Thief (1981) [IMDB]
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky
My first experience of Michael Mann's work was seeing Heat (1995) several years ago. It was one of those rare films which impressed me tremendously right from the first viewing, and it's even grown on me over the years to the point where it's one of my top ten films. None of the Mann films I've seen subsequently have impressed me quite as much, but I always welcome the opportunity to catch another one.
I picked up Arrow Video's 2015 release of Mann's first theatrically-released film, Thief, in an excellent HMV sale. The five discs I bought are the first ones I've owned, but I've rented around ten of their other releases and they are all superb. Arrow may just the best film distributor operating in the UK right now, and their release of Thief is the perfect way to be introduced to this fascinating early work by Mann.
It's well known by fans of Heat that Mann's masterpiece had been prototyped in his TV film LA Takedown (1989); but interestingly, Thief is also very much in the same mould and engages with a lot of the same themes. James Caan stars as Frank, a meticulous Chicago diamond thief who definitely has a good thing going: plentiful money, two front businesses, no police attention, and a new relationship with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld). However, Frank's world unravels when he partners with big-time criminal Leo (Robert Prosky) in the hope of completing the archetypal “one last job” and securing a normal life.
The basic plot of Thief was hardly original in 1981 and has become positively hackneyed all these years later. However, there are plenty of intriguing elements which have helped the film secure its enduring cult reputation. Chief among these is Mann's sense of style which appears to have arrived almost fully-formed, even from his first film. Night-time scenes of Chicago look stunning, particularly on Blu Ray, and it's easy to see how Nicholas Winding Refn's inferior Drive (2011) lifted liberally from both this film and Walter Hill's excellent The Driver (1978).
As impressive as it is for a theatrical debut, Thief isn't perfect. Caan's performance is good but I can't quite buy him in the role or his relationship with Weld; also, like like most or even all of Mann's films, this one is probably a bit overlong. The sense of atmosphere and tension is superb, however, and benefits enormously from a fine score by Tangerine Dream. All in all, I'd strongly recommend Thief to any fan of crime films in the vein of Mann's later efforts, The Driver, or another of my all-time favourites, Ronin (1998).