Not counting the television-movie 'The Jericho Mile', which screened theatrically in Europe, Michael Mann made his feature-film debut with the crime drama 'Thief', starring James Caan as Frank, the titular character. Based, very loosely according to Mann on the commentary track, on the 1975 novel "The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar" by Frank Hohimer, it tells the story of a skilled jewel thief and the compromises made and costs paid to live a normal life.
Writer/director Mann proves as confident about his work as Frank is from the beginning of the film, which opens with no explanation of who the players are or what's going on. A man, later revealed to be Frank, gets into a car on a dark, rainy night. In a sequence that runs about nine minutes with practically no dialogue, the viewers witness a jewel heist by a three-man crew. One listens to police radio from the car, Barry (James Belushi) controls the building's alarm system, and Frank breaks into the safe. They work with the precision of a machine, which serves them well.
To help evoke that machine-like precision, German electronic music group Tangerine Dream created a fantastic synthesizer-based score. At first, it may seem otherworldly, and better suited for a science-fiction film, yet their music does a great job capturing the mood of this scene, as well as those of the entire film, in a manner different than traditional classical music. It's jarring at first, likely more so in 1981, and may turn some listeners off, but can be rewarding to those who give it a chance.
Frank is man who likes to live simply and stay in control. He's got $185,000 coming to him from this score. His fence, Joe Gags (Hal Frank), offers to spread it around on the street to make even more money and tells him some people want to meet him, but Frank will have none of it. He wants what's coming to him and wants to be left alone because if he wants to meet people, he'll "go to a fuckin' country club." But he gets neither after Joe takes a 12-story trip to the pavement.
Frank makes it known to those responsible he wants his money, which leads to a meeting with Leo (Robert Prosky), a well-connected fence who appreciates Frank's talents. Leo wants Frank to work for him on some very big jobs. Frank's initial reaction is to pass, but a conversation with recently divorced Jessie (Tuesday Weld) where they decide on a relationship together after he reveals how he survived in jail leads him to agree to one last score so he can retire. It's a key scene about what Frank's character is willing to do to survive and Caan delivers a memorable performance of both strength and vulnerability.
As expected with the crime genre, things don't go according to plan for Frank. But that doesn't make the film any less interesting or exciting because Mann's script remains captivating even when the outcome is limited. Donald Thorin's evocative cinematography also helps keep the viewer's attention focused on the screen.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection presents 'Thief' (Spine #691) on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc and DVD housed in a standard clear case. They boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. The accompanying 20-page booklet includes "Where Nothing Means Nothing," an essay by Nick James.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. According to the liner notes, "This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Director Michael Mann's original 35mm answer print was used as a color reference, and Mann supervised and approved the entire transfer. The additional Willie Dixon fisherman scene was taken from a 35mm internegative made from a 35mm print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management, jitter, and flicker."
The cinematography makes great use of darkness and shadows from the inky blacks so delineation can be poor as objects are intentionally obscured. The color scheme is muted with a lot of dull hues. There are browns and grays in offices and both Chicago and Los Angeles appear gray and bleak. Some brighter shades do appear on rare occasion. Greens in Frank's bar and around his home are brighter as are the yellow shirts worn in L.A and the red from blood. Whites seen in the hospital are accurate.
The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The liner notes state, "the original stereo soundtrack was remastered to 5.1 surround at 24-bit from 35mm 4-track magnetic audio stems, and approved by Mann. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
Right as the opening credits roll, rain can be heard falling in the surrounds. Soon after, TD's score immerses the listener. A car drives passed on the right side, exhibiting good imaging as it leaves frame. It's on display again at the plating company. A truck passes by, but when the shot flip 180 degrees, the sound stays in same spot rather than moving to where it should be.
Frank goes to a bar where a blues band is playing. The drums and bass come through strong, but the vocals get drowned out a bit, which I would blame on the source. Dialogue is frequently clear, but sounds flat at times when ADR is used. The track has a good dynamic range from the low rumble of the machinery and the soft sound of shoes walking through a city agency to the high-pitch noise of the police's tracking device. The track sounds clean, not revealing any signs of age or wear.
Michael Mann's 'Thief' is an outstanding directorial debut helped out by the skills of the talented cast and crew. It is filled elements and ideas that permeate much of Mann's work in both film and television. Criterion delivers a very pleasing high-def presentation. This is highly recommended.