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Blu-ray Review: ‘Thief’ (1981) – The Criterion Collection

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While he occasionally dabbled into the world of genres such as horror and frontier adventures, filmmaker Michael Mann has most certainly always been most at home amongst the realm of crime. Starting in the mid ’70s, the Chicago-born storyteller incorporated various gangland elements he grew up around and reading about in his native (and somewhat notorious) metropolis into teleplays – but it wasn’t until his 1981 motion picture drama debut Thief that he was able to tell his own tales in his own fashion.

thief-criterion-collection-blu-ray-review-blogcriticsBased on professional jewel thief John Seybold’s 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar (written under the alias of Frank Hohimer), Thief stars the one and only James Caan as the title’s titular character. Having previously appeared in and subsequently being nominated for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather in 1972, Caan was seen as a regular tough guy – and many an average Joe on the street would often confuse him for being the real deal. A regrettable decision to appear in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two several years afterward however may have slightly damaged that reputation – so Mann’s debut project probably came around at the right time (with a little help from Caan’s own brother, Ronnie – who co-produced the feature).

Here, Caan is Frank, a hardened career criminal who has managed to build up a tiny empire in Chicago on his own – with a small club and auto dealership to his name in order to front his real passion in life: stealin’ them jewels. After pulling off a major heist during the very beginning of the film (which is set to the sounds of Tangerine Dream, whose innovative-for-the-time electronic score bewildered some viewers so much, it wound up getting nominated for a Razzie Award!), Frank discovers his fence has been murdered – and the dough in the late fellow’s possession is now in the hands of an unknown third party. But said party doesn’t remain anonymous for long – and soon, the self-employed Frank is performing jobs for local mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky).

Of course, it’s all fun and games until someone pulls a gun out – and in Mann’s gritty all-too-realistic underworld, such a thing is guaranteed to happen. Tuesday Weld co-stars as Caan’s ever-suffering love interest, a young Jim Belushi plays our antihero’s good pal and associate, and western music star Willie Nelson – one of the last people you’d expect to see in a crime drama, but who does a pretty darn good job nevertheless – has a small (but important) role as Frank’s mentor. Future Hollywood favorites Dennis Farina and William Petersen are also featured here in their film debuts: the latter (in his thinner days) can be seen briefly as a bartender, while the former (in his pre-grey days as a real-life police officer) is on-hand as a henchman.

More than thirty years after its initial theatrical release, this Thief is given yet another chance to go straight by The Criterion Collection, who brought in Mr. Mann himself to personally oversee and approve virtually every aspect of this dynamic Blu-ray transfer. Created in 4k from the original negative, Thief is presented in MPEG-4 AVC 1080p, and the feature itself is that of the much better Director’s Cut. Colors – whether they be beautiful daytime exteriors or from the neon-lighted underworld – are as robust and lush as can be. Like director Mann insisting on real-life thieves serve as technical advisors for this film, the detail in this transfer is quite remarkable, as is the contrast, and there was nary an element of debris to distract me from my enjoyment of this film. An accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is also something to behold, bringing out the best from the sound effects and music departments, but never overpowering any of the dialogue. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included.

Special features for this release include new HD interviews with Michael Mann, James Caan, and former Tangerine Dream member Johannes Schmoelling – all of which were shot by Criterion for this release in 2013. The 1995-recorded audio commentary originally included in the murky non-anamorphic MGM DVD has been carried over to this release, and the film’s theatrical trailer (also in HD) concludes the on-disc bonus items. A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Nick James is housed within the case for this Blu-ray/DVD Combo set.

In short: Thief is a stellar neo-noir gem that’s just aching for someone to snatch it up.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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