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.