Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina and William Petersen.
A professional safecracker starts working for the mob in order to make enough money to quit his criminal lifestyle but things don’t go according to plan.
You have to hand it to director Michael Mann, he knows how to make crime thrillers. A quick trawl through the special features on this Arrow Video Blu-ray release will reveal several tales of a filmmaker who spent a lot of time with professional criminals in his quest for authenticity. Thief is his debut feature film and was adapted by Mann from the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer (real name John Seybold), himself a convicted thief, and although Mann would go on to perfect his storytelling craft in 1995’s classic Heat it’s quite startling how much of his style is already present here.
James Caan (The Godfather) plays Frank, a car salesman by day and a professional safecracker by night. Frank dreams of leading a ‘normal’ life one day and carries around a collage of pictures depicting his ideal life to remind him of what he is striving for, and after his share from his latest job falls into the hands of gangster Leo (Robert Prosky – Mrs. Doubtfire) he hooks up with the crime lord to land a big payday that’ll see his ambition come to fruition. But things don’t go to plan and when Frank decides enough is enough things turn nasty, and the mob comes looking for payback.
What impresses the most about Thief isn’t James Caan’s performance, even though it’s probably his best, or even the Tangerine Dream soundtrack that dips in and out providing that dreamy 1980s vibe that so many other crime films from the era benefitted from. What really comes through is Michael Mann’s knack of making the location of the film a character in itself, a near living, breathing force that seems to add so much just by placing a camera in the right place. It worked with Clearwater, Florida in Manhunter and Los Angeles in Heat but here Mann really captures the essence of Chicago as a place that can offer great beauty – like in the ethereal shot of Frank and a local fisherman sat on the dock watching the early morning sky – and also be a place of great danger, signified by the glowing neon of the city’s nightlife that gets reflected off every car bonnet and shop window as Frank goes about his nightly business.
But Thief offers up a lot more than stunning visuals and a charismatic performance by James Caan. Right from the opening scenes of Frank breaking into a huge safe the film grabs your attention and the intrigue doesn’t drop as the other characters are introduced to flesh out the story, peaking in a scene where Frank takes his date Jessie (Tuesday Weld – Falling Down) to a diner to tell her how he really earns his money. It’s not quite Pacino and De Niro meeting over a cup of coffee in terms of defining moments but James Caan, reading words based on a letter that Michael Mann had received from a real prisoner, gives the film a heart that your average crime thriller quite often lacks, and puts Frank higher up in our sympathies, despite some of his more dubious qualities. In that one scene he not only convinces Jessie of his good intentions but also the audience, and from that moment on we want his plans to work out as much as he does.
The picture quality is stunning, the depth and clarity bringing the dancing neons of Chicago alive, and the limited edition comes packed to the gills with extras, including an audio commentary by Michael Mann and James Caan, an examination of the film by critic F.X. Feeney, a new interview with James Caan, featurettes profiling Caan and Michael Mann. The package also features both the director’s cut (in an HD presentation taken from a 4K film transfer) and the theatrical cut, making this edition of Thief as definitive as it is possible to get, but away from the sparkle and polish the film itself is an enthralling watch that is often overshadowed by the director’s later works but is actually just as vital and just as accomplished. Highly recommended.
Buy Thief on Blu-Ray here.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★