James Caan stars in THIEF, directed by Michael Mann for United Artists.

Thief (1981, Michael Mann)

With Thief, Mann leaves plain an American standard–the gangster movie. Halfway through the film, I wondered how it fit, as the energy the film opens with is gone. The film moves these awkwardly handled scenes without much flare. These scenes are presented as the standard dramatic scenes, but with something not quite right about the storytelling in these very familiar scenes. Then it becomes clear.

During the big jewel heist–which Mann could play as an audio and visual feast, but doesn’t–instead he sucks the romance out of the cinematic glitz. In the dystopian bleakness of Thief, nothing matters (not a philosophy Mann could hold on to for long), not friends, not family.

As protagonist James Caan moves through this mobster’s house, even though it’s a crime figure’s home, it’s lived in, versus Caan’s, which looks like a photograph. Seeing Caan in that setting, it’s clear how his presence in that house, in everyone else’s lives too, reveals it all to be a complete illusion. Anything not as bleak and empty as Caan is false.

Caan is great. Tuesday Weld is great. James Belushi’s really good, which is odd, as is Robert Prosky. Willie Nelson is good in his two scenes.

In the second of Nelson’s scenes, it’s clear Caan’s not a reliable narrator and Mann forces a barrier between the audience and the film. The film exists on its own. The characters aren’t beholden to the viewing experience of the audience. Thief‘s contemptuous of such a relationship.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay and story by Mann, based on a book by John Seybold; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan; released by United Artists.

Starring James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido) and John Santucci (Urizzi).

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