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Thief (1981)

by British Film Critic

The more I delve into the neo-noir genre, the more I find myself being fascinated with it – from the alluring stylistic choices made by the directors, to the subtle complexity of the lead characters, to the mood-setting scores, to the unbridled insight into the criminal underworld.

Although many narrative beats remain the same throughout many films in the genre, there’s always just, or more than, enough panache in the direction that allows for the film to not only stand out, but work very well independently – all of this can absolutely be said for Michael Mann’s Thief, a film which, whilst it is not my favourite neo-noir, is a damn good watch and a damn good film.

I thoroughly enjoy watching James Caan in anything he’s in, but in this film he is given so much more to do and to work with that it elevated my appreciation for him as an actor to another level. Whilst I do have to hand it to the fantastic script in a lot of cases, Caan just brings so much energy, unexpected like-ability and humanity to the character, letting much more on about his character than is typical of these neo-noir protagonists, something I feel, in this instance, works very well.

Unfortunately, the film struggles with some pretty significant pacing issues, with many scenes far overstaying their welcome, and the distinctions between acts feels very blurred, leading to an occasional lack of nuance in the story which is pretty effective in disengaging you in the story, something I found to be pretty jarring considering just how compelling some of the character work and dialogue is.

This is the first Michael Mann film I’ve seen and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t genuinely impressed by the strength of his directing in Thief, creating a seductive and tangible atmosphere, almost instantly submerging you in the murky criminal underbelly of Chicago, with his neon-soaked colour palettes combined, beautiful lighting and an inspired, pulsating score from Tangerine Dream, making for a film which stands out, and is a film that I will undoubtedly be revisiting in the future.