From the opening moments of “Thief”—which features a clockwork heist sequence that would make “Rififi” director Jules Dassin stand up and applaud—it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. With some documentary work and TV movie “The Jericho Mile” already under his belt, for his debut feature film, Michael Mann’s command of atmosphere and character arrives fully formed, with “Thief” staking a high bar that the filmmaker would leap from in his films for years to come.
Last month, fans and newcomers alike got a chance to revisit Mann’s 1981 movie with The Criterion Collection’s release of “Thief.” Arriving both on DVD and Blu-ray, the film now boasts a brand new digital transfer that allows the neon signs of late night Chicago to pop against the velvet shimmer of the rain soaked streets. And after using the new release as a pleasant excuse to dive into a full retrospective of the filmmaker, we decided to reach out to Mann to chat specifically about “Thief,” and he graciously obliged. Our discussion with the director touched upon creating character, the importance of authenticity as well as some details about what he’s cooking next.
But one can’t really start talking about “Thief,” without at least considering it in the context of “The Jericho Mile.” The 1979 drama, set within the walls of Folsom Prison and shot on location, which tells the story of Rain Murphy, a lifer convicted for murder, surviving his time on the inside by keeping mostly to himself while focusing on one thing that keeps him literally moving: running. And in fact, he’s gotten so good, he could potentially qualify for the Olympic team. And in speaking with Mann, he revealed that “The Jericho Mile” helped him gain insight into the character of ex-con Frank in “Thief.”
“It probably informed my ability to imagine what Frank’s life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him,” he explained. Indeed, Frank has spent much of his twenties in prison, and back on the streets of Chicago, he’s somewhat a man out of time, trying with desperate determination to make up for the years he’s lost, and build a respectable life for himself, with a house, wife and child.
“The idea of creating his character, was to have somebody who has been outside of society. An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it,” Mann said. “Everything that’s normal development, that we experience, he was excluded from, by design. In the design of the character and the engineering of the character, that was the idea.”
However, in the absence of social growth, Frank has become the consummate professional in his job cracking safes. And he would be the first in a series of men in Mann’s films who are obsessively focused on their work, and getting the job done with an exacting perfection, defined by their own personal code of conduct. The result are characters that are utterly compelling, but do they also reflect the personal qualities of Mann himself, or are these details borne out of research?
“It’s simpler than that,” Mann responded. “I always find it interesting, people who are aware, alert, conscious of what they do and are pretty good at it… Whether it’s a boxer like Muhammad Ali or a construction worker or a burglar or a guy running research in a tobacco company or pharmaceuticals company, like Jeffrey Wigand. I find those kind of people interesting. People who want to put in 50-60 hours a week and go home and are not really conscious of life moving by, don’t really interest me very much.”
Indeed, many of Mann’s films feature intensely focused protagonists, and in “Thief,” achieving a certain level of realism in the preparation and production was key. James Caan has stated he actually learned to crack a safe for the role, and Mann encourages that level of understanding with his actors and their characters. “ As part of the curriculum designed for an actor getting into character, I try to imagine what’s going to really help bring this actor more fully into character,” he revealed. “And so I try to imagine what experiences are going to make more dimensional his intake of Frank, so that he is Frank spontaneously when I’m shooting. So one of the most obvious things is it’d be pretty good if [James Caan] was as good at doing what Frank does as is Frank.”
The result is the creation of a character that feels authentic, but helping to fully flesh out Frank is the milieu in which he carries on with his life. While Frank has a straight job during the day selling cars, he lives by night, with “Thief” portraying Chicago as a place that comes alive after dark, with excitement and menace lurking in the shadows in equal measure. And for Mann, the neon punctuated evenings are also a reflection of Frank’s interior.
“If you project Frank’s mental state—how does he think? how does he feel in the world he occupies? what is that world?—to him, the city isn’t this flat place, with streets at right angles to each other, like a grid. To him, in his mental projection, he moves through a place that’s almost three dimensional,” Mann elaborates. “It’s filled with danger, it’s filled with opportunity, he has to avoid discovery, there’s secret places where he keeps the tools of his trade. To me it became like a three dimensional maze. It’s very much kind of a complexity, kind of like an arcology more than a two dimensional city plan.”
And for viewers, the pulsating sound of that world comes from Tangerine Dream’s expressive score. It’s so much a part of the texture of “Thief,” it’s hard to imagine the film without it, but as Mann revealed, he initially had other ideas about the soundtrack before explaining why he settled on the progressive rockers.
“My normal instinctive choice for music would have been Chicago Blues. That’s really the music that as a teenager, I first fell I love with. So my first instinct was Chicago Blues, however I felt that what the film was saying, thematically, and the facility with which the film might be able to have resonance with audience,” he said. “I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank’s experience specific only to Frank…So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream.”
This attention to context, character, themes and relatability has become a standard in Mann’s films, whether tracking the efforts of a whistleblower in “The Insider,” the manhunt to find John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” or the trappings of sports, fame and controversy in “Ali.” And while some may subscribe specific motifs or aesthetics to the collective works of the filmmaker, personally, the director says he only looks forward to whatever is coming next.
“I’m not conscious of, ‘This is my style, this is not my style.’ If there’s anything I’m aware of, it’s that whatever I did last, is not what I want to do next,” Mann shared. “The only film that I’ve done that I would want to go back into and do something again in the same period, is probably ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ I really love period and the conflicts in the middle of the 18th century, Seven Year’s War. So, whatever it is that outside observers say, I’m not conscious of signature and it would be a bad exercise in vanity if one was.”
And with the director now in post-production on his next, untitled film starring Chris Hemsworth, he’s putting together a new world for audiences, this time, one that exists in the digital realm.
“With great facility the people in the film move between Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Chicago. And the film’s story takes you from those places to inside a processor, inside the electron universe, amongst a population of transistors. You have two billion transistors in your cell phone. Bits with either an absence or surplus of electrons, then become ones or zeroes, every two billionth of a second and affect the macro, our lives. That’s the world this film takes place in,” the director explained.
And as always, we’ll be waiting with eager expectations of our own, to see what Mann has conjured up next.
“Thief” is now available via The Criterion Collection. Michael Mann’s untitled next film opens on January 16, 2015.