Debut features are rarely as self-assured and complete as Michael Mann’s Thief. It’s early 80’s neon noir, a tale of a professional thief and his crew recruited by the mob for a series of high profile heists. What’s so fascinating about the film is the level of detail. The attention given to the tools used, strategies and processes far surpass that of pretty much every other feature you’ve seen before. In the extra features Mann and star James Caan joke about the fact that what you’re seeing on screen is Caan really cracking a safe. The tools he used were borrowed from a professional thief brought on as a consultant, and ironically enough given a role a crooked cop. It’s this desire for authenticity really separates it from every other crime film. You could almost call it crime procedural. This grounding provides Mann with the opportunity to create a hyper stylised world of neon reflecting on wet streets, Chicago diners and seedy waterfront rendezvous.
This is James Caan’s most impressive performance. He’s a coiled spring with barely suppressed rage at a system that never worked for him. There’s some fantastic set pieces, in particular a monologue in a diner where Caan basically bullies Tuesday Weld into a relationship with him and it’s fascinating. In the extras Caan says that it was this scene that made him want to do the film, and its hard not to draw parallels between it and the infamous De Niro, Pacino café encounter in Heat. Caan basically lays out his seduction technique, making her realise that her life is terrible and uneventful without him.
“You’re marking time is what you are, you’re backed off you’re hiding out, you’re waiting for a bus that you hope never comes because you don’t want to get on it anyway because you don’t want to go anywhere, alright.”
It’s charming, where alongside relating his decade in prison, and how he managed to avoid being sexually assaulted and in the process no longer caring what happens to him, he manages to get the girl. It’s not a trick, as he’s entirely genuine, albeit very skewed. It’s one of those ‘he’s not taking no for an answer’ moments, a remarkable combination of 70’s machismo soul baring, and a genuine feeling that he’s running out of time and this might be his last shot for the family he’s always pictured.
For what it’s worth its James Belushi’s first film and features Dennis Farina (then still a cop) as well as Willie Nelson as Caan’s mentor.
In a bold move Mann enlisted Tangerine Dream to the soundtrack, at the suggestion of William Friedkin who had just used them on one of the best films ever made, 1977’s The Sorcerer. This glossy electronic score by the German electronic pioneers perfectly highlights the neon noir of Mann’s visuals, though also the tumult raging inside Caan. Whilst Tangerine Dream to have, over their career had the propensity to veer into periodic cheese, on Thief they’re somewhat restrained and as a result its one of their more affecting and experimental scores.
This film is a product of its time. And that time was coming off the 70’s when American auteurs were making strong grim character driven films. There’s also no way that Nicolas Winding Refn has not seen this film, as its numerous parallels with Drive are uncanny.
This edition comes with the theatrical cut, a directors cut and a commentary featuring Caan and Mann cracking jokes with each other, yet there’s no doubt that Caan himself views this is amongst his best work.