Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Thief (1981) ****


R, 122 min.
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Michael Mann, Frank Hohimer (novel “The Home Invaders”)
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Tom Signorelli, Willie Nelson

Michael Mann’s debut feature film “Thief” is like a preview of the best of what was to come from this powerful director. On top of that, it’s a great movie in itsel. It follows the story of a small time jewel thief who is offered a chance at the big time. He’s reluctant to take the chance, because it would mean he was no longer in working for just himself. Circumstances arise that convince him to just take a taste and the end results are not what he was promised.


Now, there’s nothing Earth shattering in that plot, but Mann’s films have always been more about attitude and atmosphere than plot. Think “Drive” with a little more dialogue and a main character that actually has dreams and aspirations.

Mann is a master at photographing city streets at night. This has always been one of my best friend’s favorite movies. That friend also has an obsession with songs about the city at night. I never made the connection before, but I’m beginning to see a pattern in my friend’s tastes. Mann photographs the Chicago streets here as if he’s had a long love affair with them. Is it a surprise that my friend ended up in Chicago? The lights, the cars, the way every restaurant is like the property of each of its patrons. I think to Mann this is more beautiful than a mountain top vista.

The electronic score of “Thief” by Tangerine Dream also seems to be something manifestly of the city. Again this brings me back to my friend and songs about the city, the best of which are always electronic. It’s the order and calculation the can virtually be seen in the landscape of the city that allows them to mesh so well together. Electronic music also has the feel of calculation and order that is impossible to ignore. These are also characteristics of the lives Mann’s criminals lead. The best electronic music also contains the immensity of the city; both the scores to “Thief” and “Drive” do this incredibly well.

Mann would go on to have great success directing crime dramas. It seems his worst movies, “The Keep”, “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Ali”, do not have that urban setting in which Mann feels so comfortable. I guess “Ali”—the best of these three failures—does have an urban setting; but Mann never focuses on that setting the way he does in his best films, “Heat”, “The Insider”, and “Miami Vice”.

Watch the movie in its entirety below.



7 comments:

t-rocc said...

nice! i especially like your thoughts on the way the electronic scores work well in this milieu...

i'm a big fan of "Collateral" as well - lots of folks aren't though.

Andrew Wells said...

I liked "Collateral", but I didn't love it like I do "Thief", "Heat", "The Insider", or "Miami Vice". It certainly fits into the Mann themes I'm talking about here, though.

t-rocc said...

i still think Collateral and Heat are yin/yang movies. they live in the same sort of criminal world but in entirely different... styles. i don't think i'd like Collateral as much without Heat as its corollary

Andrew Wells said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure I'm getting your yin/yang correlation between Collateral and Heat. They're both crime movies taking place in LA. They both pretty much give the protagonists and antagonists equal screen time. Beyond that, I'm not seeing their relationship to each other.

t-rocc said...

it's the presentation and general atmosphere, particularly comparing the major gun battle setpieces - one is hyperloud, over the top, strength and volume, shots echoing the city streets... the other is dark, slippery, concealed from sight, small thuds of violence hidden amidst crowds....

t-rocc said...

and their relationship is because the same dude directed them, dude. why else would i be comparing them? that's the point

Andrew Wells said...

I meant I didn't see the yin/yang relationship, but your explanation of the atmosphere and gun battles I think clears it up. And yes, I would have to agree with that assessment.