Review by Gordon Justesen
Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson, James Belushi
Director: Michael Mann
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: January 14, 2014
ďI am self-employed. I am doiní fine. I donít deal with egos. I am Joe the boss of my own body.Ē
The world of the professional criminal has never been better realized on film by anyone but Michael Mann. The level of authenticity Mann applies to his films dealing with this lifestyle is so rich with detail, that Iíve long assumed he has friends who have dabbled in the criminal world or still do. Mannís unique filmmaking style, which remains one of a kind, was first established in his effective 1981 theatrical debut feature, Thief.
The film opens with an extravagant sequence that still blows my mind to this day, and in 1981 had to have been ahead of its time. Itís an extended dialogue free sequence, backed up by a phenomenal electronic score by Tangerine Dream, where we see the filmís lead character, Frank (James Caan), pulling off a heist in Chicago almost entirely by himself. Mann is wise to open the film in this manner, as it reveals what this character is all about through sheer action and maneuver.
Frank makes the meat of his income by pulling off such scores, but by day he shows the appearance of a legitimate businessman by way of running a car lot. Everything he knows about being a thief he learned on the inside during an eleven year prison stint. The man who taught him what he knows, Okla (Willie Nelson), is still behind bars and not in the best of health.
Though he insists on being a loner, work wise, even Frank canít resist having a woman by his side. Although heís experienced many failed relationships, he finally sees the real deal with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and in a bold move, he reveals to her about his time in prison and what really supplies the majority of his income. Much to his surprise, she accepts this.
Frankís successful heists capture the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a master criminal who specializes in fencing high risk scores and hiring men like Frank to pull them off. He wants to go into business with Frank, who has vowed to never get involved with others when it comes to his secret profession. But Leo promises Frank more money than he ever dreamed of having, promising millions following a single job.
But it doesnít end with money. Leo wants to be nothing short of a father to Frank, and promising him anything he wants. The biggest such case is that he promises to provide Frank and Jessie with an illegally obtained boy after they end up getting turned down by the adoption agency. Itís all seems too good to be true, but Frank is overwhelmed with joy.
However, his new association with Leo does produce many drawbacks. The cops become interested in Frank and his work, going so far as to demanding a cut of what he makes. In addition, his phones become tapped and anyone/everyone seems to know all about Frankís business.
Nonetheless, Frank assembles his crew to pull off the first score Leo sets up for him, which is a $4 million diamond heist in L.A. After careful planning of how this job will go down, Frank and company successfully pull off what is certainly his biggest heist to date. And again, itís done in such a riveting and richly detailed sequence that it almost plays like a how-to guide on how to pull off such a piece of work (though Iím sure security measures have advanced greatly since 1981).
But itís in the aftermath when everything starts to go down the tube, mainly trust. Frank finds himself getting denied the cut of the money he was promised by Leo, who then shows his true colors by threatening Frank with the end of his life after he says heís out of the business for good. It all leads to one of the most phenomenal violent showdowns ever captured on celluloid.
For James Caan, this is a career defining role if anything. Though he will always be known for Sonny from The Godfather, I consider this his finest screen work to date mostly because Caan is front and center of this piece from beginning to end and delivers a completely strong, nuanced performance in the process. Even if youíre one of those who feel that Caan never stopped playing Sonny in his later films, you definitely canít say that of his turn here.
But the power and strength of Thief comes directly from writer/director Mann. This was the film that firmly established his original style of filmmaking that would also surface in later films such as Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice and his ultimate masterpiece, Heat, which extended on the themes of this film but on a near operatic level. Mann has proven to be the true master filmmaker when it comes to blending richly drawn characters with the world of crime, and this debut effort is a perfect illustration.
Having merely hoped for an anamorphic release of this film in the pre-Blu-ray days, you could understand my excitement when I first learned that this was A) coming to Blu-ray and B) being released by Criterion! And the final result is just as glorious as I could have ever imagined. After only being able to view this film by way of a non-anamorphic transfer with constant murky visuals, this magnificent rendering (supervised by Mann himself), is certainly going to wow fans of this film instantly. This HD transfer has basically taken every flaw of the ancient DVD release and replaced with sheer 1080p beauty. The movie looks more organic than ever with this presentation, especially as far as color is concerned! The filmís neo-noir look now has the utmost proper look to match its very mood!
When first hearing about this Blu-ray release, my initial thought was how fantastic the sound quality was going to be, in particular the stunning Tangerine Dream music score. And sure enough, Criterion delivered strongly in that regard. The film truly sounds new and improved right from the astonishing opening sequence. Dialogue delivery is certainly stronger than ever, and the climatic bursts of violence sound more effective than previously heard. But itís the Tangerine Dream score that is the presentation highlight, as every piece of their music (particularly the one that plays during the intense climax) will bring your surround sound to life in superbly astounding ways! A remarkable accomplishment!
Included on this Blu-ray/DVD Dual Format release are three fantastic interview segments; the first with Michael Mann, the second with James Caan and the third with Tangerine Dream member Johannes Schmoelling. Each segment is deeply informative and reveals quite a lot about the filmmaking, acting and music scoring process. Also included is a commentary track with Mann and Caan (ported over from the original DVD release), and the filmís trailer. Rounding out everything is a terrific insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Nick James.
Michael Mann made quite a impact when debuting with Thief in 1981, and it remains one of the coolest crime films from that era. And this Blu-ray handling from Criterion is something to seriously celebrate! A definite must have for the serious Blu-ray collector, as well as Mann and his work!