Michael Mann’s Thief is one of the most confident directorial debuts of its era, the product of an unprecedented amount of research and preparation. Mann was 37 when he made it, a veteran of the movie and TV industries who had been photographing the film’s industrial Chicago locations since his teens. Real thieves—some with outstanding warrants—were brought on as technical advisors and cast in bit roles. Extensive interviews with inmates at Folsom Prison—where Mann, a stickler for location shooting, had made the TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979)—formed the basis for Thief’s depictions of incarceration and post-prison life. The tools and techniques used by Frank (James Caan) to open a safe in the movie’s mesmerizing opening sequence were borrowed from a real safecracker, John Santucci, who Mann had cast, somewhat perversely, as a corrupt cop. Santucci had even once been arrested by another member of the cast, Dennis Farina, then a Chicago police officer moonlighting in local theater. (Both pursued acting careers, though Santucci continued getting arrested for burglary into the mid-1990s.)
This effect of this authenticity made a common genre narrative—a jewel thief signing on for one last big score so that he can finally go straight—seem unfamiliar and new. The story had been told countless times before, and would be told countless times afterward, but it would never seem quite so real and lived-in, informed by a credible sense of the milieu (There are no stethoscopes here, as in real life, safes are cracked with industrial tools.) and anchored by career-best performances from Caan, Tuesday Weld, and Willie Nelson, as well as a supporting cast full of talented then-unknowns.
As Frank, who spent 11 years in prison planning a perfect life on the outside, Caan is both swaggering and high strung, his aggression barely masking his vulnerability. Weld, who plays Jessie, the waitress Frank falls in love with, is alluring but world-weary, a woman whose face registers a lifetime of difficulties. The fixed, eager stare of Okla (Nelson), Frank’s mentor, communicates an overwhelming sadness, the sense of a life wasted in isolation. Mann’s signature themes—fears of obsolescence, an obsession with orderly living and time—are already present in a mature form, and they stand in sharp contrast to the themes of desperation and power, which traditionally inform crime movies. Visual motifs, which would later recur in his work—coffee shops as intimate meeting places, bodies of water as symbols of freedom, postcards as psychological focal points—express the character’s emotional states without ever quite drawing attention to their function as symbols. Instead, they register as organic aspects of a fully realized fictional world.
And yet no one would ever mistake Thief for psychological realism. As in Mann’s later films, the production’s authenticity formed the basis for an extremely stylized approach to form, as though the “reality” of the on-screen action were an excuse to make it seem as expressively unreal as possible. Reflective textures—glass, car hoods, and rain-slicked streets—are everywhere, their qualities emphasized by Tangerine Dream’s gleaming electronic score. Skies function as ceilings, enclosing the characters within the city. The depth-of-field is often shallow; out of focus, city lights become abstract backdrops against which the characters appear even more sharply.
Criterion’s new combination DVD/Blu-ray of the film vastly improves on the earlier MGM home video release, restoring Thief’s night scenes to the unreal, hyper-saturated look of its original theatrical release prints. (An early scene featuring bluesman Willie Dixon, cut from the original release, but re-instated by Mann in 1995, was taken from a different source than the rest of Criterion’s 4K transfer, but blends in seamlessly.) Style-wise, the movie remains as inventive and thoroughly original as ever, and its depiction of Chicago—as a half-wasteland of bridges and glass, where the nights are pitch black and the days are gray—is still one of the most striking evocations of an urban environment in film history. With Thief, Mann arrived fully formed, establishing himself with a single feature, as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.