The recent Blu-ray edition of Michael Mann’s influential Thief (1981) has inspired a number of perceptive reappraisals of this stylish and enigmatic film. Of particular interest has been the film’s cool, impressionistic cinematography, creating visual moods that bear a complicated relationship to the story’s tensions and violence. Just as important in setting these complex moods, however, and just as influential, is the film’s electronic score, composed by German band Tangerine Dream. While the sound they pioneered, combining melodic minimalism and taut synthetic rhythms, would become almost a cliché in films and on dancefloors throughout the 1980s, in Mann’s film their music serves to create an aural environment that is simultaneously meditative and driving, and is a crucial element of the film’s achievement.
While Tangerine Dream would go on to score dozens of films, this was only their second major soundtrack for a Hollywood picture. Their first was William Friedkin’s cult classic Sorcerer (1977), itself due for its first blu-ray release (and hopefully a long-overdue reappraisal from critics) in April. Friedkin was already well-known for his innovative use of music, particularly in The Exorcist, where he took the main theme from Mike Oldfield’s progressive rock opus Tubular Bells and transformed it into a sound that has become as synonymous with terror as Bernard Herrmann’s slicing string section for Hitchcock’s Psycho. In its original setting, Oldfield’s music sets a dreamy, pastoral mood, its ringing bell tones and slowly building piano arpeggios more conducive to meditation than fear. Yet in Friedkin’s film, the music conjures up an otherworldly presence, the minor chords and circular melodies casting a seductive, sinister spell. This transformation is every bit as striking as Quentin Tarantino’s subversive use of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel to serve as the disturbingly cheery accompaniment to Michael Madsen’s gruesome torture of a police officer in Reservoir Dogs. With the innovative scores used by filmmakers like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and others, we have become well used to hearing found music used against the grain in this way, but Friedkin’s use of Oldfield retains an air of mystery about it.
As iconic as this score has become, Friedkin has said that, had he heard the music of Tangerine Dream before making The Exorcist, he would have asked them to score the film. By the time he first heard their music in the mid-1970s, the electronic group had evolved from the abstract atonality of their early years to the increasingly rhythmic space rock of their most popular period. At the core of the group were early members Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke, accompanied by shifting members for the remaining decade. Friedkin first heard them at a concert given in a darkened cathedral in the primeval Black Forest, an experience that would play a fundamental role in his development as a filmmaker. “I’d never seen anything like that,” Mr. Friedkin said. “They played one long piece of music that sounded like a combination of Jimi Hendrix and Stockhausen. The whole notion of the film I later made came that evening. I started to see the images of the movie that ultimately became Sorcerer.”
Like Mann’s Thief, Sorcerer balances contemplative, sometimes abstract visual elements with the taut narrative of the thriller. This style owes much to the European New Wave, particularly the films of Werner Herzog and Jean-Pierre Melville, which recast traditional elements of the thriller into abstract meditations on destiny and free will. The story brings together several desperate characters who have fled from their criminal pasts into anonymity in a remote village in South America. After terrorists blow up a local oil well, the oil company seeks four drivers to move a shipment of volatile nitro-glycerin through the rain forest so that the explosives can be used to stop the flow of flaming oil. Tangerine Dream’s music is not heard until the film’s second half, depicting this harrowing journey through excruciating challenges. While their score has a remarkable range, moving from ethereal drones to blinding white noise, their signature sound emerges in the form of slowly evolving modular melodies that grow more taut and rhythmic as the journey’s tensions increase. A key element of the soundtrack’s success is the nature of synthesized sound itself, which can be sculpted into a variety of forms, in which any given sound can change from melodic to rhythmic by increasing a tone’s percussive attack. The electronic sounds blend seamlessly with the truck engine’s roar and the driving rain in the film’s complex sound design, creating a total aural atmosphere of a kind that would be later augmented by Mann in Thief.
The films also share a preoccupation with their detailed, seemingly real-time depiction of men engaged in complicated tasks, and both films depend upon Tangerine Dream’s score to lend focus and tension to these depictions. Thief begins with a now-famous 9-minute scene in which the protagonist Frank (James Caan) breaks into a high security vault. The electronic rhythms and pulses of the score become almost indistinguishable from the iconic image of the giant drill that fills the screen, sending sparks flying to bounce off of Frank’s surprisingly hip looking safety glasses. The repetitive rhythms anticipate those that would later emerge in the Chicago club scene. Dubbed house music, this minimal electronic dancefloor sound has become synonymous with techno and its variants, combining driving beats with stark, industrial sounds uniquely suited to high-ceilinged dance clubs. It is a sound oddly suited to the enigmatic mood struck by Mann’s film, in which grueling, repetitive tasks become existential rituals in which the protagonist momentarily defies the forces that would trap him.
Tangerine Dream’s music is used prominently in three main sections of the film, first in the tense opening scene, then over the second major break-in depicted a little over halfway into the picture, and, finally, in the climactic scene of the film where Frank violently frees himself from oppressive obligations. Each of these major scenes is distinctive for its lack of dialogue and almost total focus on a particular, grim task. Taken individually, they assume a quality that’s hard to disassociate from the music video, a form that was soon to come into its own with MTV, which began broadcasting the same year Thief was released. Mann himself, as producer of Miami Vice, would play an important role in extending the vocabulary of this new form by incorporating extended music sequences into dramatic narratives, accompanied by Jan Hammer’s infinitely adaptable electronic compositions.
But the mood of Thief and its relationship to Tangerine Dream’s music is a much more complicated affair than the pink and neon night scenes evoked in Miami Vice. Thief conjures a kind of anti-glamour in which grim-faced criminals pound heavy metal tools, their faces pouring sweat as they force their way into seemingly impenetrable steel chambers. Without a driving soundtrack and incomparably rich cinematography, these scenes would be an extremely hard sell, but Thief transforms what might easily come off as arty and boring into gripping cinema. Like Mann’s film, Tangerine Dream’s score combines the ethereal and the meditative with the metallic and the visceral. The result is a film in which every element combines in a portrayal of crime as both act and atmosphere, murder and mood.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.