Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Some Observations Regarding Thief (1981)

Michael Mann's cinematic debut as a director is a long-time favourite of mine, so instead of a full-length write-up, I'll just give some random observations. I wouldn't review my mum either, after all (but if she's reading: 10/10, and Thief's about on her level, though my Mum isn't a clear co-inspiration for Refn's Drive).

One particularly interesting aspect of the movie is how it bridges two very different movie eras and approaches, the heated grittiness (in lack of a better description) of 70s crime cinema and the cool glossiness of the 80s. Both are represented to about the same degree here. Unlike with your typical bridge movie, this isn't a slow and unsure approach from an old style towards a new one but rather a courageous attempt to keep what's best of the old - as exemplified by James Caan's performance and the film's fascination with the way equipment and things actually work - and fuse it with the barely born new I find easiest observed in Tangerine Dream's synth rock soundtrack and the rhythm the film's editing takes on whenever it's not just putting the camera on Caan and his wonderful supporting cast and letting them work.

Mann's trust in Caan's ability to carry any scene - and his willingness to use this ability - is quite uncommon for a director like him who makes movies where every scene and shot seem particularly strictly composed. This type of director usually doesn't leave much space for his actors to actually breath (if you ask me, this was the main failing of Stanley Kubrick, which of course can come in handy when you need to squeeze a performance out of somebody like Tom Cruise). In Thief, Mann manages to have his cake and eat it, too.

The film has an open fascination with hands-on technology which it shares with a group of heist movies through the ages whose approach to practiced criminality always seemed decidedly working-class to me. In Thief's case, this fascination resonates with a growing realization of the decline of industrial and working class America. Fittingly, the relationship between Caan's Frank and Robert Prosky's syndicate man Leo mirrors that between a skilled worker and a more paternal boss. In the end, the paternal boss of course still owns you and will fuck you over when he finds it useful.

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