Thief (1981)

by Chris Hoth

James Caan in Thief The dictionary defines style as a distinctive or characteristic form of expression and this movie has it from the opening shots of rain pouring down between buildings in a narrow alleyway back-lit by a streetlight to the final scene as the eponymous character played by James Caan walks down a residential street after the filmís violent climactic confrontation, all set to a pulsing score by Tangerine Dream. Filmed in 1981, this is the first feature film from Michael Mann who previously did a TV movie, The Jericho Mile in 1979 and was best known to this point for his work as executive producer of the popular Miami Vice television show.

It seems more like the work of an experienced director so sure is his handling of story, character, setting and mood. The basic story is fairly straight-forward, it follows the career of a professional jewel thief (Caan) who was jailed as a youngster for a minor offense and learns his trade from an inmate/father figure played by Willie Nelson. In an attempt to make up for lost time in prison, and with a simplistic vision of what constitutes a normal life, he tries to assemble a family with a wife, played by Tuesday Weld, a home and child. He becomes involved with organized criminals led by Robert Prosky in the hope of accelerating the process; becomes ensnared instead and must extricate himself at the expense of all he has striven for.

Caan plays the character in a highly controlled manner, the emotion held tightly in check coming out only in flashes. This is not because of a limited acting range on Caanís part but is an accurate portrayal of the character who we come to understand in an important scene in a diner when he reveals himself and his plans to the woman (Weld) who he has chosen for his wife. Another pivotal scene that adds depth to the character occurs when Caan and Weld are at the Department of Social Services trying to adopt a child and are turned down because of his background. His emotional response increases our understanding of the character in the context of an interesting and dramatic scene. This ability to create complete characters in scenes that also advance the plot is something that Mann handles skillfully making a much more interesting movie than much of today's endless action fare.

Tuesday Weld is convincingly vulnerable and independent as the woman who has had a difficult life, much like her own tumultuous personal life, and makes her acceptance of Cannís proposal quite believable. James Belushi as Caanís protege and electronics expert in his first feature film role demonstrates an engaging personality that would serve him well in a number of films in both leading and supporting roles. Less well known, or less notorious, than his brother John, he has proven to be a durable and talented performer. Willie Nelson , better known as a country and western singer, has turned in solid performances in several films. His soft delivery is an effective counterpoint to Caanís seething emotion and fits his role as mentor and father figure. Robert Prosky, also in his feature film debut, as the crime boss is excellent as he alternates between a jolly father figure and brutal gangster.

A small part I particularly enjoyed was Sam (played by Nathan Davis), the metallurgist in the foundry who Caan contacts for help with a job. Itís hard to know if one is discerning the directorís concerns or reading ones own thoughts into the scene. The character is resignedly contemptuous of the new engineers who have little hands-on understanding and as he says "wear white coats in foundry". Is this a criticism of his peers for superficiality or a general observation on the lack of craftsmanship and respect for hard earned experience which one can learn from in our daily lives. Also look for legendary blues man Willie Dixon in a brief appearance.

The music score (not a bunch of rock & roll songs strung together to capitalize on soundtrack sales) is Tangerine Dreamís best.. Mann seems to favor evocative, and often-times electronic, music like that used in his second film Manhunter or beautiful melodic music like that in The Last of the Mohicans. Tangerine Dreams delivers on both counts with their best score since Sorcerer.

Thief is a movie that is enjoyable on many levels. It has plenty of action and gritty realism, thoughtful character studies, interesting film techniques and visual storytelling, as well as some thoughts on human aspirations and what makes a meaningful life.

The Thief  laserdisc set is three sides on two discs in a gatefold jacket with side 3 in CAV. Itís an MGM Deluxe Letter-Box, "Special Directorís Edition. It has a Supplemental Section of production stills that also identifies real life people playing for and against type; cops playing cops, cops playing criminals, criminals playing cops lending an air of verisimilitude

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