Funny to consider James Caan’s master thief in Michael Mann’s debut feature is even more of an anti-hero now than he was back in the day, what with his loose way with racial epithets a la Dirty Harry, and his, well, less than ethical treatment of his love interest (Tuesday Weld). Sure, the film does lay out why he’s such a hardened individual, but explanation is no excuse.
Today such ‘qualities’ would define Frank as much more of an asshole than he’s probably supposed to be, though we are in neo-noir territory here, the kind of place where everyone’s got a bit of darkness in ’em, a darkness echoed in the shadows beyond the shimmering lights on the wet nighttime streets, or the grime of rusty bridges and abandoned plots scarring the appendages of the city. A little recalibration of the senses is required to appreciate the film’s achievements.
Indebted not only to the noir classics of the ’40s and ’50s but also the contemporary updates of the American New Wave (I’m thinking both the paranoia of the ’70s, and Martin Scorsese’s twisted love letters to his own home town, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver), Thief eschews the gadgetry and capery that its plot naturally leans towards for a damning portrait of (then) modern America, one without glamour – there are no Al Capones in this Chicago – and without a happy ending, yet never less than thrilling.
Make it a double bill with the following year’s Blade Runner, with which it shares similar themes and moods, as well as a killer synth score (in this case by genre pioneers Tangerine Dream).