Thief Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
Frank runs both a car dealership and a bar in Chicago. But he’s known better in certain circles as an expert thief. In the opening scene of THIEF, we see just how good Frank (James Caan). Even so, it’s time for him to get out while he can. But it’s never that easy.
After one of his contacts is killed, Frank goes looking for the $185,000 that should be in his pocket. His gun and harsh threats (“I am the last guy in the world you want to [mess] with.”) lead him to a mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky, who would play Shelley Levene in the initial Broadway run of David Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), who wants Frank on his team as a permanent employee.
And then comes Jessie (Tuesday Weld, who earned an Oscar nomination four years earlier for LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR), who herself wouldn’t mind getting started on a new life. It’s after a date in a coffee shop—complete with a conversation touching on having a baby together—that Frank decides to work with Leo and score the money he needs to escape from the city.
THIEF is the debut film by Michael Mann, whose credits up until this point included a few shorts/docs, a TV movie and an episode of the Angie Dickinson series POLICE WOMAN. Mann would go on to make many incredible and highly layered works (1995’s HEAT and ‘99’s THE INSIDER among them), but THIEF sticks out as being one of his lesser efforts.
At its core, THIEF is just another take on the one-last-job-before-retirement scenario: there’s a man who has every reason to leave his trade behind, a girl who gives him excuse to do so and a tough that drags him in for one more gig, which of course is likely to be anything but. It had been done before and would be done after. THIEF is just another drop and not nearly as remarkable as hindsight has insisted. (While THIEF was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 34th Cannes Film Festival, it’s the film’s cult status that keeps it in relevance.)
That’s not to say there aren’t fine qualities. For one, the movie looks great and puts viewers into this world with ease. For another, it’s well-researched and Mann seems to know his way around these sorts of people, no doubt with credit to the source material, Frank Hohimer/John Seybold’s 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar.
Still, in the end, THIEF is not a combination of style and substance, as Mann has shown he’s capable of executing. The substance just isn’t there and the style is only present visually, as the Tangerine Dream score does less to enhance the thrills or surroundings than it does distract and pinpoint it as a product of its time.
When it was released in 1981, THIEF must have felt like it was introducing one of the key visionaries of his generation. More than thirty years later, it can no longer get by on slickness and a tough-guy performance.
THIEF CRITERION COLLECTION BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: 1.85:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative. Director Michael Mann’s original 35 mm answer print was used as a color reference, and Mann supervised and approved the entire transfer. The additional Willie Dixon fisherman scene was taken from a 35 mm internegative made from a 35 mm print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain and noise management, jitter, and flicker.”
Any time a transfer is approved by the director, viewers can expect quality that is both top-notch and loyal to the intended look. Fans of THIEF will not be disappointed in this high-definition transfer, which brings forth so many details, colors and textures in the settings while maintaining the filmic look of the film
Audio: English 5.1 Surround. “The original stereo soundtrack was remastered to 5.1 surround at 24-bit from 35 mm 4-track magnetic audio stems, and approved by Mann. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
The audio transfer is also incredible, with clean dialogue, strong sound effects and (whether you like it or not) a purposeful Tangerine Dream score.
Audio commentary featuring Michael Mann and actor James Caan: This track, recorded in 1995 and previously available on MGM’s DVD, features Mann and Caan reminiscing about THIEF. Although perhaps an updated commentary (with Tuesday Weld and/or a member of Tangerine Dream?) would have been a welcome addition, this track is still worth a listen.
Michael Mann (24:18): In this interview, Mann sits down with Scott Foundas, chief film critic for Variety, to discuss the subject matter, style and more of his debut.
James Caan (10:39): Caan, who calls THIEF one of the pictures he’s most proud of, discusses his approach to the character, shooting certain sequences and more.
Tangerine Dream (15:40): Former Tangerine Dream member Johannes Schmoelling shares his thoughts on working on the score for THIEF.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is a 22-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Nick James.