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by Jack Sommersby

"Michael Mann's Effective Feature-Film Debut"
4 stars

After a disappointing non-anamorphic DVD release, Criterion has stepped up to the plate and delivered dynamite DVD and Blu-Ray transfers.

As an exercise in high-style photography and sensational editing, Thief, the motion-picture debut from director Michael Mann, who wrote the screenplay based on the non-fiction book The Home Invaders (which, curiously enough, it in no way resembles: the fascinating book was penned by a retired thief detailing the dos and don'ts of stealing from domestic residences, whereas the movie's title character abhors such, specializing instead in diamonds and cash from businesses and banks), is semi-recommendable. Contextually, it's only about half-full, and the plausibility factor is stretched to the breaking point on several occasions, but there are enough good things in it to make for worthwhile viewing for the curious-minded. Mann shows undeniable talent from the very first sequence, as cinematographer Donald E. Thorin's expressive camera slowly pans down between two buildings on a rainy night and comes to rest in an alley where a car is parked; the person inside is monitoring a police scanner and acting as lookout for master thief Frank (James Caan) who's using a drill to break into a huge safe containing D-flawless diamonds. The fantastic music score by Tangerine Dream is in sync with Frank every step of the way -- it pulsates to a higher level with every safeguard Frank overcomes with the tools of his trade; and every step of the safecracking process is lovingly detailed -- it's with the sensual precision of the most intimate lovemaking. In most movies of this type, there's always crosscutting of thieves doing their deeds with the cops hightailing it to the scene, but Mann's more interested in letting us see the details that these movies leave out -- he's convinced they're more vital, that the how is much more interesting than why; and from an audience's standpoint, he seems to know exactly what he's doing in this area (a really nice touch is Frank shedding his work overalls in the alley so as not to leave the crime scene with any trace evidence; and sending the diamonds away with his lookout while he walks a block over to another car and drives off seems entirely sensible). The next day we're given an entirely different introduction to Frank. During the daylight hours he's a successful small-business owner in expensive suits with his used-car lot, downtown bar, and laundromat, and he's just starting to romance the checkout woman at a diner he frequents, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). After having served eleven years in prison (ten of those for killing a fellow prisoner who was trying to kill him), Frank's trying to live the American Dream he feels he's been unfairly denied through a penal system that's deprived him of his twenties. He even has a father figure he looks up to, Okla (Willie Nelson), who has ten months left in jail and who taught Frank everything he knows. In a touching moment, when Frank asks him if he should lie to Jessie about what he does, Okla says lying is the best way to ruin what you have with someone who means something to you.

What Mann's provided thus far is solid groundwork for a workable movie about a wrong man needing to right his wrong ways for the love of a good woman and life, and if he'd stuck with that -- a drama with crime elements rather than a crime tale with drama elements -- he might have come out with something intelligent as well as tough-minded. After all, he accomplished such a thing with his superb, Emmy-award-winning television movie The Jericho Mile, which told the story of a prison inmate who overcame his share of obstacles to break a track-and-field one-mile record; and he was able to do so while still making something with admirable visual sophistication given its limited setting inside a prison complex. But Mann is more concerned here with catering to the simplest wants of mainstream audiences (and to his own simplistic wants) by centering on external rather than internal conflict with the introduction of Chicago crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), who comes into Frank's life and eventually makes it a living hell. Before Frank can collect his money from his regular fence for those diamonds, the fence, who was trying a double-cross with Leo, is pushed out a seven-story window, and through an informant Frank learns it was his money inside the fence's pocket, which was taken by Leo's guys. Frank arranges a meet with Leo's second-in-command, and Leo himself turns up and surprises Frank by giving him the full amount he's owed. Of course, this being the world of crime, nothing's for free -- Leo admires Frank's work and wants him to come inside his circle, which Frank, who's his own boss and doesn't take orders, refuses, even though Leo guarantees him prime scores which will make him a millionaire in three months. But after declaring his love for Jessie and promising to lead a legitimate life, Frank agrees to work just a few jobs for Leo to attain a lucrative nest egg, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense being that Frank is already plenty wealthy from his take-down scores and multiple businesses. It's here before the movie's midpoint that the plot wobbles and the narrative rhythm starts feeling off, and, unfortunately, we've got a long way to go. As soon as Frank hooks up with Leo, some corrupt cops, who expect to be paid off with a tenth of Frank's scores, start hounding him, bugging his phones and tailing him; and so his hope of a stable domestic life is constantly being undermined -- even by the city adoption agency, which refuses to approve Frank and Jessie (who can't bear children) because of his criminal record. Obviously, Mann is making a "statement" that America is unforgiving toward criminals who've served time, but it's clunky because, even though the adoption people don't know he's stealing, Frank is still carrying out his criminal ways, so Mann's asking us to sympathize with Frank on this point just seems wrongheaded.

Minus the Leo character, Thief could've viably explored whether Frank had it in him not to regress back to his former thieving ways out of love for Jessie, but Mann can't keep his thinking straight because in an earlier scene where Frank admits to Jessie that he's a thief, she, whose previous boyfriend was a hardened criminal, doesn't particularly care that he is -- and not that he's a thief and she's willing to overlook this, but that she doesn't object that he's doing it on the side in between selling Chryslers and running his Green Mill lounge as well as a Laundromat. Mann's juggling ideas he can't keep track of; in his undying quest to prove that a criminal can be just as honorable as a cop (with all the cops here portrayed as a harem of inimical boobs, which, of course, is taking the easy way out) he's superimposed this on a thin, shaky story line that lacks both dramatic and thematic sense. And it doesn't help that Frank, despite his virtuosity in the cracking-safes department, has been made out to have little common sense. Would he really believe that the biggest crime lord in the city would just let him into his vast operation and allow him out of it whenever he wanted? Especially after he's got his hooks into him by getting him a baby on the black market and signed the note on the fancy house he's moved Jessie and himself into? Would he take absolutely no precautions after leaving Leo's house after threatening him at gunpoint in front of his henchmen when Leo tries shortchanging him on his take of a score? And, after that, would Leo not have himself better guarded after letting Frank go after assaulting him and killing his electronics expert in a most gruesome fashion? And talk about the cops not being around when needed! Guns are shot in suburbia and downtown, businesses are blown up and set fire to the ground, and never do we even hear a police siren in the distance. Occasionally, fables can be excused in the plausibility department when their ideas are intriguingly lofty ones and speak to an audience on an accentuated apprehensive level (like Brian De Palma's Blow Out), but Mann's quintessential attempt at gritty street realism keeps getting undermined by this. It's as if he were above any set of rules, and with such thin material you can't help but feel a bit insulted. And his penchant for overindulgence keeps the second-half from sustaining much in the way of tension. There are too many redundant scenes pertaining to matters we've already taken in, too many two-fisted macho exchanges that play out like mere filler material, too many overstated moments that don't really get the story anywhere. With a two-hour-plus running time, Thief is underwritten and overstuffed at the same time. And everything's settled way too neatly with a shoot-'em-out finale that's the stuff of standard TV-cop movies, like Starsky & Hutch and Vega$, both of which Mann did writer duty on before scoring with The Jericho Mile.

Still, as fundamentally flawed as it is, Thief has its virtues. Mann may not be the clearest thinker in the world -- there's a considerable chasm between what we wants to get across and the organic dramatics needed to do so -- but he's great at mood and texture, and this is probably the most dynamite-looking neo-noir ever made. Neon lights reflecting on rain puddles in the nighttime streets, green-tinted windows giving darkly-lit interiors their only source of vitality; with a distinct and controlled color schema, primarily consisting of cobalt blue and light gray and velvety black, Mann shrouds the proceedings with plenty of atmosphere that's showy, yes, but is so seriously gorgeous it's practically a character itself. Not surprisingly, the pyrotechnics during the final heist, with Frank burning a huge door in a giant Richmond & Locket bank vault, are photogenic to the nth degree (pun intended). And Mann and his ace editor Dov Hoenig do some real laser-precision cutting from multiple angles in some showily-juxtaposed scenes: Mann likes film movement and momentum through editing rather than tracking; like the lighting, it's certainly of the showoff variety but is so uncommonly good that we just don't care in the slightest. It's unusual for a debuting film director to have this many visual tricks up his sleeve, and with the discipline and tact to bring it all off with aplomb. Without Mann the Director, Thief would be unimaginable. It's too bad that he couldn't harness Mann the Writer's worst impulses, even though there is some good, workable dialogue when Frank isn't shouting so darn much -- when Leo tries to cheat Frank out of his eight-hundred-and-thirty-thousand-dollar share, Mann allows Frank to calmly reason with Leo, going step by step reminding Leo the deal that he made and his obligation to pay up ("You are making big profits from my work, my sweat, my risk, but that is okay, because I elected to make that deal. Now the deal is over, and it's pay-up time"). It's one of the best scenes Caan's ever played, with Frank standing his ground yet calmly trying to steer Leo away from the direction he knows things are heading. As the manipulative Leo, Prosky niftily underplays, so when his previously soft-spoken self has to give an expletive-laced ultimatum to Frank when he disrespects him for the last time, he's utterly terrifying -- he's like the most evil grandfather you'd ever not want to know, or mess with. Weld, in a rather reticent role, is merely adequate. But Nelson is pure acting magic in just his one dialogue scene: talking with Frank through a glass partition in jail, his eyes are ungodly soulful and his voice hits all sorts of touching timbres. And even as the cops, Mann, a Chicago native, has cast some real-life cops and real-life criminals in the roles, too, and, unsurprisingly, they contribute a good deal of authenticity. As one can clearly surmise by now, Thief is definitely a mixed bag, but for anyone interested in top-grade film craft and persuasive acting, it's worthy of a look-see.

A box-office failure that's gained something of a semi-cult status on home video.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=1634&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/15/11 11:59:05
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User Comments

9/22/14 J72DOLPHINS Riveting. quotable, Caan and Prosky are terrific. Different and stylish! 5 stars
9/17/07 Liam Jackson Brilliant performances from Caan and Prosky, whose Leo is the most evil gangster i've seen 5 stars
8/18/06 A.J Muller Caan superb in Mann's first grand slam 5 stars
2/08/05 Ray Cool mvoie 4 stars
3/23/03 Jack Sommersby Medicore scripting can't dissipate Mann's command of the camera. 3 stars
11/28/01 Phoenix Highly stylish and a great performance by Caan make it worthwile. 4 stars
8/22/01 Jed Poor pacing drags this thriller down. I had to keep myself awake. 3 stars
3/04/01 Jake too slow and drawn out. Stylish though. 3 stars
2/27/99 Jerry-93 My head is exploding as we speak 5 stars
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  27-Mar-1981 (R)
  DVD: 01-Jul-1998


  02-Feb-1982 (M)

Directed by
  Michael Mann

Written by
  Michael Mann

  James Caan
  Tuesday Weld
  Willie Nelson
  James Belushi
  Robert Prosky
  Dennis Farina

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