Criterion Corner: Scorch the Earth: Thief (1981)

"I have run out of time. I have lost it all. So I can't work fast enough to catch up. I can't run fast enough to catch up. And the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act."

Michael Mann's Thief (1981) was his debut film and both its aesthetic and themes would repeatedly show up in his later work. Mann has this way of creating an alternate universe that is simultaneously dream-like yet grounded, an urban fantasy land filled with misty neon lights embellishing dirty alleyways. His set-pieces are just as important as the characters, and he pays particular attention to the use of light and reflection. A distorted reflection in a puddle of water on a grimy street can be just as illuminating as a close-up of a character's face in one of Mann's films. His characters are defined by their environments, shaped by them, and it almost seems as if their actions and ultimately their fate, are inevitable. This is especially true in Thief, where Frank (James Caan), the titular character, is trying to create a new life from nothing even though society is continually trying to get in his way.

Thief revolves around Frank, an ex-con who has spent a sizable portion of his life in jail, and who now, in his middle age, is trying to make up for lost time and create a normal life. Even though he hasn't given up his criminal ways, he still craves the "American Dream"--a house with a wife and kids. He ends up joining up with the mafia to do one last giant score to have enough money to be settled for life. Unfortunately, things don't work out as planned and he is forced to reconsider his goals. Frank is a man who tries to control everything in his life. While he was incarcerated he created a collage out of magazine cutouts. It depicts a perfect life and is a symbol of what he considers self-actualization. Of course, things aren't ever that simple, but in Frank's mind things are cut-and-dry. One only has to start at point A and continue in a straight line to point B (according to Frank). 

It's interesting to note that the title of the film, Thief, might seem generic at first glance, but it fits thematically because to the rest of the world Frank is defined purely by that moniker and not regarded as a complex person with motivations for his choice of profession. At one point in the film Frank attempts to adopt a child and the adoption agency only focuses on his ex-con status, ignoring his emotional pleas for consideration. He is a thief and nothing more to them. The same with the police officers who follow him around. Frank cannot shed this identity no matter how hard he tries.

Frank's no nonsense view on his life imbues him with the ability to destroy everything he loves whenever strife rears its head. He basically pushes a reset button, purging everything until there is nothing left and he is back to zero. After Frank runs afoul of a mob boss who screws him over, the boss has some choice words for him: 

"You're scary, because you don't give a fuck. But don't come onto me now with your jailhouse bullshit 'cause you are not that guy, dont'chu get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, n' I own the paper on ya whole fuckin' life!"

What this mob boss doesn't understand is that Frank truly doesn't give a fuck, and would rather burn his entire life to the ground than let another person call the shots for him. He controls his own future by ensuring he doesn't have anything anyone else would want. It's almost zen in its own twisted way. If life is getting you down then erase it all and start over.

In addition to this character portrait on Frank, Thief boasts some of the most sumptuous visuals and sounds that came to define the '80s. Tangerine Dream provided their ethereal electronic sounds to the score and although the OST was nominated for a Razzie when the film debuted, it has come to define the film. Mann often lets the music become the exposition, boldly having entire sequences play out with only the music and visuals and no dialogue. Coupled with the stylized lighting and set-pieces, Thief has an atmosphere all its own and elevated what could have been a cliche neo-noir crime story into something more transcendent. 

--Michelle Kisner