Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thief (1981) - Review

Michael Mann is one of those names which is spoken of in hushed tones. As a director, his films are feted and admired. Thief, made in 1981, was his first cinema film. According to IMDB, before this, he had only directed a few shorts, an episode of a TV series, and a TV Movie. And it's certainly an impressive debut. Mann would go on to direct The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986), not to mention The Last of the Mohicans (1992) ... so there is something of a pedigree here. Unfortunately Thief sees Mann coming to grips with all the elements which he would later excel at. While the visual element of the film is exemplary, with some simply beautiful shots of rain-soaked streets and a neon-washed Chicago, the narrative structure is slow and hard to get to grips with. The film has been constructed in an almost cinema veritie style, with the actors speaking and behaving as in real life, rather than as perhaps a film might present them, and this further obscures what is actually happening.

The plot follows the titular Thief, Frank (James Caan), who is working as a car salesman, while doing a bit of diamond-robbing on the side. The opening section is magnificent. With a pounding soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (who Mann would go on to work with again on The Keep) which reminded me a lot of the way that director Dario Argento used the music by Goblin in his seminal horror film Suspiria (1979), Frank expertly drills into a safe and extracts the diamonds within. There is no dialogue at all, the action being carried by the music and visuals. Following this, we then get to know a little about Frank, and James Caan is excellent in the role. His is a complex character, driven by forces which the viewer doesn't really get to understand. Indeed, the film is more about relationships than action, and there are long dialogue scenes which unfortunately tend to drag things down.

Frank agrees to spring a friend, Okla (Willie Nelson) out of prison, and becomes embroiled with another gang boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), to steal another load of diamonds from another vault. Crime being what it is, the whole thing doesn't end well for anyone!  Along the way Frank picks up a girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and there's lots of car chases and tremendous visuals, and even John Belushi in his first major film role. All the time the Tangerine Dream soundtrack lifts and underpins the action, and in places it has a very Blade Runner feel to it ... which the rain and visuals help to emphasise. Towards the end of the film there are several explosions, which have to be some of the best ever committed to film. Very impressively executed and edited.

Overall, Thief is an impressive film, but it does take a little work for the viewer to fully access. This might simply be a factor related to the time the film was made ... almost straddling the decade between earlier films which were dialogue-based, and later fare which pushed the action to the forefront. Certainly with the visual element, the film benefits greatly from release on Blu-Ray.

On the extras front, there's an impressive number of items:

  • Limited Slipcase Edition [3000 units] featuring two versions of the film
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the director’s cut from a new 4K film transfer, approved by director Michael Mann, with uncompressed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the original theatrical cut [Limited Edition Exclusive] with original uncompressed 2.0 Stereo PCM audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Optional isolated music and effects track on the theatrical cut
  • Audio commentary by writer-director Michael Mann and actor James Caan
  • The Directors: Michael Mann – a 2001 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Mann, James Belushi, William Petersen, Jon Voight and others
  • Stolen Dreams – a new interview with Caan, filmed exclusively for this release
  • Hollywood USA: James Caan – an episode of the French TV series CinĂ© regards devoted to the actor, filmed shortly after Thief had finished production
  • The Art of the Heist – an examination of Thief with writer and critic F.X. Feeney, author of the Taschen volume on Michael Mann
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brad Stevens

  • Overall, it's a good, solid release, and fans of the genre, of Caan, and of Mann's work are well served. Now ... what we really need is a Blu-Ray release of The Keep ...

    Thief is released 2 Feb 1015 by Arrow Films.

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