• Not to say he wouldn’t make better films later in his career, but Michael Mann’s feature debut Thief showcases an auteur born with a clear vision. With the meeting of crime and high art aesthetics it is hard not to mention Jean-Pierre Melville as a comparison.
  • Mann is smart to set the film in a familiar spot- it is shot on location in Chicago, and Mann is from Chicago.
  • Mann’s vision combines a bit of gritty street realism detail with this sleek sheen view of the neon lit streets. Mann had to admire William Friedkin.- apparently Mann wanted either Gene Hackman or Roy Scheider (The French Connection) here for the James Caan role. Mann also uses Tangerine Dream for the score (this is one of their finest) and Tangerine Dream really got their start working on big films with Friedkin in Sorcerer (1977).

neon soaked neo noir

Thief is an urban western, Mann is a decedent of Jean-Pierre Melville

Mann’s only film in the standard aspect ratio- from here on he’d switch to the wider 2.35:1 frame

  • Mann opens with noir-like rain and line of city lights bouncing off the puddles. The robbery is the opening set piece lasting just about 10-minutes. It is about execution, precision, there is not much dialogue at all.

Frank has a crew, an old man who builds machines, a partner. Like Neil in Heat he’s his own boss, “they don’t run me, and you don’t run me”

  • Not a big focus of Mann but a quick split diopter shot of the Feds
  • Robert Prosky is very good as Leo. He has the confidence and assurance not to get blown off the street by Caan. Caan is untamed here- he’s sending back the coffee cream and calling it cottage cheese, he’s screaming, pausing a lot, referencing gangbangs in prison. At the 33-minute to 43-minute mark in the coffee shop he gives a very long monologue to Tuesday Weld’s Jessie character. I have some mixed feelings on his delivery. Mann uses the street lights behind them to give color to the scene- a focus on background, too. Coffee shops are very important to Mann’s films (this could be the one where Pacino and De Niro finally meet in Heat).

This coffee shop set piece gets you insight into Caan’s Frank character. The rest of the film is really about clean phones, blueprints, details of the heists. Mann loves the details and realism of the welding—I mean Caan looks physically exhausted when the big heist is over.

  • William Petersen is in one scene as a bartender- he would go on to be the star of Mann’s Manhunter (1986). Dennis Farina is here as well (he was an actual Chicago PD)—this was a big break for Prosky, Peterson, Farina, and Belushi.
  • In talking to Weld’s Jessie on the phone he talks about “the heat”
  • Tangerine Dream’s sublime work fills the air- there are long stretches without dialogue as Caan’s Frank preps, works, or its just the night (with glorious lighting) in his car.

At the 98-minute mark the neon lights from the city are on the hood of his black Cadillac. This is 20 seconds of cinematic bliss- a wow of a showoff sequence.

Quickly after the Cadillac shot there is the string of lights on the car lot at night shot at the 99-minute mark

  • Peckinpah-like miraculous slow-motion shots of Jim Belushi getting it.

A stunner at the 110-minute mark with the Green Mill Cocktail lounge—Mel Bourne does the production design (Woody’s Manhattan, Interiors).

  • Frank blows up the house, bar, dealership…. And like all of Mann’s work it leads to the climatic battle (in this case a shootout). This is a brilliant urban western.

Mann’s Camera pulls up through the trees via a crane shot as Frank walks down the sidewalk… rock music blows up as the credits start. This is High Noon (1952).

  • A Must-See film top five of the year quality- along with Blood Simple a few years later from The Coen Brothers this is one of the better debut films of the 1980s.