Friday, August 10, 2012

Thief (1981)

Large William stated that if you hadn’t seen “Thief”, you weren’t cool. After watching Michael Mann’s first film, I can see why he made such a bold statement. “Thief” is the personification of cool! It’s slickly directed, well acted, polished cinematography and a rocking soundtrack by Tangerine Dream! To bring it all home is an always welcome plot of a safecracker getting caught up with the mafia.

One could take a look at “Thief” and write it off as an average portrait of a criminal. Trying my best not to sound elitist, I’d tell them that they’re wrong. Mann may take what many would consider to be a regular plot and infuse it with energy and finesse. Besides, who cares if the story is familiar? All that matters if it’s engaging or not. “Thief” is highly engaging!

One of the most telling features of “Thief” is that Michael Mann found his niche early on. A good chunk of his trademarks are present in his first film. The grim and damp Chicago setting in the day that turns into a shining beacon of light overnight. The use of neon lights bouncing off of cars and windows to contract the darkness is a thing of beauty! The used car sale lot is stunning to look at after dark!

The most telling attribute is Mann’s attention towards a life of crime. He’s known taking a close look at someone involved in organized crime. Here, it revolves around Frank (James Caan), a self-employed safecracker trying to make enough money to settle into a normal life. He wants to marry and raise children with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), going so far to tell her of his criminal background (which he never told his first wife). He’s not the most pleasant guy (he’ll be the first to pull a gun when anger overcomes him), but he is devoted. There’s a touching moment between he and his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson), that I won’t go into details to prevent spoiling it.

He’s against the idea of working with the mafia, preferring to work solely with his close friends, preferably Barry (James Belushi). Leo (Robert Prosky) is able to convince him to join his team to crack a highly secured safe. If he does so, he and Barry will net eighty-three thousand dollars. This is more than enough to allow Frank to live comfortably for the rest of his life. As anybody with a brain cell can tell, it’s not going to go down like that.

James Caan commands the screen as Frank! The only person to give him a run for his money is Robert Prosky. When the two of them share a scene (such as when Frank confronts Leo), it’s deep fried gold! It’s a tossup for me on whether or not the dialogue scenes are the best in the film or the safecracking is. One on hand, we have the aforementioned interactions between Frank and company (he and Weld have tremendous chemistry and I liked his friendship with Belushi). On the other, we have those wonderful scenes in the warehouse where Frank is getting assistance on discovering a way to crack the high-tech safe. Watching the sparks fly and the iron meld is as manly and gorgeous as they come!

Though it’ll always be a tossup, I’d currently argue that “Thief” is Michael Mann’s best film! It’s slick and entertaining and almost never misses a beat (there’s a brief spot between the actual heist and the aftermath that feels dry and could have been cut)! It also clearly helped inspire Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”, which is one of my favorite films. It has enough working for it in it’s favor for it to take this honor for many days to come.

MVT: It’s hard deciding between James Caan’s performance or Michael Mann’s direction, but I’ll go with the director this time out. His visual style compliments the film and Frank’s actions. In another director’s hands, it could have easily been a great performance by Caan in a mediocre film.

Make or Break: The opening. It’s only apropos that Mann starts out with a heist involving Frank, Barry and their crew to warm the audience into the picture. It does a damn fine job in doing so!

Final Rating: 9.75/10

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