Violent Streets – a look into Michael Mann’s incredible debut feature ‘Thief’

This is the coolest film I’ve ever seen. From the pulsating, bassy, synth drenched soundtrack, to the gripping heist sequences, to the neon lit night-time cinematography, this is the film Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive wished it was. Led by a top-of-his-game James Caan, Thief is the first film by Michael Mann and it is one of the greatest debut films I’ve ever seen.

Starting with perhaps Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1973, the floodgates seemed to open giving us over the next few years some of the best debut films ever released. With films like Badlands, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists and Michael Mann’s Thief, I’d argue this period has never been topped. Not even by the rise of the independents in the 90’s.

That said though, the folk who burst out onto the stage in the 70’s and early 80’s came from different places than the video-store-clerks of Quentin Tarantino and film-school-grads of Wes Anderson. Terrence Malick had of course been a pretty well-to-do screenwriter, doing uncredited rewrites on things like Dirty Harry (and when you’re called onto the same project as John Milius, I’d be pretty flattered). Ridley Scott had done all manner of work for British TV before becoming a highly sought after ad director (a path David Fincher would later also take). And finally Michael Mann, the man who’d later make the most underrated Hannibal Lecter film, finally put Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face to face and give us one of the all-time best Tom Cruise performances, got his start making TV movies… like that other “Steven Spielberg” guy.

Watching Mann’s TV movie, the Jericho Mile, it’s no real surprise that he would go far. Like Steven Spielberg’s Duel, it’s a TV movie only by happenstance. Set in Folsom Prison and shot in Folsom Prison in amongst the real prison population, it’s here that the first seeds of Thief were planted. Michael Mann: “It probably informed my ability to imagine what Frank’s life was like, where he was from, and what those 12 or 13 years in prison were like for him… An outsider who has been removed from the evolution of everything from technology to the music that people listen to, to how you talk to a girl, to what do you want with your life and how do you go about getting it.”

Thief is incredibly daring. The opening scene, one of the greatest of all-time if you ask me, has James Caan break into a safe, a real safe. Tangerine Dream soundtrack thumping, cinematography dark, and James Caan slowly turning this huge whirring magnetic drill into a $10,000 safe bought just to be broken into. I won’t spoil it here, but there’s a video put up by the Criterion Collection where James Caan talks about shooting this scene and I gotta say it’s all the more impressive having seen that… But watch the movie first.

I could spend the rest of the article listing off each element that this film absolutely nails. I could ramble on about Tangerine Dream’s score, Donald Thorin’s cinematography, the performances by James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson, and on and on and on… But what I really have to mention is just how tight the screenplay is. The dialogue is some of the sharpest I’ve heard in a long time, made all the better by the fact that the dialogue seems to belong solely to this film. These aren’t jokes or “cool lines” that could be ripped out and shoved into any heist film, the lines belong completely to the characters that speak them.

Michael Mann’s Thief feels absolutely fresh. It’s one of the most modern and cool films I’ve ever seen. Michael Mann, like the 1960’s Batman series or King of the Hill as odd as those parallels may be, knew exactly who he was right out of the gate. Michael Mann, as far as he’s letting any of us now, was brilliant from the start.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.