Michael Mann is one of the great cult filmmakers of his time, inspiring fervent admiration bordering on religious devotion from his most passionate advocates. The cult was born with the release of Mann’s theatrical debut “Thief,” which proved him a fully-formed filmmaker from the get-go. An exhilarating mixture of realistic detail and a psychologically heightened world, “Thief” is both a perfect starting point for budding Mann fans and a great encapsulation of everything he does well.
James Caan gives one of his best performances as Frank, an ex-con and thief defined by his professionalism. He’s a man who loses his cool only when dealing with those who violate his code of professionalism – crooked cops who demand part of the take, a mob boss (Robert Prosky) who expects him to do more than one job for him. Caan makes every gesture, every word count, and he’s matched by Prosky (in his first film role), whose blue collar looks and avuncular demeanor mask his coldbloodedness until Caan says no to him one too many times.
Mann is known for his meticulous research of every project, and “Thief” is no different. The director hired real cops (including Dennis Farina, also making his film debut) and thieves as consultants, and as a result every moment of the film feels lived-in and honest. Yet Mann’s attention to detail doesn’t keep the film bound to realism, as the film’s off-kilter compositions and moody Tangerine Dream score help breathe new life into the film’s archetypes and elevate its central character to become existential figure, a man who can’t help but want more in life even though he knows it might doom him.
The straightforward, sparely plotted “Thief” is awash in the style that now characterizes Mann’s oeuvre. Neon lights bathe the wet, reflective Chicago streets, made to look like a blue-green rat’s maze that serves as a formal counterbalance to “Collateral’s” sodium orange Los Angeles. Mann uses Tangerine Dream’s synthesized score, a character in its own right, to reinforce the idea that Frank is like a mouse forced into the labyrinth, going through the mechanical motions necessary to survive the obstacles put in front of him. Read more.
More thoughts from the web:
Jaime N. Christley, Slant Magazine
As if planned backward from its Pyrrhic-tragic conclusion, “Thief” is never spoiled by any seeming inevitability, confident as we may be that sweet, good things can’t last. The juice, to appropriate a Mann-sourced phrase, isn’t in the action, but in the inaction, in the conversations between principals. You can tick off a half-dozen or more great scenes in “Thief” before you name one involving a gun; well staged though the scene may be, it’s easy to forget that Urizzi pinches Frank at the end of a shotgun, but his lines in the interrogation room (“And on dat day, I’m gonna be in dat place!”) and his dirty, contemptuous looks resonate beyond the enclosures of scenes and frames. Read more.
Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
This movie works so well for several reasons. One is that “Thief” is able to convince us that it knows its subject, knows about the methods and criminal personalities of its characters. Another is that it’s well cast: Every important performance in this movie successfully creates a plausible person, instead of the stock-company supporting characters we might have expected. And the film moves at a taut pace, creating tension and anxiety through very effective photography and a wound-up, pulsing score by Tangerine Dream. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
“Thief” is one of the great Chicago movies, and location shooting is only a part of it. While there’s grit and character to The Green Mill, the famed jazz club with ties to Al Capone, or those familiar street scenes under the rumbling el tracks downtown, Mann extends that to a more comprehensive treatment of “the Chicago Way.” Caan’s Frank is a force of nature, a hardened ex-convict who returns to the criminal life with set ideas about where his life is going to head, and that includes fair expectations for the men he works for and with. But the city itself, with its intricate system of corruption and graft (and its brutal means of enforcing it), is the true villain of “Thief,” and Mann renders it with a force greater than even Caan at his toughest can muster. Read more.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
Visual motifs, which would later recur in his work—coffee shops as intimate meeting places, bodies of water as symbols of freedom, postcards as psychological focal points—express the character’s emotional states without ever quite drawing attention to their function as symbols. Instead, they register as organic aspects of a fully realized fictional world. And yet no one would ever mistake “Thief” for psychological realism. As in Mann’s later films, the production’s authenticity formed the basis for an extremely stylized approach to form, as though the “reality” of the on-screen action were an excuse to make it seem as expressively unreal as possible. Read more.