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Thief: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Thief (1981) movie poster Thief

Theatrical Release: March 27, 1981 / Running Time: 125 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated (Theatrical Cut: R)

Director: Michael Mann / Writers: Michael Mann (screen story & screenplay), Frank Hohimer (The Home Invaders)

Cast: James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (David Okla Bertinneau), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. (Bill) Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido), John Santucci (Sgt. Urizzi), Gavin McFayden (Boreksco), Chuck Adamson (Ancell), Sam Cirone (Martello), Spero Anast (Bukowski), Walter Scott (D. Simpson), Sam T. Louis (Large Detective in Suit)

Buy Thief from Amazon.com: Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Combo • MGM DVD

From the start of his filmmaking career, Michael Mann has been drawn to crime drama. Mann got his start writing episodes of 1970s TV series like "Starsky and Hutch" and directing a single episode of "Police Woman."
He then worked on, without credit, the script to Dustin Hoffman's 1978 film Straight Time. Mann made his feature directing debut on the 1979 prison telemovie The Jericho Mile. Shortly after that, he picked up his first theatrical credits as writer, director, and executive producer of 1981's Thief.

Living up to its title, the film centers on Frank (James Caan), a Chicago man who owns a car dealership and a bar, but really makes his living as a skilled safe-cracker who steals diamonds. The first ten minutes of the film unfold without dialogue. We see this master at work: breaking in, getting what he wants, and making a quick, clean getaway. The only noises are the ones Frank's tools make and the electronic score by German group Tangerine Dream. A dynamic marriage of image and sound, this atmospheric opening announces Thief and its maker as distinctive and unusual.

Frank (James Caan) proves he's not monkeying around by pointing a gun at the plating company executive who owes him money.

When Frank does begin speaking, it is a man talking business. He and his colleagues are all surnames and shorthand. He has to pull a gun on an executive to line up the money that's been taken from a slain associate. Frank shows up for a payout and in addition to that, he is extended a partnership offer from an influential crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky). Convinced that his connections and Frank's skills are a match made in heaven, Leo promises top-dollar jobs that will make Frank a millionaire.

Frank likes what he hears, but he's already plotting an exit from the business. His mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson), is finishing up a long jail sentence, but also running out of time, diagnosed with angina and given just months to live. Doing what he can to expedite Okla's release, Frank also heeds the man's advice not to lie. So, he opens up to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a diner cashier he's begun dating, about his job and his own time spent in prison. Frank would like to start a family with Jessie, though she can't have kids and adoption agencies frown upon his criminal record.

While disregarding pressure from police officers investigating Leo, Frank discovers it isn't easy to settle down in his line of work.

Frank (James Caan) comes clean to Jessie (Tuesday Weld) in a nighttime diner scene. In contrast to the warmth he gave films like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994), Robert Prosky is kind of pure, intimidating evil as Chicago crime boss Leo.

Mann's name rarely comes up in discussions of the great filmmakers of our time, but he has built an impressive and extremely influential body of work. He doesn't work with the frequency of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or the Coen brothers.
Thus when he disappoints, a long time can pass between successes. 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of Collateral, the last film Mann made that you could describe as better than okay. In addition, he has largely avoided awards-type cinema. Aside from his widely recognized whistleblower drama The Insider (1999), historical epic The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and the biopic Ali (2001), Mann hasn't made anything that screams "Oscar season." Thus, his Academy Awards record consists of three nominations for The Insider (Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Picture) and one Best Picture nomination for producing Scorsese's The Aviator.

Mann's interest in crime drama has not been short-lived. His most significant contributions to television were as the executive producer of the 1980s shows "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story." His films, from Thief through his disappointing most recent effort (Public Enemies), have shown a persistent preoccupation with criminals and the men who try to stop them. You could argue that Mann has not shown much growth as a storyteller (ignoring the power of The Insider's departure). Or you could just appreciate that he has brought something unique, special, and unmatched to the genre.

His crime action films, particularly the Los Angeles epic Heat, have clearly inspired some of today's most celebrated filmmakers. None of those filmmakers has been as successful as Christopher Nolan, whose creative debt to Mann has been transparent from the casting of his Insomnia remake to the look, tone and feel of The Dark Knight and Inception. You can also easily spot a connection between the green-tinged visuals of Thief and Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish neon crime dramas, the most acclaimed being his American debut Drive. There is some irony in the fact that Mann, whose scattered filmography hasn't even generated the enthusiasm of, say, action thriller-directing British brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, has kind of disappeared from Hollywood while younger filmmakers using his playbook are flourishing.

It's not as if Mann has gone entirely unappreciated. Heat would probably be recognized as a classic even if it didn't show up in the filmographies of actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Natalie Portman. Others, like Mohicans, Collateral, and The Insider, all flirt with average IMDb ratings close to the 8.0 range that houses nearly every Nolan film. Today, Mann gets another unmistakable sign of respect with the admission of Thief into The Criterion Collection. Assigned spine number 691, this drama makes its Blu-ray Disc debut in a Dual Format Edition consisting of one Blu-ray and one DVD.

Okla (Willie Nelson) gets a jail visit from his former protιgι, Frank. A young Jim Belushi made his film debut by playing Frank's partner in crime, Barry.

Though it did premiere at Cannes, Thief isn't an obvious selection for Criterion, who tends to release vintage, foreign and independent cinema much more frequently than modern American studio fare. Nonetheless, this film and its writer-director are worthy of such distinction. Thief is beautifully shot, appealingly scored (in a way that both dates and distinguishes the film), and well-acted. The stoic turn by the explosive, stubborn Caan, whose career did not really thrive following The Godfather in the way that you would think, isn't the kind that wins awards (or immediately revives careers), but it serves the film and Mann's manner of filmmaking quite well. What Mann's compelling if slightly forgettable screenplay lacks in originality, it makes up for in style and atmosphere, culminating with as badass an ending as exists in film.

Like laserdisc and DVD, Criterion's discs present Thief exclusively in a director's cut (not rated, though worthy of the theatrical cut's R), which makes some minor editing changes and adds a short scene.

Thief marks the feature film debuts of Prosky, Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina, and William Petersen, most of whom Mann would again work with on other projects.

Thief: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; English Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Previously released as MGM Special Director's Edition DVD (July 1, 1998)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Even entering with the expectations raised by Criterion's decades of exemplary work, one still finds Thief's Blu-ray presentation instantly stunning. The 1.85:1 transfer boasts sharpness, clarity, and vitality that owners of MGM's DVD couldn't have imagined. For a medium-budgeted film that's over 30 years old, Thief looks exquisite, delighting with a suitable amount of film grain and nary an imperfection. It's worth mentioning that the green tinge I mentioned above in my review is not something I remembered from first seeing the film on DVD over ten years ago. Screencaps online indicate somewhat considerable difference in the coloring between Criterion's transfer and MGM's old one. Since Michael Mann approved this transfer, it's safe to say this is his preferred vision, though it may strike some film purists as the kind of George Lucas revisionism they frown upon.

The sound is also subjected to reworking in the form of a 5.1 DTS-HD master audio remix. It's a dynamic track that does a first-rate job of presenting dialogue, effects and Tangerine Dream's effervescent electronic instrumentation.

Michael Mann covers all bases in this new 2013 interview, "Truth-Telling Style." An unusually rosy-cheeked James Caan looks back at one of his proudest credits in "Making Something Real."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

As usual, Criterion assembles a fine assortment of extras, all of which are included on both the DVD and the Blu-ray, the latter presenting the video in high definition.

First up comes an audio commentary by director Michael Mann and James Caan recorded together in 1995 for laserdisc. Clearly predating the standardization of commentaries, their screen-specific track is easygoing and uneven (with frequent lulls),
but their memories of "technical advisors" (actual crooks and cops), using real safe-cracking tools, and their favorite scenes are vivid and amusing.

On the video side, we get a trio of new interviews taped in 2013.

"Truth-Telling Style: Michael Mann on Thief" (24:18) is a comprehensive chat. Speaking to Variety's chief film critic Scott Foundas, Mann discusses growing up in Chicago, becoming interested in crime stories, the visual ideas he had for the film, the nonfiction book he discarded but still credited, the influence of real criminals and past films (particularly his eye-opening time shooting The Jericho Mile in Folsom Prison), choosing Tangerine Dream to do the score (a decision he still second guesses), the film's writing (including basing characters on real crime figures), casting, explosive stunts, changes made from the shooting script, and the modernist narrative. It's an outstanding piece.

Next, "Making Something Real: James Caan on Thief" (10:39) gathers remarks from the leading man, who calls it one of the two or three films he's proudest of (might The Godfather be another?). He recalls getting hired for the movie, being trained by both cops and thieves, refraining from using contractions in his distinctive speech pattern, Mann's workaholic ways, and a time the safe cracking skills he learned came in handy for his sister. It's another nice interview.

Johannes Schmoelling speaks in German in his interview about Tangerine Dream's score. James Caan: Thief reads the title card of this original 1981 theatrical trailer.

"The Otherness of Sound: The Tangerine Dream Score" (15:40) interviews Johannes Schmoelling, a member of the group at the time. Speaking in German (which is translated with English subtitles),
he describes giving Mann what he wanted, the specifics of the job (the band's first of many 1980s Hollywood scores) that had many opportunities for music, and Mann wanting to use Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" for the film's climax. It too is a substantial inclusion.

On-disc extras draw to a close with Thief's good original theatrical trailer (1:53).

The menu plays clips of Frank at work, welding and cutting under a gradually showing title logo while an excerpt of Tangerine Dream's score plays. As always, Criterion equips the Blu-ray with bookmarking and resuming capabilities, though they sadly still do not supply subtitles for the English extras.

The two uniquely, nicely-labeled discs get individual hubs on the back of the (standard for Criterion) clear keepcase. They're joined, of course, by a sturdy, tastefully illustrated companion booklet, which improves upon the 8-page one included in MGM's DVD at least several printings ago. In addition to the usual cast and disc credits, chapter list, and transfer information, Criterion's booklet features "Where Nothing Means Nothing", an essay by Sight & Sound magazine editor Nick James. The short but good large print article celebrates the film in detail and places it in the context of Mann's career and cinema's evolution.

James Caan IS Thief.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Michael Mann's Thief gets just about the most satisfying Blu-ray release it could in Criterion's delightful combo pack. This early '80s crime thriller didn't seem like a Criterion film, but now it's impossible to imagine it getting any less than this thorough, respectful presentation. While Mann would improve on this with more complex work like the operatic Heat (which recycles a number of beats), this terse thriller is clearly moving him in the direction that would come to clearly influence the films of Christopher Nolan. If you are among the many to revere Nolan's work, you are encouraged to discover a filmmaker who's repeatedly inspired him in this first standout home video release of 2014.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Michael Mann: The Insider | New: Fruitvale Station • Blind Date
Best of Warner Bros.: 20 Thrillers • The Anderson Tapes & Physical Evidence • Drive • Robot & Frank • Jackie Brown • Stolen
1980s on Blu-ray: Escape from New York • Down by Law • The Color of Money • The Terminator • Platoon • One from the Heart
James Caan: The Godfather • Bottle Rocket • Misery • Elf • Dick Tracy • Middle Men • That's My Boy • Magic City: The Complete Second Season
Robert Prosky: Broadcast News • The Murder of Mary Phagan • Mrs. Doubtfire | Jim Belushi: Trading Places
The Criterion Collection: Following • Heaven's Gate

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Reviewed January 14, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1981 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.