The Criterion Collection has issued Thief on Blu-ray (with standard DVD included, per Criterion's recent switch to primarily dual-format releases). What the film does so well is realistically convey the milieu of professional thieves (at least it appears to carry the heft of authenticity, as it’s hard to say for those of us in the straight world). Not a thriller or action flick by any means, Thief is a methodically-paced drama. Caan plays Frank, a 40ish ex-con who longs for some semblance of normalcy in his life. Hoping to start a family and leave the criminal life behind him, he sets up what he hopes will be one last big score. What he doesn’t initially understand is that his new boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), regards him as little more than an indentured servant. Frank is good at what he does, and Leo has no intentions of letting him retire.
James Caan delivers what might be his career-best performance. He forces us to accept Frank at face value. Mann's screenplay allows little room for sympathy as it is, but Caan is aggressively and deliberately unlikable. Frank is a passionate, headstrong, and articulate man who nonetheless lacks the charm and refinement needed to transition out of his criminal rut. He bullies Jessie (Tuesday Weld) into marrying him. They newlyweds improbably attempt to adopt from a state-run agency, with predictably disastrous results. Allowing Leo to set them up with a black market infant turns out to be a huge mistake later on. The ensemble includes understated turns by James Belushi, as Frank’s loyal accomplice Barry, and Willie Nelson, as Frank’s imprisoned surrogate father Okla.
With so much going for it, it's troubling that Thief remains so curiously disengaging. As an exercise in style, it succeeds magnificently. But Mann keeps us at arm's length throughout a very slow-moving 124 minutes. We glimpse what appears to be a realistically lived-in criminal universe. We don't see much upside to the lifestyle, as the expensive suits and gold watch Frank flaunts don't seem to bring him much satisfaction. The audience is stuck with Frank and the rest of these miserable, surly characters. The movie succeeds in making us squirm with discomfort and impatience, not wanting to spend another minute in the company of these dirt-bags.
A word on the ending, and beware: this gets into inevitable spoiler territory. By the time Frank realizes he’s up against a wall with Leo, essentially owned by the men he despises, he decides to sever all ties and go out with a bang. Determined to reclaim his own destiny, Frank blows it all to hell, determined to be the last man standing. This was a much more effectively bracing ending in 1981. Many filmmakers have staged similar blowout climaxes in the years since. I'm not saying Mann specifically broke new ground with Thief, just that this blaze of glory ending has now been done so many times it feels all-too-familiar. That's not anything to fault Mann's for, but it does end up dulling the impact that the film's final act once had.
The Mann-approved 4K restoration of Thief is perfect, with well-balanced contrast levels that allow the detail to emerge from this often very dark film. Anyone familiar with the previous home video incarnations should prepare for quite a shock with Criterion’s revelatory presentation. Donald Thorin’s dark, foggy, frequently nighttime cinematography looks simply incredible. Entire sequences that were once almost difficult to follow on DVD, with all sense of detail crushed right out, are now vividly cinematic. This is clearly how Thief was always meant to look and Criterion’s team has done a bang-up job here.
The same can be said of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which offers a surprisingly complex sonic environment considering the film’s modest production budget. It goes without saying that dialogue is flawless. What’s striking is the precise balance struck between the front-centric dialogue and the surround ambiance. Gunfire and explosions pack a lot of power, with the LFE channel booming during the climax. Tangerine Dream’s tense synth score is also a treat to hear. Just a terrific technical presentation all around.
A 1995 commentary track by Mann and Caan has been carried over from a previous DVD release, a solid track but nothing new for longtime fans. A trio of 2013 interviews therefore serves as the main attraction, and they’re well worth the time. Michael Mann sits for a 24-minute chat with Variety film critic Scott Foundas, discussing all aspects of Thief. James Caan is featured for about ten minutes, discussing what the role of Frank means to him and how he approached playing the character. Tangerine Dream member Johannes Schmoelling contributes about 15 minutes of recollections about scoring the film.
Ultimately, Thief an easy film to appreciate, but a difficult film to like. The ongoing career of a visionary craftsman like Michael Mann absolutely guarantees sustained interest in his debut feature. Criterion has wisely chosen to include it in their esteemed catalog. But Mann took an almost academic approach to the material. While artistically valid, it makes for a chilly, challenging viewing experience that feels strangely neutral.