The Movie Waffler BluRay Review - <i>Thief</i> (1981) | The Movie Waffler

BluRay Review - Thief (1981)

Arrow's high-def transfer of Michael Mann's 1981 thriller.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Michael Mann

Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi, Robert Prosky

Michael Mann is the foremost chronicler of the criminal mindset, and if he has been somewhat patchy of late, Arrow have offered the chance to view his debut in a pristine director's cut remastered in 4K.
After cutting his teeth on episodic television and directing TV movie The Jericho Mile, came Thief, a story of ex con Frank (Caan), used car salesman by day expert safecracker by night. What amazes on repeat viewing is how fully developed the Mann style is from the start - the slick neon rain washed visuals, the electronic scorings of Tangerine Dream and the focus on the expertise of professional men going about their business. There is a meticulous pride in the minutiae of work, be it bank robbers, safe crackers or TV producers. Mann likes nothing better than to examine and investigate  the mindset of capable men (and it is always men; women may have crunchy dialogue in this world but they are invariably distractions or an impediment to the career focus of his male protagonists).
A Jerry Bruckheimer production, as was American Gigolo, this was during the producer's glossy existential angst period, before discovering a cocaine snorting behemoth of a partner and dropping the subtext whilst keeping the visual sheen. Thief shares a lot in common with Schrader’s movie. Both deal with love and the issues that opening your emotions can lead to in a profession that requires detachment and focus and in which showing any vulnerability may get you killed. They also have a slick visual style that belies a dark heart.
Caan has always been an actor who convinces as a blue collar guy. He looks both capable and dangerous but manages to convey emotion and fragility without looking weak. Like McQueen, he can be both taciturn and emotive but with the attitude and demeanour of a coiled snake waiting to strike.
Ostensibly a crime thriller, Thief is more about last chances and a love triangle between Frank and Jessie (Weld), a hostess who the film implies has a chequered past, and crime boss Leo (Prosky), who is by turns avuncular and helpful but also deadly if spurned, like a jealous lover who will not let go. Thief plays like a test run for the sprawling and epic Heat. Here the focus is more on Caan and his melancholic crisis. He knows he has one shot left at happiness and in Jessie he sees a damaged mirror image. Both fatalistic in nature, they seize the opportunity provided and buy a house together, attempting to adopt a child in order to fulfill the ideal family unit.
Less a rush of lust fuelled sexual endorphins then, and more a realisation that time is short and the heat could be just around the corner. In a world in which a retirement plan is either a bullet to the back of the head or a long stretch in prison, Frank and Jessie are living the idealised version of how their lives could have been, like Bonnie and Clyde in reverse.
All of the elements of his later work are here present and correct. Weld is both embodiment of Caan’s dream life and also now a bargaining chip for any criminal element that wants to put the squeeze on him. Will he drop her if he feels the law or his enemies squeezing in on him? In Willie Nelson you have the old timer who stands as an example of what could happen if you stay in this life too long, and James Belushi plays the callow young buck out to make a name, roles played by Jon Voight and Val Kilmer in later works. The eloquent and sometimes pretentious dialogue is also present and correct. Caan never speaks in contractions; his wording is precise and accurate with no ambiguity. This is a man who does not want to repeat himself ever. His characters may sometimes be too eloquent for their background, but then what is cinema if not an idealised and perfected version of real life seen through an auteurist prism.
What the film does not have is a mirror image, no obsessed badge holder who is as relentless and meticulous as his quarry. Frank is his own worst enemy, at war with himself, both exacting and combustible, and just as liable to be the architect of his own downfall as Prosky’s villainous and slimy mob boss.
A magnificent achievement in the development of a singular talent, the restoration of the director's cut is reference quality for both sound and picture. The theatrical cut is visually problematic, and shown side by side, looks markedly inferior. One of the best crime dramas of the decade then, with one of Caan's best performances.
You get two cuts of the movie, the 4k Director's cut restoration and the original theatrical cut; there are no major differences to the thrust of the film, just a few tweaks, additions and editorial choices. A Michael Mann and James Caan commentary recorded in 1995, which does justice to this maligned form, adding both detail and  an informative look at his directorial style. This is like a film school lecture and shows how good and enriching these can be to the film experience. The Art of the Heist is less a documentary than an abbreviated 67 minute commentary from author and critic F.X Feeney discussing the production history and the visual style of Thief, an efficient but somewhat stolid piece of work. An episode of a French TV Series called Hollywood USA, in which you get to watch Caan flirt with a French journalist and play a variety of sports with his young son Scott. Caan is amused with himself, laconic and likeable but very much at arm's length from engaging in the interview process. Caan also has a 15 minute look back at the movie from a modern perspective and there is an hour long documentary from 2001 series The Directors, which has a film by film look at Michael Mann’s work - of interest if a little hagiographic. Add a reversible sleeve and a 14 page essay from critic Brad Stevens and you have an admirable heist of extras from this important work of '80s cinema.
A great reissue to kick off the new year. Fingers crossed that we may eventually see a restoration of similar care for Mann's baffling and much maligned The Keep.