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Release Date(s)1981 (January 14, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Criterion - Spine #691)
In 1981, Michael Mann seemed to charge right out of the gate with Thief, knowing exactly what to do with the material and how to make it look and sound incredible, even though his experience was only in television up to that point. He later dipped back into the television well with Crime Story and Miami Vice, but Thief marked his feature film debut. He also went on to make some of the most entertaining genre films of his generation: Manhunter, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral, among others.
Thief tells the story of Frank (James Caan), who decides that after years of working as a professional thief and coming off of a stint in prison with his mentor (Willie Nelson), he wants to get out of the business altogether and lead a normal life. His intentions to settle down with his soon-to-be wife Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and have children after one last heist are thwarted by nosey cops looking to score a take for themselves, but also by his gangster employer (Robert Prosky). He soon realizes that it’s not going to be as easy as he thought it would and that he may have to get down and dirty in order to clean up completely.
The film was based on the novel “The Home Invaders” by author and ex-jewel thief Frank Hohimer, sort of. Michael Mann had never intended to film the book as written, using it more for inspiration than anything, so anyone who had read the book prior to seeing the film would have been very much surprised to find out that they are two very different stories with different outcomes. But Thief, first and foremost, is a tightly-knit visual and aural masterpiece, yet its main drive is the characterization of its lead. James Caan’s Frank seems to be bursting at the seams with a richness that’s baked into his performance so perfectly. It almost feels effortless, in a lot of ways. The other characters are vital and the actors give great performances as well, but it’s Caan who really shines the most in the film. There are also some early performances from Dennis Farina and James Belushi to be found, as well as a very, very small part featuring William Peterson as a bartender. Mann also hired real-life criminals as actors, but to also be technical advisors during the robbery sequences, making them as authentic as possible. In addition, he also hired real policemen as actors, having both the policemen and the criminals switch roles in some cases; particularly Dennis Farina, who was, in real life, a Chicago cop, but wound up portraying a thug in the movie.
Even though the film is dripping with a 1980’s look and feel, it doesn’t really feel all that dated, and is still quite edgy and cool, even all these years later. It also feels like an early Martin Scorsese movie, particularly Taxi Driver. It’s beautifully-shot and, as was usually the case with Mann’s work during this timeframe, contains a fantastic, hard-driving soundtrack, courtesy of Tangerine Dream. And even though Mann went on to make much broader films, this, and maybe Manhunter, feel the most pure and authentic. Thief simply fires on all cylinders and leaves most other heist movies in the dust.
The debut of Thief on Blu-ray is a thing of beauty. The transfer found on this release has been sourced from a 4K scan of the film and was both supervised and approved by Michael Mann himself. Also for this release, an additional scene was added back into the film. So for those who have previously owned this film on DVD, you can pretty much toss it out because this disc is all you’re going to need. The presentation of the film is stellar. There’s a very even but natural grain structure throughout, colors are always bold and accurate (as are skin tones), blacks are very deep, and both contrast and brightness are at perfect levels. There are no signs of heavy-handed digital enhancement either. It’s perfectly rounded on all corners. The film’s soundtrack is also quite impressive. Even though the film was released in stereo, Michael Mann’s preferred way to experience the film is with a new English 5.1 DTS-HD mix that is every bit as impressive as the visual portion. It’s a totally immersive soundtrack with ambience, an amazing score, and plenty of surround activity. Dialogue is always perfectly clear and even, sound effects are well-prioritized, and the film’s soundtrack is as lively and pulsating as you could ask for. Directionality also plays a part in the proceedings, as does the LFE. I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but it’s just a perfect presentation, overall. There are also subtitles in English for anyone who needs them.
The extras featured on this release are of the highest quality, but aren’t enormous in number, so don’t expect an overly-stuffed package of supplemental material. There’s an audio commentary with James Caan and Michael Mann; three separate interviews with Michael Mann, James Caan, and Tangerine Dream’s Johannes Schmoelling; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and a 20-page insert booklet containing an essay on the film by “Sight & Sound” magazine’s Nick James. All of this material is great and well-worth digging into. There’s also an additional DVD of the film, which carries all of the same content.
It’s safe to say that this is a title that Criterion gave a lot of special care to, and it shows. Thief on Blu-ray is excellent, with easily one of the best transfers I’ve seen as of late. It should go without saying, but this is definitely a must-own release. Highly recommended!
- Tim Salmons