Thief (1981)

Michael Mann | 2hr 2min

As an urban parable constructed out of criminal archetypes and moral dilemmas, Thief does not present us with an overly complicated narrative, and yet it is in this relative simplicity that Michael Mann provides a compelling canvas upon which he maps out a neo-noir world of clean-cut, towering skyscrapers and dingy neon clubs. In the light of day, thieves and gangsters run their criminal fronts inconspicuously, scoping out the architecture and layout of the city from a distance, formulating their covert schemes. And then each night when a cloak of darkness is thrown over the sprawling metropolis and the dim, downtown lights flicker on, these men silently gather to execute their plots with meticulous precision, their apparent insomnia fuelling both a bleary-eyed fatigue and a hyper-alert, mental focus.

Michael Mann’s night-time scenes certainly astound in his superb neo-noir lighting, but in the light of day it is worth noting how he uses the formidable Chicagoan architecture in an Antonioni-inspired manner.

Mann’s commitment to expressing both these psychological states in his patient editing and moody lighting in dark environments is beyond remarkable – it is the stylistic lynchpin upon which this morose, unpredictable world is fleshed out in all its complexity. His dedication to soaking the city streets between each take so that the neon signs, street lamps, and car headlights would bounce off its wet surfaces pays off massively in its aesthetic impact, giving the tarmac a metallic sheen much like the reflective windows and cars of the city. The radiance of these lights doesn’t go terribly far, but they do illuminate the grime of their surrounding environments which might otherwise go unnoticed under the bright light of the sun.

Mann’s lighting setups are just jaw-dropping, especially in the way he bounces them off metallic cars and wet city streets.
The dark cityscapes and sordid criminals of Thief are simply extensions of each other.

Meanwhile, the mesmerising pulses and drones of Tangerine Dream’s 80s synths fill the soundtrack with an electronic ambience, pulling us into the same groggy, sleep-deprived state of exhaustion that haunts these characters. Perhaps this dark, mangy setting is a result of the people who inhabit it, or perhaps they have been shaped by the sordid, corrupt cityscape of Chicago – but either way both are crooked extensions of each other.

Caught up in the centre of this world is Frank, an ex-convict who, like the rest of his associates, is a total professional when it comes to conducting high-stakes jewel heists. He is loud and brash, and yet he possesses a dissatisfied, unresolved tension between his hyper-intense lifestyle and his desire to settle down with a wife and kids.

On one hand, he knows he is good at what he does. One can’t help but be reminded of the heist from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in the sheer focus and precision of these sequences, as Mann similarly details each intricate step, displaying the precariously thin line that is drawn between success and total failure. The editing is also thoughtfully paced here, emphasising the laser-focused expertise which pierces through the fatigue of their world. Even later when Frank’s activity takes a louder, more violent turn, his concentration doesn’t sway from the task at hand, as explosions and shootouts are drawn out in stunning slow-motion.

Drawing these heists out in fine detail allows us to invest in these men as total professionals.
A pivotal diner scene shifting the direction of the movie, offering a glimpse of hope.

And then there is his relationship with Jessie. “I don’t mix apples and oranges,” he states matter-of-factly, believing he can compartmentalise such disparate areas of his life. But the darkness of the world outside is consuming, continuing to remain in the background during a pivotal conversation in a diner roughly a third of the way through where he commits to a life with his lover. This proves to be anything but a clean-cut break.

The direction that Thief goes in would return in later films as a major fascination of Mann’s, but here in his debut his artistic voice comes out bold and fully-formed, a rarity for any first-time filmmaker. In his examinations of the battle between law and crime that rages on inside the psyches of morally grey men, crowded urban spaces play an important role as settings for such characters to gather and conduct their schemes. In a more hopeful film, one might optimistically think that these environments could even inspire some form of comradeship. And yet as Mann sketches out so poignantly here in Thief, sprawling cities are not conducive to such healthy lifestyles. To escape these haunting metropolitan landscapes might bring some peaceful resolution, but such an effort may very well destroy you first.

Neon lights flicker through the scenery.

Thief is currently streaming on Stan and The Criterion Channel.

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