Review: Thief (1981)

It’s hard to talk about Thief, Michael Mann’s 1981 feature film debut, without discussing Mann’s entire career that has followed. This is because the film sets up so confidently and precisely the themes and styles that have obsessed Michael Mann for the following three decades. It weds the gritty auteurism of the 1970s with the flashier stylisms of the 1980s. It’s a bridge film for the crime thriller and the announcement of a major talent. Thief is thoughtful and stylish and a little corny, but oh so cool—classic Mann.

Thief’s plot is something we’ve come to expect from Mann, but even at the time it wasn’t entirely unique—the French crime filmmaker Jean Pierre-Melville had popularized the existential criminal over a decade before Mann’s film came out. Thief follows Frank (James Caan), a safecracker who wants to leave the criminal lifestyle behind and start a family. He’s also a man with a code, and he’s got one last job to do that’ll score him enough capital to start fresh. (These are all crime movie tropes, but Mann has always wholeheartedly embraced tropes and focused on formal, not narrative, innovation). Of course, starting fresh isn’t so easy, as the very attachments that Frank wants (a nice house, a wife, a kid) are exactly the kinds of things that give other criminals and the cops power over him.

Near the end of the first act, after making arrangements for a last heist with a crime lord (Robert Prosky) that’ll clock him almost one million dollars, Frank sits down with the girl he fancies (Tuesday Welds) and lays out his philosophy about life. He tells her how he spent a decade in the joint and that the only way he got through those years was by proving to everyone else in prison that he had nothing to lose and that no one had power over him. This reminds us of Robert De Niro’s words in Mann’s 1995 crime epic, Heat: “Don’t keep anything in your life you’re not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Even in Mann’s recent film, Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway relays similar information, speaking about keeping your mind and your body strong in prison and doing your own time, not the system’s.

Mann always explores such individuals, usually criminals or cops, who have a code and a system of ethics, but want more out of life, and find their desire for happiness conflicting with their lone wolf nature and their personal welfare. But Thief is the first time Mann explored such a character, and Caan, with his New Hollywood method acting style, makes you understand Frank’s code as something born out of experience, not just an abstract philosophy he adopted because he was cool. Thief has enough of this grittiness, enough leftovers from the New Hollywood era, to distinguish it from what came after. This isn’t empty style for the sake of style—although, I would argue, Michael Mann has never been about empty style.

Thief’s filmmaking both resembles the New Hollywood movement and looks forward to the stylish and often empty 1980s. There’s a grittiness to the dramatic scenes that resemble films from the previous decade, but the way Mann shoots the geography of his landscape is markedly new. The Los Angeles setting is rain-soaked and atmospheric—all blue and red neon lights and endless skies. Mann frames characters through windows or uses the reflections of the water in alleyways to spill light into the scene. Thief lacks the visual abstraction of some of his later digital works, but the visuals are hardly perfunctory. There’s poetry to Mann’s shots.

The film’s Tangerine Dream score is cool ambience at its best. The corniness of some of the romantic scenes is something that Mann has never gotten over—a scene late in the film has the characters literally frolicking beside the ocean—but the corniness is almost charming when set beside the unspoken professionalism of the heist scenes. And speaking of heist scenes, the central score is a showcase for Mann’s procedural talents. It’s obviously influenced by heist classics like Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Jules Dassin’s Rififi in its exhaustive attention to detail.

When looking back on Thief, it’s easy to see how Michael Mann’s career developed. His growth into a great filmmaker may obscure the shock of how assured his first work is, but it’s important to recognize the film for its own merits. Thief is confident and stylish and aesthetically bold. Mann would refine parts of his filmmaking style over the years, getting better at steering performances or burying the symbolism of his visuals. But few filmmakers have emerged as fully formed stylistically and thematically as Mann did with Thief.

8 out of 10

Thief (1981, USA)

Written and directed by Michael Mann, based off The Home Invaders by Frank Hohimer; starring James Caan, Tuesday Welds, Robert Prosky, and Willie Nelson.