The decade of the 1970s in American film witnessed the continuation of the auteur-driven creative revival that began in the late 1960s (see my recommendations The Kid Stays in the Picture and Bonnie and Clyde for details) as well as the beginning of the blockbuster era led by Jaws, Star Wars et al. But with the dawn of the 1980s, a new genre of slick, cool, cinematic products emerged in the theaters and on television. I regard Michael Mann’s gripping 1981 crime drama Thief as the first movie of this new era.
The plot focuses on an emotionally-walled off master thief named Frank (none of the characters in the film have last names). After 11 years in prison, Frank returns to his craft and starts to hope for a real life built around an equally damaged woman he fancies (Tuesday Weld) and the forthcoming return of his mentor from the joint (Willie Nelson). But with attachments and possessions come vulnerability, and Frank’s is exploited by a ruthless mobster (Robert Prosky) and corrupt cops who wants to profit from his scores. Frank is pushed to his emotional limit even as he plans the biggest heist of his life, which he dreams will let him start anew.
Made just a few years before his as-1980s-as-it-gets hit TV show Miami Vice, Thief highlights writer-director Michael Mann’s signature style, which blends some old time film noir themes with modern flashy camerawork, pulsating music, gritty performances, and attention to realistic details (real-life criminals were hired to consult on the film). There were many slick but stupid films in the 1980s, but Mann consistently managed to to make style serve substance rather than substitute for it. Thief is Mann’s best work in my view, though some of his fans would stump for Heat, which I consider excellent but not quite as tightly constructed or compelling as Thief.
Putting aside a miscast Jim Belushi, the performers are all strong here, with Caan turning in what he correctly called the best work of his career. His extended scene with Weld in which he explains how prison affected him is flawless in its writing and acting, and draws the viewer into Frank’s emotional world rather than keeping us at a distance as did too many films of this era.
This is also a terrific Chicago film. It’s not just the iconic and prosaic Chicago locations employed, but also the way the actors deliver their lines in Windy City-ese. Last but certainly not least, Tangerine Dream’s score is quite memorable, and is well supplemented by Craig Safan’s closing music that riffs on Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, which not incidentally is the state this film ultimately leaves its heroes.
p.s. Look fast for Dennis Farina as one of Prosky’s gunmen.