This film is the first in what I like to think of as Michael Man’s crime trilogy. Thief, Heat, and Miami Vice. Very similar themes strewn throughout each film – cops and robbers, character wanting out of a life of crime, doing what they need to survive. Not to mention the flawless techno-synth scores in all three films. Apparently this film was somewhat not well received when it was released, being nominated for a Razzie for its score by Tangerine Dream (it was well ahead of its time) and even a couple of Stinker nominations for both James Caan and Tuesday Weld. This is especially baffling because Caan is truly great here. I don’t know if it’s because this is Mann’s first film and people weren’t quite used to his brand of writing and directing yet.
Mann at his best gives us a beautiful, realistic crime saga; Mann at his worst gives us a gorgeous film to look at. Unfortunately, his last three films have been much more engaging for their style – Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat. While the latter may be his worst film to date, I can say that I was never bored during it, the story simply just didn’t hold up. While I could say the same with the other two films, there were at least a number of scenes that have really stuck with me and there was much more going on. The only thing that stuck with me as far as Blackhat goes were the few-and-far-between action sequences. While impressive, it still felt very light for him.
Mann’s best – which is to me Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral – takes a story that might seem cliché and makes it grounded, realistic, and absolutely stunning to look at. Nobody films nighttime in the city the way this guy does. I am not the biggest fan of directors switching over to digital instead of film, but Mann really makes it work. Say what you will about Miami Vice, but that is a gorgeous film to look at. The story of that film may not blow you away, but the style certainly keeps you in your seat.
Okay enough about Michael Mann’s filmography, let’s get down to his first feature film. Watching this film again for the first time in nearly 15 years really gave me a new appreciation for it. I remember watching it when I was younger and knowing something was special about it, but obviously not understanding then what Mann was doing from a filmmaking standpoint. I think Thief is especially great at a time right now where we aren’t seeing films like this being produced anymore. So rare are the character-driven films, much less character-driven crime dramas. When they are out there, they are independent and very difficult to find. My favorite films these past few years – A Most Violent Year, Hell or High Water, Blue Ruin – have all been very independent films and I’ve had to drive far out of my way just to see them in theaters. These films don’t cost much to make, but are worth every penny (which is more than what I can say about most of our highest-grossing films this past decade). These are the ones that stick with me, ones that I will keep on my shelves and keep coming back to. Sure, superhero movies are fun for a time, but I hope we are hitting a CGI-overload here and we somehow get back to simply being able to tell a good story. I want something original like Thief again. A big reason why I was such a huge fan of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive back in 2011 is because it was nostalgic of films like this, and Drive owes much to Thief.
The story is fairly simple, it follows a seasoned safecracker, Frank (James Caan), as he plans to do one more job to score him enough cash for he and his girlfriend to get away for good. You may have heard this story before, but it’s all in how it’s told. We really get to know Caan’s safecracker – what makes him tick, why he does what he does, and why he wants out. Caan really disappears into this role, I no longer thought of him as Sonny from The Godfather, but as just an ex-con who has to use his skills to lead a normal life. In the past, Caan has said that this is one of the films he is most proud of, which makes sense because you really feel he pours his whole heart into the role. It’s a great performance in a terrific film and stands out as what is arguably his best.
This is an impressive directorial debut for Michael Mann as it is very focused, stylized, and well-written. Few directors in their first feature can flesh out such a dense underground world of crime, give us a couple of great characters in Frank and Leo (Robert Prosky), and an ending as great as this one has. Everything comes together beautifully in this film. From the dialogue to the acting, the cinematography, and especially the music. This is a great film and one I will continue to visit again and again now that it has been released on blu-ray via the Criterion Collection. If you are a fan of Michael Mann and have yet to see his debut or you are just a fan of old school crime dramas alone, check this out.
Sidenote: This is the film debut not only for Michael Mann, but also actors Robert Prosky (at age 50), Dennis Farina (while he was still a police officer), and Jim Belushi.
Runtime: 2 hours, 4 minutes