Part 1 of Mann’s films Revisted
Michaels Mann started his big screen film Career with 1981’s Thief. A harsh crime thriller with Neo-Noir tendencies. There is a reason Criterion chose to preserve this film. It is one of the greatest films ever made. Starring James Caan, James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Tuesday Weld and Willie Nelson.
Everything about this movie is exquisitely executed. Saying you feel a director’s hand isn’t a bad thing here. As big screen debuts go, this one might be the best. It’s a dark movie that drags you into this night world that is built on dirty buildings, rusty bridges, and neon lights. Chiaroscuro images of a city trapped by the ceiling of the night sky.
That’s just the first ten minutes.
So much brilliance in one movie. The first scene after the opening Heist is the perfect peek into Frank our main character. He’s a career criminal at night – a businessman at day. He’s a tough son of a bitch when you take what he sees as his, but he is more than willing to give to those less fortunate. A criminal with a code, a slightly a jar moral compass. He’s one of the most interesting protagonists is film history a he’s become an archetype that Mann has continued to revisit and recreate.
James Caan proves that at one point he was terrifying. This isn’t the father of a grown man pretending to be an Elf. This is gritty badass, greasy, Godfather era, James Caan. Every time he holds a gun you feel his presence amplified. Frank is like a Cobra coiled and ready to strike at any moment.
His coiled cobra forced to come out when the man on the street who sells what he steals fall out of a window. He’s forced to walk into the front of one of biggest Mobsters in town and demand his money back. We see that Frank has no fear. He would walk into a building of armed men more than willing to shoot the first person that gets in his way.
Meeting with the head of the mob played by Robert Prosky. Frank is offered a gig along with job security and even resources. Which he eventually takes because he believes it will bring retirement.
Like I’ve already said, Frank is not just a hard man. We learn that Frank is someone who thinks he’s running out of time. Spending most of his formative years in prison has made it so Frank’s goal is now to have a family and a normal run of the mill life. We learn this while he tells Tuesday Wells a local waitress about his life after a miffed first date. He zeroes in on her because he can tell her history is sorted like his. They connect over their pasts and over the innocence of Frank’s dream life.
It is a romance which I will admit does come out of nowhere, maybe the only flaw of this movie. However, the chemistry between Caan and Weld is powerful.
That’s all the setup I’ll give you. In case, the opening didn’t convince you to seek this movie out.
Thief proves itself to be just as much about the crimes as it is about the criminals. It’s a story about the Faustian bargain and about how life is simply a cycle that will be repeated.
I’ve held off on talking about my favorite part. The score.
Tangerine Dream might have created a perfect soundtrack. It is cold yet electric. Full of bravado and power. Every scene is elevated by a soundtrack that in so many ways are quintessentially 80’s. The opening ten minutes are free of dialogue and the track Diamond Diary (which I’ve listened to so many times) is fucking brilliant.
I really hope I’ve convinced you to watch Thief. It truly is one of the best. Belonging in the canon of Cinema. Which is a statement I don’t throw around lightly.