Action/Adventure Drama


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.

Blogs on Film

What Do American Audiences Consider Obscene?

I caught Coppola’s classic at a U.S. hotel not long ago, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities. The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut.

Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle full of gunmen, who riddle him with machine gun bullets, as do other assassins who had been hiding in the booth. Gasping and covered in blood, he staggers out of his car to be hit with a sustained volley of machine gun fire that makes his body convulse repeatedly. He then falls dead in a bloody heap, at which point one of the killers walks up to his body and unloads the rest of his ammo into him point blank. The killer then kicks Sonny’s corpse in the head for good measure. Wholesome all-American fun; wish my kids could’ve seen it.

In contrast, another scene was edited for television. Michael and Apollonia Corleone’s wedding night in Sicily is extraordinarily sweet as played sensitively and without dialogue by Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli. Michael and his young bride are alone in the bedroom. She is clearly a virgin, both excited and at the same time frightened. Michael doesn’t rush her. He waits for her to step toward him, and then cradles her face and kisses her gently on the forehead and then — the censors get out their scissors. In the original movie, but not on television, Apollonia’s breasts are briefly visible before the couple embrace and passionately kiss. Sure they just got married in a Catholic Church, sure they love each other, sure the woman is portrayed as a human being and not an object but hey, the sight of breasts might scar the innocent so out it goes.

I have seen the Godfather on television in Spain and in Sweden and in both countries the wedding night scene was uncut, whereas the scene of Sonny’s execution was edited to be shorter and less graphically violent. Apparently people in those countries have a different sense than Americans about what is shocking and obscene and what is not.

The other comparison point that comes to mind is what I have learned in my career from combat veterans. Sadly enough, many psychiatric hospitals have former soldiers in them who saw something like what happened to Sonny Corleone and never got over it. In contrast, I have never had a never heard of VA patient who had to be hospitalized for PTSD because he once saw a pair of breasts and never got over it.