To call “Thief” Michael Mann’s debut film only exposes the extremely qualified narratives critics concoct when discussing auteurs. It’s a narrative that regularly ignores student film, commercial work, even full-length TV movies, all for the arbitrarily designated legitimacy of a theatrically released production. The aforementioned work areas are too often lumped together, not always without reason, as teeth-cutting exercises, a means for an artist to learn the ropes, not stand out. Yet by the time Mann put out his so-called first film, he’d already racked up an impressive resumé as a director, even scoring a Cannes Jury Prize for his 1970 short film “Jaunpuri” and both an Emmy and a DGA award for his 1979 TV movie “The Jericho Mile.” So firmly established was Mann as a filmmaker that he even nabbed an executive producer for “Thief,” not a common accomplishment for someone making their first theatrical film for a large studio.
Even so, 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. Its protagonist, ex-con master thief Frank (James Caan), is the quintessential Mann character: a fiercely individualistic professional who realizes far too late that spending a lifetime intentionally standing back from society will prevent one from joining that society when he decides to finally acclimate. Frank is a bit like a John Ford hero in that respect, and not only because the climactic destruction he wreaks on everything in his life recalls Tom Doniphon despairingly torching his home after giving away his love in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” But where Ford’s characters are Mosaic, mending communities they themselves can never enjoy, Mann’s tend to leave behind only chaos in their wake (that even includes the cops).
Films about criminals who can’t go straight have been old hat for decades now; indeed, a plot summary of “Thief” sounds like a checklist of crime drama clichés. Yet its plot is merely the foundation for a film that quickly drifts into the abstract, and its clichéd elements are pulled in unorthodox directions. The film’s two major setpieces, one a diamond heist that opens the film, the other an even more complicated and lucrative job, show Frank in his element, but not in the way other films tend to portray an existential character’s sole comfort in his work. Instead, it is the methodical, no-nonsense precision of Frank’s stealing that dictates the terms of his life, his unsentimental, regimented routine and social interaction an outgrowth of the security he finds in minimizing risk.
Even the softer side of his life proceeds from his professional life: he connects with girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) by telling her about his time in prison and how it left him with a toughened mental attitude, an emotional breakthrough attained through the admission of his refusal to feel. Later, when the two go to an adoption agency and are refused because of his record, Frank flashes the signs of his wealth in the social worker’s face, not only angry but uncomprehending that the fast money he’s made cannot buy him what he wants. Eventually, he turns to the black market for a child, buying a kid from a mother who does not want her son.
That Frank wants a wife and child at all is an illustration of a highly corrupted cliché: movies about professional criminals inevitably turn on that One Big Mistake, the slip-up that dooms an otherwise impeccable crook. In Mann’s films and in “Thief” especially, the mistake is made before the camera starts rolling; it is the desire, the instinctual need, of his rigidly individualist characters for some form of companionship, an incompatible match that ensures that even the ones who survive, ultimately, lose. In “Thief,” Frank literally carries his dreams with him, in the form of a tacky photo collage that at first glance looks like a postcard by way of Richard Hamilton. Yet the manner in which he compartmentalizes his ideal wife and child, how he wins over one and simply purchases the other, betrays the fate of his fantasy; the term “irreconcilable differences” never seemed so literal. Hell, Frank has irreconcilable differences with himself, his robotic, functionally minded life struggling with the humanity that tries to claw from around it.
Appropriately enough, the film around him strikes the same balance of the remote and the plaintive. Tangerine Dream’s work on “Thief” kicked off a decade of mostly horrid, ill-fitting scores of moaning New Age synths (quite a number by Tangerine Dream themselves). Yet the group’s second soundtrack, following their work on William Friedkin’s 1977 “Sorcerer,” remains their finest: tonal clusters send pulses humming through the film that cross a wail with with a mechanized buzz, so that each note could be Frank’s soul calling out or merely the sound his vault-cutting tools make as they drill and burn their way into the mother lode. Either way, a supposedly impenetrable wall is being breached.
The fundamentally cold nature of the soundtrack lets the viewer know at once the sinister edge in Leo (Robert Prosky), the boss who recruits Frank so calmly that one realizes only later that he forced the thief to work for him. Likewise, that metallic chill undercuts the score at its perkiest, when the second heist goes off without a hitch and Frank enjoys but a few minutes of pure bliss before forces converge on him.
Then, of course, there is Mann’s direction. As with his writing (honed by doing hard research for his work on the TV series “Police Story”), Mann’s direction overflows with intimate details of the profession he covers, and the authentic argot of thieves and officers that he works into the film is matched by a visual language pared down to generic essentials, such as rain-slicked, improbably empty Chicago streets, a gun tucked perfectly into a modified glove compartment, and a meeting between Frank and Leo interspersed with brief but illuminating cutaways of both Frank’s people and cops watching from afar. 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.
The city around Frank routinely appears in soft focus, streetlamps and skyscraper offices reduced to milky orbs that hang in the background as the concrete targets, be they objects or people, in Frank’s immediate vicinity are rendered with total clarity. The cutting of a vault door in the major heist sequence unfolds in a blinding display of sparks, molten metal and a fogbank of fire extinguisher mist, the vault itself scarcely visible as the screen turns into a pure light show. Outside of this fiery interlude, the image has a steel blue tinting (freshly restored on Criterion’s disc after being removed in the old DVD) that only deepens the sense that we are seeing the world through Frank’s cold, automaton eyes.
And despite the film’s constant forward momentum, “Thief” primarily operates through little moments. Frank leaving his nightclub front synchronized with his partner (James Belushi) leaving a phone booth after they finish their call, as perfectly timed in life as they are on the job. Leo lit by headlights to look like a child telling ghost stories at a sleepover when he first meets Frank, giving away his evil long before it openly manifests. The palpable loneliness and sadness in Willie Nelson’s eyes as Okla, Frank’s closest prison friend, as he faces the real possibility of dying in prison so close to finally getting out. The naming of Frank and Jessie’s new child, told to a waiter in a Chinese restaurant with all the import of a Catholic baptism ceremony. That frolic on a beach after the big score when everything seems perfect. These are fragments of an underworld as these characters see it, the glimpses all the more fleeting because the man at the center of it all is ready to walk away at any minute. In the end, he destroys everything so as not to have anything dictated to him. In the grand scheme of Mann’s films, he is less fortunate than some characters, yet the fact that he walks away at all makes him luckier than most. That doesn’t make “Thief” any less bleak, though, and its sad, haunting conclusion makes clear that its maker, too, would not compromise as he set out on his own career.
VIDEO QUALITY: As mentioned above, the visual aura of Mann's debut feature is essential to its spell, and for years "Thief" has been the victim of substandard presentations that have robbed the film of its aesthetic power. Not anymore. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray is stunning, the picture shimmering just as it should. Hazy and dream-like but as sharp as it was on the day the film hit theaters, the transfer alone makes this disc something of an event for Mann acolytes.
SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIAL: The first thing you'll want to listen to is the audio commentary by Mann and Caan. It's recycled from 1995 (recorded when Mann was finishing up "Heat"), but for all of its starts and stops it's still a compelling listen. The disc also boasts a small number of exclusive features, including new (separate) interviews with Mann, Caan, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream. Caan's interview certainly offers a sense as to the kind of guy he is and why he values the role in this film above so many of his others.
ARTWORK: Fred Davis' plain and unpretentious cover design certainly fits the film's title character (and – like the film itself – grows on you in time), but nevertheless remains somewhat disappointing for fans of the film who were expecting a more mythic illustration in line with Criterion's usual style.