Thief Screen 12 articles



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  • It’s understandable that “Thief” may have seemed like a promising début in 1981; it would have seemed like a promising début in 1971, 1961, or 1951. Its main virtue is a strong infusion of bracingly practical, hard-nosed details of the criminal life... Mann came onto the scene at a time when many of the icons of the nineteen-seventies were flaming out after hubristic feats, and others were being overshadowed by a new generation of kiddie-pop filmmakers led by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

  • To my mind, Thief remains Mann’s most zealously drawn, thematically nuanced work, if not his best (an honor which may in the end go to the ambitious, aesthetically radical Miami Vice). Notably, all the hallmarks of a debut film are absent here. Mann had spent more than a decade working in TV prior to Thief--writing, producing, and directing everything from sitcoms to documentaries to a Movie of the Week--but the transition nonetheless proved inevitable and the result accordingly confident.

  • Thief, on its surface, is the genre movie its title would imply: a film about robbers mostly designed with the “one last big score” thread so many classic crime movies also bear. But the way it operates from shot to shot is something of a completely different nature. It could be called expressionistic, but that term is too broad for the visual interests at play; instead, it follows the beauty of grime, giving a particular sense of both a city always in motion and the men who flow within it.

  • [Early in Thief,] the camera lingers on Frank at work, drilling into a safe with the concentration of a diamond cutter. Mann’s technique... is immaculate... Compare their sturdiness to the almost liquid quality of the sequence toward the end of Public Enemies in which Dillinger impulsively saunters into a Chicago police station. Mann shapes the character’s walk across the room like an almost ethereal forward drift with visual-aural elements... weaving in and out of his (and our) consciousness.

  • Caan considers this his best performance, and he's probably right: Several of the most important scenes are two-person conversations that reach Bergman-esque levels of intimacy and recrimination. These moments of heightened self-doubt alternate with bloody gun fights and meticulously observed crimes... THIEF is the first of Mann's elegies for professional masculinity, and it's sharpened greatly by the film's harsh night photography.

  • ...Every element of Thief shines so brilliantly that it sometimes eclipses all of the others. You could write essays about the editing, the casting (a weird sort of neo-realism where the police are played by ex-cons and the crooks are played by real-life cops) or that control of tone through which Mann is able to make what would, in your average crime picture, be a considered a happy ending seem so overwhelmingly bleak.

  • While the legacy of Thief endures largely for aesthetic reasons, its most distinctive quality in fact has more to do with its studied commitment to naturalism. Far more than any single visual or aural predilection, the one element common to all of Michael Mann's films — from his romanticized early pictures to his more impressionistic late-career experiments with digital video — is their almost obsessive dedication to detail and real-world accuracy.

  • As if planned backward from its Pyrrhic-tragic conclusion, Thief is never spoiled by any seeming inevitability, confident as we may be that sweet, good things can't last. The juice, to appropriate a Mann-sourced phrase, isn't in the action, but in the inaction, in the conversations between principals. You can tick off a half-dozen or more great scenes in Thief before you name one involving a gun...

  • The degree to which “Thief” encapsulates a subsequent career places it among the greatest first features, as revealing of its maker as “The 400 Blows” is of Truffaut, or “Citizen Kane” is of Welles... For all Mann’s research and his visualization of realist details, however, he pushes his film into the abstract, using all those accurate touches to better facilitate an impressionistic immersion into its character’s headspace.

  • Its painterly visuals, its tensely dreamlike mood, and its fascination with procedure — these influences have filtered slowly but surely into the culture over the years. You can see it in the grim artfulness of True Detective or the Zen melodrama of Breaking Bad, in the submerged existential torment of Drive or the elaborate psychodrama of Inception.

  • One of the most soulful heist movies ever made and containing rarely-better work from James Caan, Tuesday Weld and a white-hot Tangerine Dream score. Real thieves served as technical advisers, so you can be confident that every drill bit and saw is authentic, which would mean little if not for the passion the young Mann is already able to convey in even throwaway shots and quiet scenes like the celebrated Caan-Weld coffeeshop talk.

  • The thrill doesn’t come from narrative tension; it instead comes from what Mann is able to do with light, sound, and texture — the way he composes them all in a breathtaking dance... The vault heist is a riot of sensation and style — an elongated stretch of heightened reality that approaches pure abstraction until the moment the door finally gives way — but the sequence is rooted in deep research and a sedulous approach to realism.

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