Two years before the interesting but flawed The Keep and three years before his breakthrough series Miami Vice, Michael Mann wrote and directed Thief, a pared-to-the-bone thriller about a jewel thief trying to make good and set up a new life. Whilst this film is often overlooked within Mann's resume, certainly when compared to later blockbusters such as Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, not to mention the critically reevaluated Manhunter, Thief does actually offer a glimpse of the director's distinctly atmospheric style, which would inform almost all of his later work.
Thief stars James Caan as Frank, a professional jewel thief who, following his release from prison some time before the events of the film, wants nothing more than to settle down and have as normal a family life as is possible. As he explains to his fiancee Jessie (Tuesday Weld) through the use of a collage of photographs he carries with him, he dreams of a life going straight, raising children and living in a suburban house with a picket fence. Worse is that he sees his old friend Okla (Willie Nelson), still in prison and likely to die there.
Frank's problems begin, however, when the diamond trader with whom he was doing business for is found dead, who was still in possession of the money owed to Frank for his latest job but which is now missing. Frank tracks down the crime boss responsible for the murder and theft of his money, Leo (Robert Prosky), who offers to help Frank realise his dream in return for a few final jobs. Seeing this as his chance to break out of his life of crime, Frank agrees to take on the work but finds that quitting Leo's employ is going to be more difficult than he had planned...
In as much as LA Takedown was noted for being a dress rehearsal for Heat, anyone equipped with only a passing knowledge of the films of Michael Mann will recognise a number of stylistic and personal themes consistent throughout his work and which find their footing here in his directorial feature debut. For example, late in the film and before setting out on a path of vengeance that threatens to destroy his life, Frank shuts himself off from everything around him and walks away, recalling the rule by which Robert de Niro's Neil McCauley lives his life in Heat. This later film is also brought to mind with the ineffectual actions of the police here, who are outsmarted at every turn by Frank and who are set off on a car chase to Des Moines as Frank assembles his team prior to the diamond theft that will mean he can go straight. Combine these similarities with the use of Dennis Farina and William Petersen who would later appear in Manhunter, a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream who would later score The Keep and an excessive use of shots wherein Frank drives around the city looking troubled, which recall Don Johnson cruising through Miami in a white Testarossa to Jan Hammer's Crockett's Theme, and Thief is a virtual blueprint for all of Mann's later work.
There is, however, the feeling that to dismiss Thief as being little more than a series of experiments that would only reach fruition in other movies is a criticism of which the film is undeserving. Instead, this is a fine film with a central performance by James Caan that recalls his playing of Sonny in The Godfather, albeit a Sonny that survived the shootout and escaped the pull of his family. In Thief, therefore, Frank is just as hard-headed and tough-talking as Sonny but has a hopefulness about his life that this other character lacked and Caan offers an excellent display of acting that would not be bettered until Misery. With Mann writing the script, Frank's dialogue is rich, earthy and cut short enough to deliver only what is necessary, with the high-tech raids and safe-cracking showing a realism that Mann has strived for throughout his work.
Still, without saying that they ever fail the movie, there are a couple of problems with Thief, notably those of a main character whom it is all to easy to dislike and a sense that, despite its potential to be hugely entertaining, the film simply is not that exciting. Regarding the former, it may have been Mann's intention not to make Frank a character that the audience might grow to love but it's difficult to find any reason for actually warming to him, with the result being that one feels excluded from the film. As for the lack of excitement, the middle hour really does drag with there seeming to be an interminable number of conversations held in diners, docks and respray shops, all of which are deserted but for Frank and the fellow criminal with whom he had arranged an assignation.
Despite recalling both Walter Hill's The Driver and Jules Dassin's Rififi, Thief falls just short of being as accomplished as either. Instead, this falters from a first impression that is wholly favourable to one that is ever so slightly disappointed, eschewing the cool sophistication of the early scenes for a middle act that believes a pared-down script is simply one that says nothing. As a result, it can be difficult to find much of interest here but from director who would go on to make occasionally great films, this is as close as one can get to a rough sketch being made available before the artist goes on to complete their masterpiece and, for that, it has sufficient value to justify its low price.
Whilst Thief is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, it as transferred onto DVD non-anamorphically, requiring that the viewer set their widescreen televisions manually. As a result of this transfer, the film has not been presented as well as it could be but aside from a little softness and some evident grain, more noticeable during the nighttime scenes rather than those shot in daylight, the source print used for the DVD transfer is acceptable, if no more than that. Backgrounds to interior scenes, however, can be quite difficult to make out and a number of screen shots were discarded prior to uploading this review due to a lack of clarity in the images.
Thief has been presented with a Pro-Logic surround soundtrack encoded within a 2.0 audio stream. As can be expected, the front speakers are used rather more than those at the rear, with the latter being employed mainly for ambience. Otherwise, the soundtrack is free of noise although the mix can be a little muddy at times.
Thief has been presented with but the one extra:
Original Theatrical Trailer (1m53s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a typical summary of the main action from the film interspersed with a few short cuts showing the relationship between James Caan's Frank and Tuesday Weld's Jessie.
Given that the Region 1 release of this film included a commentary by Michael Mann and James Caan, the solitary extra included here demonstrates that MGM are set to continue their habit of offering differing content depending on locale.
Try as I might, I find it difficult to get excited about Thief in the same way as I do about Manhunter. Where this film and The Keep are both fascinating but flawed, tending to drift to a conclusion that leaves the viewer unsure of it being a success or not, Mann's films from Manhunter onwards snap to endings that are wholly satisfactory, even when maintaining genre cliches such as the shootout at the end of Manhunter or the showdown that concludes Heat. Given that The Keep and Manhunter are separated by Miami Vice, it would appear that Mann's break from films to work in television allowed him the opportunity to bring a sharper focus on his writing and to clear the aimlessness with which Thief is occasionally dogged.
Whilst this is often an impressive film, it is the lack of clarity and excitement that ensures this will probably be thought of as little more than a film with which Mann seemed to be experimenting with ideas that would inform his work to a greater and more successful degree in later years. For fans of the director, there can be no doubt that this is essential but for the casual buyer, it's recommended but only just.