Thief (1981)

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threehalfstar

“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.

-James Cohn

Tangerine Dream & the Nightmare Sounds of Sorcerer (1977)

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Edgar Froese, the founding member and creative mastermind behind the prolific German band Tangerine Dream, passed away this past Tuesday, January 20th. The news broke yesterday via the band’s Facebook page, with a brief message announcing that his death was sudden & unexpected. Tangerine Dream’s long history dates back almost 50 years, 20 musicians and more than 100 releases. They were an experimental, mostly instrumental band that pioneered the forefront of psychedelia, krautrock, and synthpop, pushing the limits of their music through each new evolution. As the only continuous member of the group, Edgar was there for it all.

Arguably, Tangerine Dream’s most significant contribution to music was their soundtrack work on films in the 70s & 80s. The moody synth scores that are making a comeback in recent films like Drive, The Guest, and Cold In July owe just as much of a debt to the band as they do to John Carpenter, perhaps even more. Their score for Michael Mann’s debut feature Thief perfectly updates the film’s gritty noir for a 1981 aesthetic. Their music gave Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend an otherworldly atmosphere to work in. Their synthpop provided a sense of dangerous fun in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire Western Near Dark. Tangerine Dream’s scores not only elevate the movies they’re featured in; they become intrinsic to their mood & quality. This is especially true with their score to William Friedkin’s cult classic thriller Sorcerer.

Sorcerer was Friedkin’s loving retelling of the 1953 film (or at least the same novel adapted by) Wages of Fear, a French-Italian thriller about desperate men risking their lives to transport the delicate explosives necessary to snuff an oil well fire. Hot off of his career-high success with The Exorcist, Friedkin allowed his hubris to inflate the film’s budget and shooting schedule. It was a dangerous & expensive film to make, but one Friedkin thought worth the trouble, as he hoped it would be his legacy. That’s not exactly how it worked out. Initial critical reception was mixed and the box office numbers were even worse. It’s been speculated that the film failed because of its unfortunate debut alongside the first modern blockbuster Star Wars. Its commercial failure has also been attributed to audience’s confusion with seeing a film called Sorcerer from the same director as The Exorcist and understandably expecting a supernatural horror instead of the tense, gritty thriller that was delivered. Friedkin was expecting Sorcerer to be his greatest accomplishment, the one he’d be remembered by. Commercially speaking, he failed.

The film has rightfully earned a more long-term success critically, though, gradually earning cult classic status in the decades since its initial release. It was restored for a home & brief theatrical release in early 2014 to commemorate its reappraisal. Sorcerer’s tense sense of impending doom may have not been a surefire commercial venture in the summer of 1977, but remains as potent as ever as the years go on, particularly in the film’s awe-inspiring centerpiece: “the bridge scene”. It’s an unsettling picture that slowly cranks up its existential dread over what’s got to be the most nerve-racking road trip story I’ve ever seen on film. A lot of the film’s achievement in tone is surely do to the forceful, synth-heavy score from Edgar Froese’s Tangerine Dream.

In his memoir The Friedkin Connection, Friedkin tells the following story of how he discovered the band at a show in an abandoned church in their native Black Forest, Germany: “The concert began at midnight and they played long, rhythmic, sensuous chords, somewhere between classical music and the new pop sound. They performed for three hours in darkness, outlined only by the twinkling lights of their own electronic instruments, and along with a large audience of stoned young people, I was mesmerized.” He approached the band after their set to ask if they would collaborate with him on his next film. Working with only the screenplay Friedkin provided them and not a minute of footage, Tangerine Dream sent him two hours of recordings while the film was still in production. Friedkin says he & the film’s editor cut the picture while listening to random passages of the soundtrack for inspiration. Their music had a very significant hand in the shape & the tone of Sorcerer.

Tangerine Dream had a hand in the tone of many films, including ones they didn’t directly work on. Sorcerer, however, is the film that’s most inseparable from their work. It’s undeniable that the movie would not have been the same without them, as their music literally guided the shape of the final product. Edgar Froese’s passing leaves a massive legacy in its wake. Sorcerer is just one note on an extensive list of accomplishments, but it’s a note that deserves to be highlighted.

In the band’s farewell Facebook message Froese is quoted as saying “There is no death, there is just a change of our cosmic address.” Let’s hope that before he made the journey to his new address, he was well aware of the impact he made on this one.

-Brandon Ledet