A safecracker tries to outrun the mob so he can retire.
Mary Louise Wade
Thomas O. Erhart
Sam T Louis
Robert J Kuper
Bruce A Young
J J Saunders
Enrico R Cannataro
Michael Paul Chan
W R Brown
Donna J Fenton
Lisa Clarkson Milillo
David B Cohn
Samuel C Crutcher
John M. Dwyer
H. P. Evetts
Michael A. Genne
Robert W Glass
Michael J Maschio
Robert R Rutledge
John B Schuyler
Jerry R Stanford
Donald E. Thorin
Donald E. Thorin
Thief on Blu-ray
Michael Mann's startling debut film Thief (1981) is like a beacon pointing to the future. Its story of a pro safecracker pared down to essentials is unafraid to portray the less savory aspects of criminal life. Filmed in glossy color on the winter streets of Chicago, the movie wastes not a single superfluous shot in its mission to flesh out the existence of a hard-bitten but ambitious ex-con, and his spectacularly professional, technically impressive robberies. It's surely one of the best films of its macho star James Caan.
Mann's script alternates between dialogue-free images of thieves at work, and intense passages in which the leading character bulls his way through social and personal obstacles, in search of his dream of wealth and security. Frank (James Caan) and his assistant Barry (James Belushi) use a special 200-pound electric drill to cut into a safe holding a fortune in diamonds. When Frank's fence dies owing him $185,000, Frank presses his attentions on the organized crime outfit likely responsible for the killing. Mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky) returns Frank's money. Impressed with Frank's near-magical ability to cut his way into any safe in existence, Leo offers him an attractive deal -- a high fee to bust into another jeweler's safe, with all the research work done in advance. Having spent most of his adult life in prison, Frank see's Leo's offer as a short cut to his dream of success -- money, a loving wife and child, and the company of his 'adopted' father from prison, old-timer Okla (Willie Nelson), the man who taught him his criminal trade. To this end Frank all but batters diner cashier Jessie (Tuesday Weld) into listening to his crude but heartfelt marriage proposal -- she'll fit perfectly into his planned picture of the perfect future. Herself an abused loser, Jessie is touched by Frank's blunt, impassioned offer.
Michael Mann would soon move on to his TV show Miami Vice, a glitzy style & fashion- oriented fantasy about unorthodox cops in Miami; its signature image of sleek cars speeding to new pop songs, with neon signs reflecting in their paint jobs, was a major image for excess in the '80s. Despite boasting a highly expressive visual (and aural) surface, Thief is a much grittier and complex construction. At least half of the film is devoted to wordless heist scenes a la the classic Rififi. Following the theory that any safeguard man can devise, can be defeated by men, Frank and Barry expertly neutralize multiple alarm systems and cut through parts of buildings to reach high-security diamond vaults. In one fairly amazing (and authentic) scene, Frank uses a specially formulated metallic 'burning bar' that generates thousands of degrees of heat. He literally slices a new doorway through a formidable, sophisticated steel vault.
Frank's ultra-materialistic plan is to make up for his lost years by rushing directly to a lavish lifestyle. The outwardly paternalistic Leo wins Frank's trust by greasing the path for an illicit adoption; Jessie readily accepts her lavish new standard of living and joins with Barry's wife in supporting their spouses. But Frank's dream falls apart as soon as he ceases being a lone wolf; Leo's syndicate insists on more and more control. Frank maintains a bar and a used car lot as cover activities; these assets and his new family make him vulnerable when Leo begins to 'alter the deal'.
Frank finds that his association with the mob raises his visibility with the local cops, who function as a mob of their own. They try to intimidate him into handing over a percentage of his earnings, to 'spread the wealth around' and make the system work for everybody. Frank can handle the cops to some degree, but can do little when Leo announces that he's now 'owned' by the mob just like anybody else. Instead of his agreed-upon profit split from the million-dollar robberies, Frank is expected to take a pittance and keep working, under threat of violence to his family. This goes against Frank's highly nihilistic personal code, and initiates a violent confrontation.
In a fairly abbreviated part, Tuesday Weld is completely believable as a pragmatic but hopeful woman willing to commit to a man after one meeting in a coffee shop. Robert Prosky is excellent as the mob boss who can behave like Santa Claus one moment, and Satan the next. James Belushi has a promising early role as a technically savvy pro, a man capable of sorting through hundreds of alarm wires in just a few seconds. In real life a high-stakes thief, John Santucci plays the unpleasant detective Urizzi. Santucci was the model for Okla and Frank, and also served as the picture's technical consultant.
A novel idea presented by Michael Mann in Thief is Frank's 'outlaw code' that says, if push comes to shove, he must be ready to abandon all personal ties and relationships at a moment's notice. This becomes a major theme in Mann's later Heat (1995), where Robert de Niro professes a samurai-like willingness to walk away from everything he loves. Conceived after much research into the reality of life for professional criminals, the lean, intense Thief is an important entry in the modern gangster genre.
Criterion's Dual-format Blu-ray + DVD of Thief is a strikingly handsome presentation of this richly textured picture with a 'new look' for the 1980s. Of special note is the highly effective music score by Tangerine Dream, which generates the feeling of a high-tech industrial process whenever Frank pulls a caper. Rather than simply laid over the picture, the music is carefully scored -- electronic tones and rhythms add 'musical' presences and sometimes takes the place of natural sound effects.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui assembles an illuminating group of extras, starting with a commentary by director Mann and star James Caan. Three separate on-camera interviews with Mann, Caan and Tangerine Dream's Johannes Schmoeling are excellent. Mann covers all bases, starting with Thief's genesis after his completion of his prison-oriented TV film The Jericho Mile. Caan speaks almost reverently of his participation in the film, his co-stars and Mann's attention to realistic detail. Schmoeling gives us a brief history of Tangerine Dream and details the work and creativity that went into this music score. Following the lead of Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Morodoer, the '80s saw synthesized music scores dominating the movie world.
A trailer is included, as well as an insert essay by Mann biographer Nick James.
By Glenn Erickson
Thief on Blu-ray
It's quite the calling card, an accomplished piece of storytelling with a vivid, evocative style that has since become Mann's calling card in his distinctive run of urban crime thrillers: the tech noir look of city streets and rain-slicked alleys at night, shadowy bars, and shrouded industrial spaces with pools of hard white light and shades of neon blue cutting through the darkness. This is a secret network of terse professionals whose actions speak for themselves and still maintain a code of respect and responsibility in a corrupt world. The sensibility and style of Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), Miami Vice (2006), and Public Enemies (2009) can be traced right back to Thief.
Frank is an ex-con and a survivor, but behind the armor is a romantic yearning for home and family and civilian life, and he woos a wounded beauty (Tuesday Weld) to be his partner by dropping his guard and confessing all in a long conversation in a coffee shop, an anonymous oasis of light and society in the city of night. "It's the scene that made Frank come clear to me," explained Caan in 1998, and it convinced him to take the role. "This is probably the scene I'm most proud of in my entire career." Mann returned to the same template but with a different dynamic in Heat, where De Niro and Pacino take a break for a coffee shop heart to heart between cop and crook.
Chicago born and raised, Mann sets Thief in his home city (with a side trip to Los Angeles) and for the most part shoots and casts the film locally. James Belushi, at the time a Second City alumnus with a couple of short-lived sitcoms to his name, made his film debut as Frank's best friend and trusted partner. Robert Prosky, who plays the seemingly paternal head of the criminal syndicate, was 50 when Mann cast him in his first substantial film role. You can also spot William Petersen, then a member of the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, in his film debut playing a bartender. A few years later, Mann cast Petersen in the lead of Manhunter.
Mann was meticulous when it came to shooting the high precision heists and brought in consultants from both sides of the law to get them right. John Santucci, a recently-paroled safecracker, trained Caan in the use of the tools of the trade--the drills, saws, and torches used in the movie--and not only served as a consultant but was cast in a memorable supporting role as a corrupt police officer. Gavin MacFadyen, a former thief, was also a consultant/co-star. From the Chicago Police Department came Chuck Adamson, who plays the cop who gives Frank a lesson in "how things work," and Dennis Farina and Nick Nickeas, who have small parts as Leo's thugs. Many of them were brought along by Mann for his Chicago-based TV series Crime Story (1986-1988); Adamson as a co-creator and writer, Farina and Santucci in starring roles (with Farina as the cop and Santucci as a mobster). They first came together on the set of Thief, cops and (former) criminals both, sometimes even in the same scene, and the tensions were cut by discussing old cases. "They were all from the same neighborhood," recalled Mann, and it wasn't unusual for them to discover they were on separate sides of the same unsolved cases.
Having been trained in the use of specialized industrial equipment, Caan used the real machinery for the heist scenes and even injured himself manning the heavy industrial tools. Even the vault that Caan cracks in the opening scene is the real thing, purchased by the production just to dismantle it on screen. The torches used for cutting through the vault doors were so hot that fire extinguishers were needed to put out fires started by the intense heat. Not by grips, mind you, but the actors in the scene themselves.
To complete the atmosphere, Mann hired the German group Tangerine Dream to score the movie with a moody electronic soundscape. It was only their second film score (after William Friedkin's Sorcerer, 1977) but it was a good match to Mann's tone and atmosphere and it remains one of the group's most distinctive and effective scores.
Thief was not a hit but it was well reviewed and established Mann as a director with a strong storytelling style and distinctive sensibility. Its reputation has only grown in the years since.
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer, Ronnie Caan
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann (screenplay and screen story); Frank Hohimer (novel)
Cinematography: Donald Thorin
Art Direction: Mary Dodson
Music: Tangerine Dream
Film Editing: Dov Hoenig
Cast: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. [Bill] Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido).
by Sean Axmaker
Released in United States March 1981
Released in United States Spring March 27, 1981
Feature film directorial debut for Michael Mann.
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States March 1981
Released in United States Spring March 27, 1981