Thief on DVD (1998)

(Originally posted on 7/5/98 in
Compuserve's Video Home Theater Forum)


In "Thief", James Caan plays what could easily be mistaken for the perfect self-made 1980's entrepreneur. He owns several Chicago businesses, including a used car dealership, a bar, and some laundromats. He dresses sharp, but casually, mixing Giorgio Armani blazers with jeans and cowboy boots. He drives a handsome black Cadillac Eldorado.

However, the bulk of Frank's income does not come from those businesses which are visible to the general public.  They come from his skills as a master jewel thief, a man who can break into any bank safe, no matter how big or heavily guarded, and only steals uncut diamonds or cash. He's the absolute best at what he does, and he acts alone, with only two members of his "crew" for support and surveillance (one of whom is played by James Belushi, in his first film role).

A few years after directing "Thief", Michael Mann was the executive producer of "Miami Vice" for NBC. In many ways, Thief was the prototype for the oft-imitated look that Mann developed for "Vice". The day-for-night, always watered-down streets, with close-up shots of black automobiles tear-assing down them, the expensive Italian wardrobe, the attention to detail of both police and criminal activities, are all visible here.

However, unlike the surrealistic (and occasionally silly) "Miami Vice", there's not a false moment in "Thief". Indeed, it's almost documentary in its approach: The book it was based on was written by a thief who was still doing time when the film debuted, the technical advisors to the film were an ex cop and an ex jewel thief, the props were real (and mostly supplied by the ex jewel thief), and the locations are almost all authentic Chicago and Los Angeles areas where the film is set in.

James Caan's performance as Frank is what makes this film work. It's an astonishing bit of acting, by a vastly underrated actor. (At one point on the audio commentary, Caan describes a seemingly simple scene with Tuesday Weld and his character talking in a diner as the high point of his then twenty years as an actor.) A few months ago, I reviewed MGM's DVD release of "Rollerball".  It's fascinating to compare Caan's performance in that film with "Thief". In "Rollerball", Caan plays a professional athlete, a quiet, soft-spoken, but intensely driven professional at the height of his game. He squints with the eyes of man who must see danger all around him, both on the Rollerball track, and from the corporate executives who actually run the game.

Caan's character, Frank, in "Thief" is a professional of a different type.  He's at the height of game as a master jewel thief, but he's only been out of jail for a few years, at the most.  His eyes often seem to bulge out of their sockets, and he speaks with a combination of extremely precise diction, with *no* contractions, alternating with loads of profanity when he's angered. (Caan and Mann spend lots of time explaining how they developed the character on the alternate audio track on the DVD.)

MGM's recently released DVD of "Thief" is a far cry from the VHS version that's been out for over a decade. The two biggest improvements are in letterboxing the image (approximately 1:85 to 1), which shows off Mann's precise compositions and lighting, and the sound, which has been remixed into a crisp tightness, which really brings out many subtle aspects of Tangerine Dream's haunting electronic score.

This is not a perfect DVD, however. The picture looks rather soft. I ended up turning the sharpness control of my television set through the roof.  Another flaw is that Mann and Caan's audio commentary on track two is cut off as the film runs out.  Why not simply fade to black and end the DVD when they're done talking?

For me, what's so alluring about "Thief" is that Caan is portraying, in precise detail, a character that I could never be in a million years.  I've never even been in a jail, let alone done hard time.  I could never drill through 18" of steel with an white-hot 8000 degree flaming burn bar, or tangle with corrupt cops who want a piece of my action. What's amazing is that Caan makes Frank sympathetic, without making him watered down. You firmly believe that Frank has done time, knows every aspect of his business as a thief inside and out.  And the realism of the film allows you to identify with, and sympathize for, a character who you would *not* want to meet with in real life.

"Thief" is certainly worth buying if you're a "Miami Vice" junkie, an fan of crime dramas, or if simply to see an masterful actor at the top of his craft. While it's far from a perfect disc, it's a film which can be watched, listened and analyzed (especially with Caan and Mann's audio commentary) over and over again.

© 1998, Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.
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