28 Jan 2021
Cinematic Gems — Thief (1981)
The following are bite-sized appreciations of cinema I'm particularly fond of. Films that stand the test of time, despite made of a time. Pieces of cinema that are often seldom seen by the masses. Hopefully, you'll discover a new cinematic experience or revisit a film you might have overlooked.
Frank (James Cann) is an expert professional safecracker, specialized in high-profile diamond heists. He plans to use his ill-gotten income to retire from crime and build a nice life for himself complete with a home, wife and kids. To accelerate the process, he signs on with a top gangster for a big score.
via The Movie DB
Why you should see it
It still boggles my mind that Thief (1981) was director Michael Mann's feature film debut. It has all the cinematic virtues you'd expect from a seasoned director — A great script, atmospheric cinematography, excellent performances, and a seminal film score (by Tangerine Dream). Although Mann has gone on to make other higher-profile and arguably more polished works including Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), and Collateral (2004), it's hard not to feel like the quaint nature of the film is also its greatest asset.
Hands down, this is my favourite James Caan performance outside of The Godfather. He perfectly embodies Frank's tough personification. Just like in this film's spiritual connection - Heat (1995), the film has a diner scene all about character building. It's one of those moments to let the actor truly shine and Caan nails it. Also, watch for a cameo from Willy Nelson. Yes that Willie Nelson... He's actually incredible in this. The film is also the debut of actors Dennis Farina, William Petersen, James Belushi, and Robert Prosky (particularly great here).
The cinematography is drenched in mood and atmosphere. Rain-soaked Chicago streets, neon lights, shallow depth of field, glorious Panavision Panaflex Gold film. There's something about those film cameras and lenses that you just don't get from digital. We all love Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011). Think of this as heavy inspiration for all of his films.
German electronic music masters Tangerine Dream scored the entire film and is up there as one of my favourite scores from the band. It was clearly mistakenly nominated for a Razzie in 1981 but it's actually perfectly suited for the mood and atmosphere Mann was trying to convey. Stranger Things composers cite Tangerine Dream as massive influences. Listen below:
Where to watch it
- Criterion released a remastered Director's Cut blu-ray which looks better than ever.
- Arrow also released a fantastic set featuring both Theatrical and remastered Director's Cuts. This is my pick.
- At the time of writing, streaming on Stan in Australia.