With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief.
Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.
Frank (James Caan) has built up a lofty, hugely successful career as a jewel thief long after his release from prison, but something is missing. As with so many masculine criminals in the film world, he needs a soul, and to find one, he turns to the obvious choice: a family. Falling for a cashier at a local diner he frequents – Jessie (Tuesday Weld) – he soon marries her and adopts a child. However, as they are wont to do, he needs to go on that “one last heist” to get out of the business, and as expected, his employer Leo (Robert Prosky) has a less than agreeable disposition toward Frank’s desire to leave. If the film’s outline is tepid and typical however, Mann takes the theme in an entirely new, uniquely filmic direction, not so much directing to the plot but exploring its deeper essences at the expense of its superficial events.
If you need any evidence to the claim that this is a particularly non-narrative version of a film with such a conventional narrative, Mann begins exploring his interest in feeling and impression over story before the narrative even begins. The film’s double-edged sword, and Mann’s, is its opening scene. Depicting Cann robbing a bank vault after hours when almost no one is around to threaten or provide comfort, Mann’s opening gambit is not only the film’s highlight but the greatest thing he ever put to image. Unintuitive cutting and some phenomenal grain maintain the gritty bottom-end as Mann chooses to focus not on the physical realities of bank robbery but the feelings of each action. Individual steps of the robbery are uncoupled from the whole, segmented off like poetic mini-movies, but they all flow into an almost Malick-like depiction of the boredom and lonely detachment that comes from such work.
Of course, it’s also a phenomenally exciting, kinetic scene to indulge in, the hot crimson of the embers invading the frame and cutting through the drab darkness, and the druggy browns of city life prismatically segmented off into blacks and grays here. Plus, all of it is accompanied by the wonderfully evocative Tangerine Dream score (which has the stunningly unintended effect of further segmenting this world off from us as an alien artifact unknown to the modern era). It is a wonderful scene, a note-perfect melding of abstracted impressions undercut by grimy social realism.
Yet a double-edged sword it is. It casts a pall over the film and, in fact, the whole cloth of Mann’s career and identity as a director. Although Thief astoundingly manages something unspeakably close to the effect of its opening, Mann has always stood in its shadow since. His always unique grasp on impressionist realism, where style becomes substance, needs balance and diligence. Without it, we find ourselves wading into the narratively empty waters of consciously cool affairs like Miami Vice, and the less grimy but more ugly corners of the messy but generally effective Public Enemies. His style needs the space and time to express itself, to wash over the film, and with too much breadth or narrative meat to hold down, it can lose its footing. If it is not ever so carefully melded to Mann’s theme, the hypnotic can become dry and the feeling impressionism overly clinical.
Certainly, however, Thief sees Mann reaching for the stars and just about getting there. The film retains a sleek, expressive sort of intoxicating visual marvel throughout, fitting Mann’s process-oriented variant on impressionism into the not-so wide cavern of (relatively) narrative storytelling as best as humanly possible. It’s hyper-stylized, but never lost in style; nothing in the film feels extraneous, none of the style is a surface-level sheen. Instead, the style takes on the core of the film, its trenchant thematic depth, and helps bring everything to the surface for all to see. The way Mann concentrates on slow, unmoving imagery and hard-editing to contrast his soft camerawork and empty spaces attains a visual majesty that explores the contrast between his soft men and their hard external identities with uncommon grace and subtlety.
It’s as if his camera is approximating his character’s hard-won weariness with wild abandon, reflecting on their lives and selling their souls to us with just a sliver of mercy on the side. All in all, it’s a thoroughly unsentimental film, less concerned with making us sympathize with the characters than in confronting them by painting the screen in their life essence. The way Mann’s camera manipulates and imitates their lives, moving from moment to moment without a sense of time and realist space (the presentation of the city of Chicago as a place of the mind is simply awe-inspiring), makes the very essence of the film that of his characters’ lives.
Here we find what separates Thief from the dozens upon dozens of similarly plotted features from around the time and to this day. Mann’s style captures the purity of the film with a hypnotic eye for abstraction, finding his characters in its bones and not so much commenting on their lives as becoming them. It’s an act of style and substance that doesn’t so much paint Mann’s style onto an existing narrative as infuse the two at the elemental level. The net effect is not only a particularly textured work of crime fiction, but a new way of exploring the subject (or at least, a way that had never been explored in the English speaking world before). Many stylized crime films are snake oil, but in combining metallic backbone with sensitive, almost nonrepresentational, abstraction, Thief is the real deal.