Michael Mann’s 1981 feature film is getting a Criterion release this week, with a 4k transfer that will give a new shine, a new level of visual quality, to the film. Thief, for years, has been languished on a less than stellar DVD transfer that did not showcase the true beauty of the film. Finally, it is now being released on Blu-ray by a company that always gives celebrated films the proper, restorative treatment they deserve.

Thief is a film that may be rough on the edges, and some of the character drama and beats happen relatively quickly, but it contains all of the elements that made Mann’s Heat one of the best crime dramas/bank robbery movies of the 1990s. The film is about a meticulous ex-con who is an expert diamond thief, caught up with dangerous criminal elements that threaten both his business and his life. The film is a good crime/heist-drama that is supported by a strong cast consisting of James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi and Dennis Farina. The plot is straightforward but the film elevates itself from mere genre fare.

The cinematography in the film is gorgeous, and the only thing that really hampered my viewing experience was the fact that I had to endure the mediocre DVD transfer. Hopefully the Blu-ray will rectify the quality discrepancy because it would benefit this supremely stylistic film. Though the elements that contribute to the stylization of the film would appear to be heavily influenced by the 80s, the look and feel of the film, overall, is more reminiscent of the grimy, gritty crime thrillers of the 1970s. The heavy film grain contributes to this atmosphere significantly, which in this era of heavy digitalization adds a hint of nostalgia for those who still enjoy prefer the look of film over digital. Even the score of the film by Tangerine Dream, a German electronic band, is a synth score that certainly marks the era in which the film was made.

As with Heat and other Mann films, Thief contains familiar elements such as the ‘lone-wolf’ main character who is a criminal living by a strict moral code and only committing violent actions out of necessity. Also, like Heat, the main character is an ex-con who dreads the thought of having to be confined in prison once more, which serves as their primary motivation throughout the film. The city (Chicago), as a character is less significant than Mann’s later film Collateral; however, it is still a lingering presence that weighs over the characters. Additionally, the characters are often depicted as an extension of the city itself.

The love story between the criminal and the woman outside of the “life” (criminal life that is) is also found. The relationship between James Caan and Tuesday Weld feels like a proto-type of the one found in Heat, with Robert De Niro and Amy Brennerman.  Another characteristic of Mann films is the relatively realistic executions of technical elements of crime, in this case the heists themselves.  Michael Mann always insists on a certain degree of authenticity in his films, in the way firearms are handled or using real life criminals/cops to model his characters.

Thief was an exciting theatrical feature film debut that showcased the essential qualities that make Michael Mann films great. It set the tone and stage for what would later come to fruition. Furthermore, if you are a fan of Michael Mann then you owe it to yourself to watch it. 

Titular theif Frank (James Caan) and villainous mafioso Leo (Robert Prosky) in Theif  (1981).

Titular theif Frank (James Caan) and villainous mafioso Leo (Robert Prosky) in Theif  (1981).