***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson
screenplay by Michael Mann, based on the novel The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer
directed by Michael Mann
"Look, I have run out of time. I have lost it all. So l cannot work fast enough to catch up, and l cannot run fast enough to catch up. And the only thing that catches me up is doin' my magic act. But it ends, you know? It will end. When l got this, right there, it ends, it is over. So I am just asking you...to be with me."
-Frank (James Caan), Thief (1981)
"I'm catching up. On life. Meeting someone like you."
-John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Public Enemies (2008)
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Like the historical Dillinger, the fictional Frank was just a punk kid overzealously punished for a petty crime by a judge looking to make an example of him. Instead, he created the man Frank is as Thief begins: a master safecracker, taught his trade in the joint by fellow convict Okla (Willie Nelson, heartbreaking). As Frank recounts in a mesmerizing monologue that Caan, for what it's worth, has counted as his finest piece of screen acting, the other thing he learned in Joliet is how to create a forcefield around himself by disengaging from fear. It's not Zen detachment that he's mastered; a man of flashy tastes, he's too much the materialist to live like Heat's ascetic Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), whose Modernist house in the hills is all windows and no furniture. They are cut from the same cloth, though, in that they're acutely aware of the temporariness of their stolen lifestyles and have no qualms about jumping ship to stay ahead of the enemy.
The enemy, in Frank's case, is Leo (Robert Prosky), a grandfatherly sort with a malevolent twinkle in his eye. In an opening sequence hypnotically bare of verbal exposition, Frank pulls off a big heist, only to be ripped off by his buyer--a ploy to put him in contact with Leo, to whom all roads in the Chicago underworld apparently lead. Leo, sensing both talent and competition, wants Frank next to him, under him. Frank, an independent contractor and entrepreneur (he owns a car dealership and a bar on the side), ignores his instincts by agreeing to a couple of scores. Subconsciously, I think, Frank, who grew up an orphan, is looking for a replacement father figure for the dying Okla, and what Leo's offering is an illusion of financial security while Frank gets his new life with brokedown beauty queen Jessie (Thalia Menninger herself, Tuesday Weld) off the ground. He's too arrogant to realize he's made a Faustian bargain, and merely indebts himself to the Devil when he impulsively accepts Leo's offer to procure an infant for him (he sounds like one of Scorsese's magic men: "You state your model. Black, brown, yellow or white. Boy or girl") after he and Jessie are given the run-around at an adoption agency.
Thief is ground-zero for Michael Mann--his origin story, to borrow Bryant Frazer's apt term for the first "real" John Carpenter movie, Assault on Precinct 13--in establishing soon-to-be familiar tropes: cops vs. robbers; honour among thieves; lovesick scofflaws. It suggests a precursor, especially, to Public Enemies, which marked a homecoming to the setting of Thief, Mann's birthplace of Chicago, and similarly features a career crook who's a rogue in the eyes of the police and organized crime alike. Frank and Dillinger--Mann's Dillinger, at least--are also men sprinting after being forced to run in place for so long, eager to join the status quo even as their occupation flouts it. The cops in Thief aren't as nuanced or sympathetic as they would be in later Mann films, and part of that is the casting of a non-actor, John Santucci, as their ringleader, in pursuit of some skewed funhouse authenticity. (Santucci was a recently-paroled jewel thief serving as a technical advisor on the production.1 His arresting officer was none other than Dennis Farina, cast as one of Leo's henchmen in a kind of Freaky Friday switcheroo.) But their interactions with Frank weigh heavily in his favour not just because Caan has movie-star charisma they don't: As Hitchcock made axiomatic, audiences can't help but admire a guy who's good at what he does--and Frank is not only that, he's better at his job than these cops are at theirs, too. If the movie's anti-authority streak finally feels a bit callow, the cops' attempts to shake down Frank for a piece of the action show that Mann is, in the fashion of a true Chicago filmmaker, as attuned to the Windy City's--and America's--economic imbalances as he is to its cinematic possibilities.
The picture has an audiovisual signature as well that's still recognizable as Michael Mann's, even though his aesthetic has substantially evolved in recent years. (Some would say devolved, as he's since liberated the camera from the tripod and embraced the videoish nature of pure digital. They'd be wrong.) Thief is a grungier precursor to Manhunter and the early seasons of "Miami Vice", with Mann spearheading MTV existentialism through the juxtaposition of pulsing ambient music (here provided by synth maestros Tangerine Dream) and noir imagery: rainy alleys, all-night coffee shops, city lights slithering in the black hood of a moving car. If Modernism hasn't quite penetrated the locale the way it will in Mann's later work, when he goes looking for it, it's there in the film's stark, asymmetrical compositions--Frank is often flushed to the left or right of the frame as if he's photobombing it, a visual representation of how he barges his way through life--and fairly radical departure from the stylistic trends of the day. What's remained consistent from Thief on is Mann's desire to see into the night,2 a curiosity impelled by his preoccupation with crime, self-professed but also self-evident. He's a vampire anthropologist, surveying the habits of nocturnal creatures like the cabbie and his dangerous fare in Collateral, or Manhunter's Francis Dolarhyde, cued by the full moon to slaughter families. But before Francis there was Frank, who's content to conduct business during the day yet seems, perhaps not unlike Mann, more alive under the cover of darkness.
If Mann's voice is already definitive in Thief, so arguably does his youth or inexperience shine through. It's the first draft of a sensibility, and the ideas contained herein would gain sophistication and economy with each subsequent iteration, along with Mann's storytelling abilities. The climax is on one level very well thought-out, with the sudden infusion of rock in the score complementing Frank's descent into righteous fury, like when Fight Club goes from the electronic The Chemical Brothers to the electric The Pixies to signal the return of raw humanity. (Ubiquitous '80s composer Craig Safan replaced Tangerine Dream for this final suite when the latter couldn't rip off "Comfortably Numb" to Mann's satisfaction.) But the scene itself is conceptually baffling, in particular the dynamic inside Leo's house after an evening spent menacing Frank and killing his partner (Jim Belushi, never better and underutilized): There's Leo's liaison, Attaglia (Tom Signorelli), sitting across from Leo in his living room while they read the paper--a tableau of absurd domesticity that only gets weirder when Attaglia rises from his chair to offer Leo a glass of milk. (Leo declines.) Skulking around the place with gun drawn, Frank passes two heavy-set women--Leo's harem?--zoning out to television; this is one suave Dean Stockwell away, really, from the apartment in Blue Velvet, and I wonder if Thief could've obliquely inspired David Lynch. In other words, there is, to put it generously, a dream logic at work in this sequence, especially in how Leo's guards--a bushy Farina among them--come out in full force only once he's been killed, defying conventional wisdom that cutting off the head causes the body to fall. Benefit of the doubt, maybe they don't know he's dead yet; and there is a tradition in crime fiction of big-boss places being easier to break into than break out of. Great security detail, nonetheless.3
It's cathartic, sure, to watch the depraved old fart and his cronies get blown to kingdom come after Leo has threatened to turn Frank's family into "Wimpy burgers," but not in Mann's usually transcendent way, just in a typical '80s bloodbath way. Leo is on point--almost as though he's read the script--when he tells Frank, "You're scary because you don't give a fuck. But don't come on to me now with your jailhouse bullshit. You are not that guy. Don't you get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family. And I own the paper on your whole fuckin' life." His mistake is in calling Frank's bluff: As Frank earlier explained to Jessie (and I just got that--Frank and Jessie, like the James Brothers--though I don't know what to do with it), abject fear activates in him an icy invincibility, "'cause I do not mean nothin' to myself. I do not care about me. I do not care about... Nothin'. You know?" He figures he survived one fateful day in the prison yard "because [he] achieved that mental attitude," and so we watch as he scorches the earth in a pre-emptive strike against Leo, sending Jessie and son away and burning his businesses to the ground. And it's that believing in nothing that might be the overriding problem with this grand finale, in that Thief's POV, impossible to disentangle from Frank's, becomes entirely too nihilistic. Corny though it may sound, one of the things I appreciate most about Mann's films is that they remind me--hell, teach me--how to be a man. They're about chivalry and honour and all the self-sacrifice that implies; Frank could well be a sociopath, but in any event he hardly cuts a gallant figure. His vengeance-minded actions are chicly grim but they don't resonate, whatever visceral desire they've satisfied.
But even the most ego-driven of Mann's antiheroes--Muhammad Ali, anyone?--are touched by his unerring sense of cool, and Caan is ingeniously cast, his facetious way of overenunciating through clenched teeth and pursed lips pairing perfectly with the wiseass tenor of Mann's contraction-free dialogue; his hothead energy lending dramatic contrast to methodical robbery scenes that require him to be absolutely still and centred. (I'm reminded of the doctor with severe Tourette's from an Oliver Sacks profile who somehow summoned reserves of calm to perform surgery.) Mann modelled Frank on Santucci, but Caan's screen persona definitely took precedence, and a moment where Frank misspells "male" as "mail" on a form at the adoption agency seems strangely vestigial, a fleeting imposition on an icon who doesn't abide petty emasculations in a movie that otherwise knows exactly what to do with James Caan. If the end product speaks for itself, then Mann and Caan worked so well together it's surprising they never collaborated on anything else. On the other hand, if Mann is constantly returning to and honing Thief in his work, perhaps he feels it's the one aspect of the film that left no room for improvement.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The definition of a chronic revisionist, Mann's compulsive perfectionism manifests itself most transparently in the multiple incarnations of his films--including Thief, whose Director's Cut debuts on Blu-ray Disc as part of the Criterion Collection. Criterion's manifesto--"each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen"--is open enough to interpretation to justify the exclusion of Thief's theatrical version, but still it's disappointing that the company's commitment to posterity didn't at least allow for a seamless-branching option to view both cuts. IMDb catalogues the changes, which amount to about two minutes' worth of additional footage--most prominently a morning-after scene following the first break-in where Frank joins blues legend Willie Dixon to sip coffee in quiet reflection on the bank of the Chicago river. Mann also removed a slow-motion insert of Tuesday Weld from the beach scene, calling into question what constitutes "uncut" once the "maker" starts lifting shots out of the movie.
That said, the disc's 1.85:1, 1080p presentation of the film is unimpeachable. Thief has historically boasted a VHS mushiness on home video; having hit DVD at a time when MGM had yet to go 16x9, it never even got the courtesy of an anamorphic transfer. Now, at last, it's been restored to a lustre that will for fans be like seeing the titular car come back to life in Christine--the picture is newly capable of gleaming, and often does. Grain fluctuates but remains supple at its densest, while dynamic range is excellent under the circumstances. Meaning that more highlights are brought into relief than ever before (for the first time I can recall, I was drawn into the mini-narrative of the dimly-lit prologue instead of struggling to follow it), but on rare occasions the camera negative simply has nothing left to give in terms of shadow detail: a black-clad Leo, for instance, at one point becomes a disembodied head against a black backdrop. When this sort of thing happens, blacks have a telltale bluish chalkiness, suggesting, nay, proving the image was already "pushed" a few stops. Colours, meanwhile, are vibrant within the film's cold, wintry palette; there is a slightly suspicious amount of teal, but less than affects Heat on the format.
The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is if anything more consistently impressive. What Tangerine Dream's score lacks in bass it makes up for in dimension and clarity, and it never cancels out nor is it cancelled out by the sparking, drilling, and clanging of tools in the burglary set-pieces, where the music is most prevalent. With the exception of the dialogue, firmly anchored in the centre channel, sound in Thief is difficult to localize--it's everywhere, sustaining mood. While a modern digital mix would probably have more depth, this isn't the customarily flat audio of the '80s by any means. Also on board is a feature-length yakker Mann and Caan recorded back in 1995 for MGM's Deluxe LaserDisc. We learn that The Blues Brothers had left its mark on Chicago in the form of an after-hours club to which the Thief crew would sometimes retire for a nightcap. Caan remembers Santucci driving him mad by concentrating on his forehead during their scenes together, as well as the irony of Santucci being a bundle of nerves in front of the camera when his whole life revolved around far riskier ventures than acting. It's a reasonably involving conversation, although the pair's initial spark of electricity eventually disintegrates into lengthy stretches of silence, making Criterion's index of topics (e.g., "Willie Nelson," "Magnesium rods and oxygen") extra helpful as a shortcut to bypassing dead air.
Video-based supplements kick off with "Truth-Telling Style: Michael Mann on Thief" (24 mins., HD), an interview with Michael Mann conducted by critic Scott Foundas. Foundas digs into the origins of the project, from the credited source novel (Frank Hohimer's The Home Invaders), which Mann says he didn't use a word of, to the shooting script, which concludes with Jessie and Frank possibly reconciled in a manner not unlike the denouement of Manhunter, from the sounds of it. As Foundas predicts he will, Mann rejects the Modernist label yet concedes that Thief's narrative is modern, in that "it has an idea at its core [that] determines the structure. It's designed to affect the way you think." "I would not engage in something that like that now," he adds, ending the piece on a faintly defensive note. "Making Something Real: James Caan on Thief" (11 mins., HD) is Caan's half of the commentary in précis, ultimately. He's aged a lot--all of these featurettes were shot last year. Lastly, the English-subtitled, German-language "The Otherness of Sound: The Tangerine Dream Score" (16 mins., HD) interviews Johannes Schmoelling, the classically-trained keyboardist who joined the band in 1979. Despite Mann's admission to Foundas that he's "still not sure" Tangerine Dream was the right choice for the film, Schmoelling has only kind words for the control-freak director, who with the band's blessing took over the mixing board, arranging sixteen preset tracks on the fly. Music geeks should enjoy Schmoelling's citing of the musique concrète movement as he sets out to differentiate the Dream's output from that of contemporaries such as Kraftwerk.
Rounding out the platter is Thief's enticing theatrical trailer, bumped up to HiDef with modest success. SIGHT & SOUND editor Nick James contributes the traditional liner-notes essay, writing on the film with a pithiness that no doubt leaves all comers wanting. The DVD accompanying this dual-format release is configured identically.
1. The late Santucci would subsequently appear in Mann's "Miami Vice", "Crime Story", and L.A. Takedown but was arrested in the mid-'90s for possession of burglary tools. His acting career dried up shortly thereafter. return
3. Mann could've also taken it easier on the Peckinpah slo-mo. return