“I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”
With the recent passing of Edgar Froese, founding member of influential German electronic band Tangerine Dream, it seemed appropriate to revisit one of the first films the band scored: the hardboiled crime thriller Thief. Thief follows professional safecracker Frank as he agrees to do one last high-risk diamond heist for the Mafia. Tangerine Dream’s score, with its layered soundscapes and pulsating synths is one of the first aspects of the film that jumps out at you. While not fashionable at the time (the film was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Musical Score), the moody soundtrack has an 80’s John Carpenter/Goblin vibe that has thankfully become trendy again and utilized in recent films such as Drive and The Guest.
The film’s score isn’t the only thing that feels ahead of its time. With Scarface & Die Hard several years away, the film’s violence, antihero protagonist, highly stylized cinematography, and overall bleakness are pretty revolutionary for 1981. Heavy praise for this effect should go to both director Michael Mann and cinematographer Donald Thorin. Mann knows how to make a damn good thriller and is helped tremendously by Thorin’s dark, brooding images. Thief was Mann’s’ directorial debut, but it is shot with confidence & style that makes it feel like a precursor to his later films Heat, Manhunter, and Collateral.
Heightening the neo noir style of Thief’s cinematography, the film’s screenplay is tense, gritty, and smart. James Caan gives a scenery-chewing performance as the film’s titular thief, Frank. Key scenes like a dazzling diamond heist and a shockingly candid diner conversation between Frank and a woman he barely knows are iconic. Caan himself cites the diner scene as the all-time personal favorite of his career.
The film is not without its misfires, mainly an underserved subplot involving Frank’s criminal father figure Olka (played by Willie Nelson) that doesn’t really go anywhere. James Belushi as Barry, Frank’s longtime partner, and Tuesday Weld as Jessie, Frank’s lover, both give flat, but passable performances that are easily overshadowed by Caan’s crazed, manic Frank. Viewers might also be put off by Frank’s nasty temper & casual racism and feel that he is undeserved of any potential happy ending (rightfully so in my opinion, which is partly why the film remains edgy today), but if you’re a fan of gritty crime movies that have brains & balls as well as slimeball protagonists, Thief is a flawed masterpiece that you should definitely check out.
Thief is currently streaming on Netflix.