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Thief (1981)

I wish Michael Mann had started his film career in the early 70s. I don’t know if it’s the De Niro connection on account of Heat, but I like to think of Mann as the west coast Scorsese. While Scorsese was showing off the grit of New York City’s seamy underbelly in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Mann was doing the same for Los Angles with Heat and Collateral. Both directors have dabbled with period pieces, Scorsese (Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ), Mann (The Last of the Mohicans)—why is everything the “Last” of something?—and both have dabbled in horror, Scorsese (Cape Fear, Shutter Island) and Mann (The Keep, Manhunter). The difference is Scorsese started his film career a decade before.

Starting his career in the mid-70s writing for TV cop dramas, Mann directed his first “feature” in 1979 at the age of 36. The film was the made for TV crime drama The Jericho Mile. He did write the 1978 Dustin Hoffman drama Straight Time, but it wasn’t until 1981 that Mann directed his first theatrical feature film. I think all of this is important because there’s a unique vibe to Mann’s early work. All of Mann’s films share a stylistic thread. They are movies about smart characters doing bad things against a backdrop of long shadows and neon lit streets. A word that is both slick, beautiful, and ugly all in one.

But it’s Mann’s first three films that resonate most with me. They are not necessarily his best—The Keep is DEFINITELY not—but they are his most ambitious. Thief, The Keep, and Manhunter are all about different things but all feel cut from the same neo-noir cloth. A cloth made of deep blue and green hues, with the occasional splash of red as a streak in the water or a distant headlight. I can only imagine what Mann could have accomplished had he been given more opportunities early in his career.

Based on the book The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer, Thief is a small film told through big eyes. It’s the story of Frank (James Caan), a former ex-con who has finally found balance in his life. He owns a Chicago car dealership and a bar, only for them to be revealed as fronts for criminal activity. He also happens to be a master thief. The film opens with one of the most visually dynamic robberies I’ve ever seen.

After the death of Frank’s Fence (a seller of contraband and stolen goods), he becomes involved in working for the mob who quickly take control of his life and work. Particularly it takes a toll on his relationship with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) an out spoken cashier Frank has fallen for. The plot thickens and shit gets out of crime because you know, crime.

I’m not interested in the plot to Thief. It’s your typical crime plot, not quite packing the punch or wit of an Elmore Leonard story. Thief is far more subdued and methodical in approach. Much of this can be reflected in Frank’s nature, played wonderfully by Caan. Frank tries to be a decent human being from time to time and can put on the right face when he needs to, but he’s always holding back something. A quiet intensity waiting to seep out in unexpected ways. He’s always interesting to watch.

And of course, there’s the mood. I’ve already described the film’s icy color palette, but what I haven’t mentioned is the synth soundtrack from Tangerine Dream. It’s perfect. I don’t know what it is about music that sounds like it was made by robots in action/thrillers but it works for me. Like scenes from a classic video game—if Robert Prosky from Mrs. Doubtfire was a character. A very underrated group.

If there’s one reason to watch this film it’s how Mann frames and colors his films. Every pic I looked up for this film is so beautiful. I could have just made this a review made up of a series of stills. It’s hard to choose! Check it out. Just like I need to check this film out again to appreciate it more. There’s a great deal of subtitles and nuances that make Thief a memorable film. One of the most interesting from the west coast Scorsese.

Sorry for the half assed review.