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Michael Mann's Essential Debut 'Thief,' New from Criterion, and Other Must-Own Holiday Blu-Rays (TRAILER)

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood December 31, 2013 at 12:34PM

Among the new year's bonbons being unwrapped from Criterion is a long-awaited gem, one guaranteed to please that movie freak whose holiday gift-buying you've been putting off till the last possible moment: "Thief," Michael Mann's thriller that inaugurated several careers and a flair for visual style that would become the hallmark of an era.
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James Caan in 'Thief'
James Caan in 'Thief'

Among the new year's bonbons being unwrapped (and re-released) from Criterion is a long-awaited gem, one guaranteed to please that movie freak whose holiday gift-buying you've been putting off till the last possible moment: "Thief," Michael Mann's directorial debut and a thriller that inaugurated several careers, as well as a flair for visual style that would become the hallmark of an era. The way the climactic heist explodes in sparks and fire; the way the city lights of Chicago bleed across the hood of James Caan's car; the virtually dialogue-free scenes of jewel thievery that kick off the film -- all are harbingers of Mann's signature style: muscular visual storytelling and elegant mechanics, mixed with a deep regard for character.


That principal character is inhabited by James Caan, who needed a hit back in 1981 (he didn't get it; "Thief" was more beloved by the cognoscenti than profitable). However, Caan does some of his best work ever -- his kind-of-a-proposal to Tuesday Weld inside a midnight diner is anti-romantic but riveting; Caan makes you feel the neediness of Frank, his ex-con/safe-cracker, even as he pushes everyone including the viewer away. There’s a rather unsatisfying wrap up to what is otherwise a perfectly modulated drama, but "Thief" is so satisfying in so many ways its flaws are inconsequential.

The film was the first for a number of people, including Dennis Farina, William Petersen, Robert Prosky and Jim Belushi; blues great Willie Dixon, an institution in the city where Mann shot his story, shows up in what seems to be an uncredited role, fishing for mackerel in Lake Michigan (there are mackerel in Lake Michigan?).  Another Willie -- Nelson -- is Frank's mentor. There’s a snippet of a performance by the Mighty Joe Young Band; a singular score by Tangerine Dream, and a visual architecture that serves as a bridge between the William Friedkin of "French Connection" and the Ridley Scott of "Blade Runner": the gritty crime saga with smear of greasy neon and a side order of twisted America Dream.

Criterion's dual-format reissue (Blu-ray/DVD) contains new interviews with Caan, Mann and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream and audio commentary by Caan and Mann; the booklet features an essay by Sight & Sound's estimable Nick James. The restoration is in 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative.


Criterion has other gifts in the basket come January:  A three box set of Satyajit Ray's work; dual-format releases of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; Terence Davies "The Long Day Closes," Akira Kurosawa’s Macbethian "Throne of Blood" and Jules Dassin's "Rififi" (to which "Thief" owes a few debts). Particularly close to our hearts though is the rerelease of Aki Kaurismaki's "La Vie de Boheme," the masterpiece of Kaurismaki's early period and a film simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. If you're in love with someone, watch it together. 

Trailer below.

This article is related to: Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, DVD / Blu-Ray, Michael Mann, James Caan


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.