Thief at 40: Revisiting Michael Mann’s Debut Masterpiece

A brief, spoiler free look at Thief on its 40th anniversary.

Blu-ray courtesy the Criterion Collection. Image Copyright: Justin Ayd

Forty years ago this weekend—specifically March 27, 1981—Michael Mann hit the world by storm with the release of his criminally underrated first theatrical feature Thief, a neo-noir tale of hot-blooded, safecracking Frank (James Caan) looking to leave his life as a jewel thief and settle down with his version of the American dream.

Out of the gate, Mann’s methodology for world-building would become a signature career defining approach; a foray into any given enterprise would be thoroughly researched and developed, extensively trained by his actors, and rehearsed on set. Caan later revealed he used the expertise acquired on this film to, legally, break into a safe.

James Caan as Frank. Image Courtesy

Thief isn’t a fantastical rendering of the unglamorous world of a jewel thief, it’s — as far as filmmaking and storytelling is concerned — an authentic immersion into the psyche of an intensely focused professional, maybe at his most calm and accomplished when on the job. But he wants something more, something different. You feel Frank’s humanity; his wants and desires, and his struggles and frustrations. The duality of man lives at Frank’s surface, and is an ever present theme in Mann’s body of work.

This three-dimensionality extends outward to the supporting players. From Frank’s love interest Jesse (Tuesday Weld) and his partner-in-crime Barry (Jim Belushi), to his mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) and Chicago crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), they are equally given unique and grounded landscapes to exist in, no matter the amount of screen time they hold. This character depth, conflict and representation would later be felt tenfold in Heat (1995), Mann’s sprawling crime-saga starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, and Tom Sizemore.

In the years since, Michael Mann has received a slew of labels, categorizing him as a simple stylist, nothing more than a director with strong visual flair, but lacking depth, empty on emotion. I chalk this up to the inability to grasp the reach of a director’s intellect. Michael Mann’s 2015 Blackhat, his most recent feature, is a perfect example of this disconnect.

Generally panned by critics, Blackhat tells the story of Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a hacker who is recruited by FBI and CIA authorities to capture a cyber-hacker committing high level terrorist attacks around the world.

Tang Wei as Chen Lien. Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway in Blackhat (2015) . Image Courtesy

Blackhat is Mann’s most complete and thoroughly engaging film since Collateral (2004). As far as characters are concerned, everyone is virtually unknowable, even Hathaway. Mann strategically scatters fragments of information across his canvas, just enough for you to feel a splinter of humanity, but won’t necessarily fill in a particular corner. No, he’ll expand on a little oblong shape across the canvas, highlighting a new patch, giving insight to the whole if you’re willing to pay attention.

Hathaway is the antithesis of what you’d expect a hacker to be, yet holds well-defined traits of a lone wolf; soft spoken, introverted, nearly invisible, aside from his obvious muscular physique and, at times, precarious eruptions. Hathaway is merely trying to survive. He walks into a room, takes the temperature, vibe, energy of the people… then adapts. The story may be far fetched, but in Mann’s world, everything is logical and has its place.

Michael Mann and James Caan on the set of Thief (1981). Image Courtesy Music and Sunshine.

You would be hard-pressed to watch Thief today and think the end product was created by an inexperienced 36 year-old director, and that this particular film was his theatrical debut. It was the genesis of Mann’s sensibilities as a director, something he holds onto to this day: challenging, multifaceted characters, striking photography, incredible production design, and a keen sense for music; Tangerine Dream’s vibrant score married with the imagery of Thief is unforgettable.

The sheer amount of confidence and control Mann holds across the duration of Thief — from first frame to last — is nothing short of magnificent, even 40 years later.

Thief is available on Blu-ray courtesy the Criterion Collection and Arrow Films. Michael Mann is currently in pre-production on Enzo Ferrari, a film about the life of Italian sports car entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari.

Justin is the film specialist / projectionist for the Minneapolis Walker Art Center. Simultaneously, he is a documentary filmmaker and freelance video editor.

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