the MGM disc, but it nevertheless gives us a look at the refreshingly jovial relationship between the two as they recount the laborious yet gratifying film shoot. They are silent for long stretches of time—including the entire safecracking scene towards the end—but when they do speak up the anecdotes are totally worthwhile.
Otherwise the package is rounded out by a trio of brand new interviews featuring Mann, Caan, and Johannes Schmoelling from the band Tangerine Dream who did the film’s distinctive electronic score. Mann’s interview is by far the best simply because he’s presents himself as a guy who knows absolutely everything there is to know about his films, and his erudite responses to film critic Scott Foundas’ questions do what these types of interviews do best: make you know more about the film itself before you began. Caan is his normal wisecracking self, and the best parts of his interview is when he fondly remembers how he actually learned how to break into all of the safes in the film and does so onscreen. Schmoelling’s charm isn’t lost in translation as he narrates the short history of how Mann approached them to do their score, one which I feel is spot on and gives the audience the right amount of distance from the characters it surrounds. They were able to bridge the gap between the type of blues-based melodies that Mann initially desired and the progressively alien electronic pulses that make up the final score.
Like most of the best heist films, Thief’s true value lies in the fact that it isn’t specifically about the big score but rather about what drives the people in the film towards it. It’s the starting point for a revered American filmmaker who continues to redefine the same genre with continually fascinating results. Criterion’s release is vital because it solidifies the status of a film that laid the groundwork for some of the best contemporary film and television shows, and allows viewers a chance to thankfully trace the steps back to a modern classic.