Criterion has released a dual format Blu-ray/DVD edition of director Michael Mann's 1981 crime thriller Thief starring James Caan. It's a highly impressive film on many levels, especially when one considers this was Mann's big screen feature debut. He had previously directed the acclaimed 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, which was set in Folsom Prison. Mann was inspired by his interaction with the world of convicts and wrote the screenplay for Thief, which is credited as being based on author Frank Hohimer's novel The Home Invaders, but he maintains virtually none of the source material ended up on screen. The story centers on Frank (James Caan), a bitter man with a troubled past. As a child he was raised in state-run homes before being sent to jail for a petty crime. Inside prison, he committed violent acts in order to defend himself but this only resulted in lengthier jail terms. By the time he has been released, he has spent half of his life behind bars. While in jail, Frank befriended Okla (Willie Nelson), a older man and master thief who is doing a life sentence. He becomes Frank's mentor and father figure and teaches him the tools of the trade. When Frank is finally released, he becomes a master at his craft, which is pulling off seemingly impossible heists of cash and diamonds. Before long, he has become a legend in his field. As a cover, Frank runs a major used car dealership and a small bar. However, he realizes that his luck will certainly run out at some point and he is determined to retire after making a few more high end scores. He works with a small team consisting of two confederates (James Belushi, Willam LaValley) who are also pros in gaining access to seemingly impenetrable vaults. The headstrong Frank wants to also settle down and raise a family. He makes an awkward introduction to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), an equally head strong, down-on-her luck character who nevertheless becomes smitten by him and ends up marrying him. The couple face frustration, however, when their attempts to adopt a baby are thwarted by Frank's criminal record. Frank is ultimately approached by Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime lord who entices him to stop working independently and pull off a high profile heist for a fortune in diamonds. Frank rejects the offer but eventually he relents, though he is reluctant to work with a new partner. Leo has managed to break through Frank's cynicism by showering him with praise the benefits of his influence, which include arranging for Frank and Jessie to illegally adopt the baby they want so desperately. The lure of being able to retire after this one huge score leads Frank to go against his better judgment and he agrees to work for Leo on this one big job. The diamonds are located in a vault so secure that it would seem to be better suited for Fort Knox. In order to break in, Frank and his team must use highly sophisticated drills and other equipment that would rival the top gear used by any branch of the military. On the verge of realizing his greatest score, however, things go terribly wrong on any number of levels. Frank, seeing his world crumble around him, goes on a violent rampage of destruction and self-destruction.
Thief is a highly stylized movie that moves at a rapid clip and features one of James Caan's strongest performances. The problem, however, is that the character of Frank is so obnoxious, he is difficult to relate to. Peckinpah, Scorsese and Coppola always had a knack for making disreputable characters seem appealing, but Frank is nasty, arrogant and self-centered. This is certainly realistic, given the bitter feelings he has toward society, but the viewer never warms to him in any meaningful way. He is only sympathetic because the people he deals with are so much worse. Nevertheless, Thief is a crackling good yarn that boasts some fine performances especially by Tuesday Weld and character actor Robert Prosky, who is brilliant in a scene-stealing role. Willie Nelson's screen time is very limited but he makes effective use of his two scenes. The film features superb cinematography by Donald E. Thorin, who made his debut here as Director of Cinematography. His night sequences on the rain-slicked streets of Chicago evoke visions of neon-lit nightmare. The film features an electronic score by Tangerine Dream, the band that provided the music for Willliam Friedkin's Sorcerer. Strangely, their score for that films holds up well but their work in Thief comes across as a bit monotonous and dated. The film's ultra-violent conclusion is exciting but rather cliched with Frank turning into yet another pissed off screen hero who decides to take down all of his enemies in an orgy of shootouts and destruction. (I know it sounds petty but I can never accept such sequences when they are set in urban neighborhoods in which no one ever seems to call the police even as houses explode and machine gun fire is sprayed all over the place.). The film excels, however, in the break-in sequences which are superbly directed and feature camerawork that make the crime scene look like an attraction from Disney World, with fireworks-like sparks filling the air.
The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is superb on every level. Extras, which are carried over to the DVD, include a commentary track by Michael Mann and James Caan that was recorded in 1995. There are also fresh video interviews with both men that are rather candid. (Caan, who has worked consistently through his career, modestly says "I was rather popular at one time" in reference to his work on the film. Mann says he is still debating in his mind whether he regrets using Tangerine Dream's score) There is also an interview with Johannes Schmoelling of the band, who discusses working with Mann to create the score. An original trailer is included as is a nicely illustrated booklet with an informative essay by film critic Nick James.