Thief (1981)

I’ve got to be honest, I had heard of Michael Mann’s film through its composer, the electronic band Tangerine Dream, though in all fairness, this was quite a gem of a film. Often billed as a neo-noir film, it is based on the writings of a real-life jewel thief, who wrote “The Home Invaders” (the book on which the film is based) under the name of Frank Hohimer (incidentally, the protagonist of the film is also called Frank). Whether this makes the film necessarily realistic is up for debate, but there is no denying that this is a fine quality film that, in my opinion, has aged very well. In terms of its direction in particular, it’s a hardboiled crime thriller with a fine touch of sophistication.

The story centres around a professional safecracker and jewel thief named Frank, who agrees to do one last job so that he can have enough money to start a normal family life with his new girlfriend Jessie. But in order to do so, he has to work with a greedy mafia boss named Leo, who offers to make him a millionaire within four months. After this job he plans to retire from criminal life, but he finds himself in debt to and being ripped off by Leo, who is determined not to let Frank out of his hands.

Some viewers might be a little put off but its slow pacing, but for two hours it’s actually a pretty well-paced film, with a distinctly chilled character. Michael Mann’s Thief isn’t exactly your standard heist film, as it has none of the fake tension and vestigial string orchestras that normally accompanies the stock-in-trade films of genre. Every part of the story is certainly convincing enough for me, and I think that is due mainly to the merits of Michael Mann’s directorial ability, which is impressive considering this was his debut feature film.

Arguably one of the best parts about the film is the much-lauded performance of lead actor James Caan, who struts his character around with a sense of cool that defies explanation. The rest of the main cast performed also well, with Tuesday Weld as the girl who is slowly involved in Frank’s life, Robert Prosky as the cold, unscrupulous Leo, and a range of support characters that shine through in their own way.

Above all else, what stands out is the film’s sense of style. The film is slick, dark and realistic in tone, in contrast to many heist films before it. In fact, I’d say it’s something of a precursor to the kind of lengthy yet stylish crime films we would see later in the 1980’s and 1990’s. At the core of the film’s style was the then-cutting-edge electronic stylings of Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, with its pulsating synth lines. And then of course there’s the action. It has been said that this film represents a transition from the character-based crime drama of the 1970’s to the flashy action-oriented cop films of the 1980’s, but I don’t really see that. I do however appreciate the subtlety that is Thief’s action scenes, which are fairly infrequent, but well-executed.

By no means is Thief a perfect masterpiece, but I’d say it’s an underrated film that in my opinion doesn’t get enough attention, which is a shame because it’s quickly become perhaps one of my favourite crime films so far. I feel like there ought to be more films like this one. Hollywood could definitely use some actually good quality films in its dying years.

  • Score: 83%
  • Grade: B
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