Michael Mann's debut feature finally arrives on Blu-ray
Thief Film Review
Before Heat, before The Last of the Mohicans, before Manhunter, master filmmaker Michael Mann graduated from his small screen Miami Vice origins with the strong directorial debut, Thief.Based on a 70s semi-autobiographical novel by a real-life jewel thief, the story follows the character of tough ex-con and career thief Frank, who lives his life by a series of unbreakable rules. With a bar and a car dealership operating as fronts for his criminal work, everything appears to be in place, but Frank wants something more to his life than just pulling scores; he wants a family. With that in mind, he concentrates his efforts on convincing his girlfriend Jessie to take things seriously. But when his regular fence gets into trouble with some mob-affiliated villains, Frank finds himself drawn into a job that he doesn’t really want to do, for people that he doesn’t really want to work with. Will he ever get out?Boasting all of the distinctive style and flavour that Mann would perfect over the course of his later productions, Thief is a simple but striking beast, commanded by a memorable lead performance from James Caan. Sure, it’s a testing ground, allowing the director to play in a bigger arena than he’d been previously used to with his small-screen stuff, and, sure, not all of it shines with the same finesse and consummate professionalism that he would later exhibit, but it’s still a Mann feature, through and through. The wider shots and different cameras allow him to dabble in shadows and neon lighting, mood shots and perfectly-centred stand-offs, whether between the protagonist and his enemies, or just between him and his girlfriend. It’s all, undoubtedly, pure Mann, right down to the distinctive score from Tangerine Dream.
Blu-ray Picture QualityArrow brings Thief to Blu-ray with permission to use Criterion’s stunning, newly restored HD Master, a superb new transfer created in 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative, all supervised and approved by director Michael Mann. It’s a superior effort, as you would only expect from Criterion, and sits well amidst Arrow’s classic collection, which similarly maintains the highest standards in terms of presentation.
The film has simply never looked this good. Detail is staggering, with some shots boasting the kind of precision that would make you question whether it really has been the best part of 35 years since the film was shot. Of course, Mann, even here with his debut, has an exceptional eye for visual majesty, and the film boasts some truly spectacular shots, right from the opening panning down the alleyway in the rain, through to the neon lights splayed across Frank’s car-park or the various shots of lights reflected on car bonnets. Plenty of subsequent films – not least Mann’s own Heat – have been informed by the shots adopted here, and they stand out as truly amazing on this presentation. Of course the new director’s cut boasts Mann’s newly-favoured teal hue; a bluish tone that dominates the feature and will make anybody familiar with the original theatrical cut wonder whether this is a bit of a French Connection scenario.
Thankfully the colour tweaking doesn’t affect the healthy skin tones, nor the more vivid sparks and flames; the neon lights bringing vibrant life to the night, and black levels remaining rich and deep and strong throughout, with absolutely no loss of shadow detail. Any complaints? Sure, for such an impressive frame-by-frame restoration job, it’s strange to find that a couple of scenes have shots which look softer than you might expect; however, a closer look and you realise that this was more likely part of Mann’s style – character’s ever-so-slightly out of focus before they shift position and come into focus (for example the scene where Frank talks about wanting to adopt a child through unorthodox channels). With this in mind, it’s hard not to regard this transfer as technically flawless; a perfect representation of the material on offer.
Arrow not only supplies Criterion’s stunning transfer of the Director’s Cut, but also outdoes its US cousin by supplying the Theatrical Cut in HD as well.
Trumping Criterion, Arrow have gone out of their way to provide us with a decent HD rendition of the shorter theatrical cut, which is supplied on a second disc. Although far more problematic than the 4K remastered director’s cut, it’s still nice to have it in HD. Of course it’s quite a stark contrast, not just in terms of quality, but also in terms of the colour scheme used, which has its own not insignificant issues. Still, with a pretty clean transfer, supplied on its own disc, few can consider this anything less than a step up, building upon the fine work Criterion did to begin with.
Blu-ray Sound QualityOn the aural front, again courtesy of Criterion, Arrow offer up an impressively remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 rendition of the original source audio, mastered, with Mann’s supervision, from the original 35mm 4-track magnetic audio streams.
Whilst not quite as perfect as the video presentation, the audio is not far off, and certainly still very impressive.
Without a doubt it’s the score by Tangerine Dream which dominates this track, and indeed almost the entire film. Whilst far from a perfect score (it does strangely teeter on the brink of going into all-out Flash Gordon territory on more than one occasion), it frequently defines the movie, bringing it together with sublime majesty; undercutting the long periods of stylish dialogue-less action with electric beats, and heightening the tension of the memorable confrontations. Beyond that, the effects are well-handled; gunshots resound and are lent weight through the LFE channel, and explosions erupt, whilst the streets come alive with rain, wind and traffic noises. If there’s one quibble, it’s the balance level between the dialogue and the score – the score is just so overpowering that it’s hard not to struggle sometimes to find the right balance between being able to hear the dialogue spoken, and being overwhelmed by Tangerine Dream. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise demo quality track, however.
Blu-ray ExtrasThe extras package for this new release is headlined by the same 1995 Audio Commentary by Mann and Caan. Almost all of the rest of the material is based on Arrow’s traditional format of long Interview-based retrospectives, all of which providing compelling background information on the production. The Art of the Heist runs at over an hour in length and looks at the production history of the film, its style and influences; Hollywood USA: James Caan is an archival near-half-hour TV chat show instalment hosting Caan, talking about his work on the movie and how he got into acting; Stolen Dreams is a 2014 quarter-hour interview with Caan looking back on the work he did for one of his favourite, and toughest, roles; and The Directors: Michael Mann is another archival piece, running at an hour in length, which focuses on the director’s career and featuring interviews with many of the actors who have been in several of his features.
Although not boasting all of the same extras as the Criterion counterpart, Arrow’s release has an equally – if not even more – impressive array.
There’s also an Isolated Music and Effects Track available in LPCM 2.0 on the theatrical cut only, which is a great feature considering the strength and distinctiveness of Tangerine Dream's superb score. The disc is rounded off by the Original Theatrical Trailer, and the package comes with another distinctive reversible sleeve cover and a decent 14-page illustrated booklet on the production.
Thief Blu-ray VerdictWatching Thief, you can see all of the elements on show that would later give rise to some of the greatest moments in movie history in master filmmaker Michael Mann's later crime thrillers, most notably Heat. It all started here. Although thirty-four years later, the overpopulated neo-noir crime thriller genre leaves much of what's on offer here feeling like pure cliche, Thief still has its own voice and own distinctive style, and remains a flawed but undeniably impressive debut for Mann.
Arrow have outdone themselves - it's hard enough to compete with Criterion, let alone beat them, but they've done it!
Borrowing Criterion's newly-minted director-approved 4K-remastered transfer of the director's cut, and remastered soundtrack - both of which are utterly spectacular - Arrow trumps their US cousins by also including the theatrical cut on a second disc, and in HD too, not to mention a different host of even more impressive special features. Those who aren't region restricted should seriously consider picking up this Region B-locked title; those who are Region B restricted and have been waiting to see Thief land this side of the pond should consider their patience as having paid off in dividends. Highly recommended.
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