It’s Michael Mann Week here at The Film Nest. With Mann’s new film Public Enemies make it’s highly anticipated debut on Wednesday July 1st, we vow to bring you a Mann-related post each and every day of the week to share our appreciation for his work.
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We’re kicking off Michael Mann Week with a look back at his first film in the director’s chair, 1981′s Thief.
Although his resume isn’t completely full of them, Michael Mann will almost assuredly be viewed as one of the top directors in the genre of crime drama. His status was certainly cemented in 1995, with the pinnacle achievement that is Heat. That film struck a delicate balance between the criminals and men in blue pursuing them. His focus was weighed more on the side of the law in Miami Vice and he looks to continue his fascination with the dichotomy between cops and robbers in his upcoming Public Enemies. However, the label he shares today was kick-started back in 1981, when Mann made his feature directorial debut with a look at the criminal side of things with Thief.
After writing for law enforcement shows “Starsky and Hutch” and “Policy Story” in the mid-to-late 70s, Mann was given the opportunity to write and direct a made-for-television film entitled The Jericho Mile in 1979, about a prison inmate with a gift for running. Presumably, based on his success behind the camera on the job, he was given the go-ahead to write and direct Thief, based on a novel by Frank Hohimer. He also finagled James Caan to star, after the success of two Godfather‘s, Rollerball and A Bridge Too Far.
In Thief, Caan plays Frank, a safecracker who after 11 years in prison doesn’t care about “nothin’.” No longer living in fear of anything, he’s able to live his life freely and without recourse. He does carry a code, however, and he refuses to break into safes for anything other than jewels or cash. His friend and mentor is locked up in prison for life, but suffers from a heart arrhythmia and doesn’t want to die inside. Frank lives his life under the guise of an operator of a used car lot to offset any detective work done on behalf of his criminal side.
After a score is stolen by a low-level Mafioso, Frank goes to hunt down the stolen goods and winds up encountering the Mafia face-to-face. They apologize for the misdeed and in turn offer him a job. Frank lays down his terms and they agree. They provide the score and the scouting that’s involved. All he has to do is provide the labor. The scores are substantially larger than what Frank is used to and dividing up the profits will still give him enough money so he can provide the life he wants for himself.
While the big score is planned, Frank is involved with his longtime girlfriend, Jessie. They have dreams of settling down and when Frank reveals how he earns the big bucks to her, it does little to faze her as she’s played the role of “criminal’s girlfriend” before. They want to start a family together, but Jessie is incapable of having children. Frank wants to adopt, but no adoption agency is willing to give a child to a former convict. The Mafia Frank’s involved with is able to buy a baby for him and once Frank’s big score is over, he decides his life will be complete. Of course, the Mafia has other plans for how his life will go.
Although made 14 years before Heat, this film can be viewed as sort of a foreshadowing of the masterpiece to come. There are shades of Frank and Jessie’s relationship that can be seen in the pairing of Ashley Judd and Val Kilmer’s characters in the later film. There are less characters in Thief than in Heat, so Mann was able to focus a little more on development between Frank and Jessie and it works at a great precursor to Judd and Kilmer. Although there are law enforcement characters in the film, the balance is far more weighed toward the criminals in Thief, as the title might allude to, but even within the underworld there are good guys and bad. Heroes to root for and those to jeer. Mann fleshes both sides out equally as characters, to make no mistake in determining which is which.
Today, you’d probably recognize a Mann film without knowing who was behind the camera from the digital look he adapted in 2004 with Collateral and has continued to use for each movie since. Obviously he didn’t have the choice for digital back in 1981, but there are still some Mann-like traits in this film that can be found in future productions. The man loves his coffee shops. He obviously feels it’s a good place where characters can just have a nice back-and-forth with dialogue. The infamous first on-camera meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat is set in one, as are scenes between Frank and Jessie, and Frank and his mob boss. These scenes work toward revealing exposition and character. He’s also been known to set scenes in nightclubs, like in Collateral and Miami Vice, which he does here as well. From a stylistic standpoint, Mann established a lot of the characteristics he’d continue to use from the outset with Thief.
A big piece which helps makes the film so thoroughly compelling is the score by a German group named Tangerine Dream. It’s absolutely the greatest 80′s synthesizer infused score I’ve ever heard. It’s almost constantly present and when it is, it seems like it’s always building and building toward a crescendo. The piece that covers the end of the film and the end credits is so enjoyable, I left it playing just to hear it end on its own terms. It struck me that a lot of scores in Mann films are memorable. I can hear the humming of Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” from Collateral, you can probably recall the guitar sounds from the Public Enemies trailer without replaying it and of course the infamous “The Kiss” during the final battle in The Last of the Mohicans. Every detail is obviously particularly chosen for each moment as Mann is not merely an artist, but an auteur.
Thief is every bit as worthy an entry into the Michael Mann canon as any other film of his, as he makes a hell of a debut. The film establishes some Mann-ian traits and displays some of the great knack for crime drama he’d continue to build upon. Thief isn’t merely an oddity to be gawked at because it’s the first from a well-established director, but a great film that leaves a lasting impression. The fact that it’s Mann’s first just makes it all the more impressive. It’s an excellent way to kick off a career.
Buy this First Feature here.