Should ‘Thief’s Protagonist Be Punished or Praised?

Thief, like the best crime films, forces the viewer to rethink traditional conceptions of criminality.

If ever there was a film that illustrates the collaborative nature of cinema, it would be Thief (1981). The film, which has been given the Criterion treatment, is a must-see crime classic, and a new generation of cinephiles finally has the chance to marvel at its hard-boiled brilliance in a beautiful digital restoration.

Thief stars James Caan as Frank, an ex-con who longs to leave his criminal past behind, and it is the debut feature from director Michael Mann, who has since made such masterpieces like Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), and Collateral (2004). Thief is just as cool as Mann’s other, more popular films, but it contains a confidence that can only come from a first-time filmmaker with high ambitions.

The brilliance of the film is how all of the elements come together to create a singular experience. Caan’s performance, for example, provides the film with a grittiness it would otherwise lack, whereas the new age musical score by Tangerine Dream soaks the film in moody melancholia. Donald Thorin’s cinematography captures the poetry of the damp Chicago streets as they glisten in the night, and Dov Hoenig’s editing slows down the action to remind us that this is, above all, a character study of a good-hearted man on the wrong path.

Frank is a jewel thief who’s trying to go straight. In one scene, Mann allows us to sit in on a conversation he has with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a cashier he’s dating, and here Frank opens up and explains who he is and what he wants. “I am now unmarried, so we can cut the mini-moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance,” he tells her, thereby expressing his desire to start a family and begin anew.

In another powerful scene, Frank and Jessie try to adopt a child but are turned down because of Frank’s criminal past. As the film shows, Frank’s misdeeds landed him in prison for 17 years, but the irony is that Frank became this way because of his poor upbringing. A child of the state himself, Frank entered the prison system when he was 18-years-old on a two year sentence, and his erratic behavior kept adding on the years until most of his life was wasted.

Thief, like the best crime films, forces the viewer to rethink traditional conceptions of criminality. We are shown where somebody like Frank would come from, what would lead him off the noble path, and why, after many years in the pen, he would even consider stealing again. Sometimes, the film suggests, there’s nothing else that an individual can do. The system is designed to keep ex-cons ostracized, and even when one like Frank tries to rebuild his life, he is denied assistance and judged solely by his past. This tragic paradox grounds the film in hypocrisy, because if anyone would try their hardest to guide their child on the right path, surely it would be an ex-con who has experienced first-hand what the wrong path is like.

This is just one of the many obstacles Frank must dodge in order to come out clean on the other side. He also must fight the temptation to steal. In one brilliant scene, we are shown the methods Frank uses to crack a safe and the tools he handles as he calmly breaks his way in. To Frank, stealing is a job, and as the film demonstrates, he’s damn good at it. He’s a master of his illegal trade, and on some level, the thought of doing anything other than the one thing he’s great at isn’t too appealing. He knows he’s wrong and wants desperately to change, but the lure of the act itself—and the likeliness that he will excel—is difficult to shake.

As expected, Criterion doesn’t disappoint with the supplements. In addition to the much-needed digital restoration, the DVD includes an incredibly insightful commentary by Mann and Caan, fascinating interviews with Mann, Caan, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream, and an enjoyable essay by Nick James, who is the current editor of Sight & Sound and author of Heat for the BFI Modern Classics series.

Those familiar with the Criterion Collection might be somewhat disappointed to find that there aren’t as many supplements here as there would be for a Godard film, but we should all be thanking our lucky stars that Thief has been transferred so majestically at all. Perhaps the best part is that you can own both the Blu-ray and DVD for the price of one. This duel format should be the standard for future releases, and Criterion is wisely raising the bar once again for other disc distributors to match.

With each viewing, the brilliance of Thief becomes more apparent. Frank, like the rest of us, just wants to survive and live a peaceful life. Since birth, however, he’s been denied the opportunities many of us take for granted. To compensate for this disadvantage, Frank steals. Whether he should be punished or praised is left for the viewer to decide.

RATING 8 / 10
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