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Thief Review

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After having spent many years in prison top safecracker Frank (James Caan) plans his perfect 'normal life' retirement but needs one more big score to achieve this.

★★★★

As a young screenwriter, working on a failed draft of Dustin Hoffman’s Straight Time, Michael Mann took a trip to Folsom Prison in California. “The colour comes out of the research,” he explains, the scholarly expert to James Caan’s wiseguy on this Blu-ray’s odd-couple commentary. Off the back of that trip, Mann wrote two screenplays at the same time: Heat and Thief. These detailed, measured, almost philosophical studies of the lives of two crack burglars and ex-cons, set in different cities, in vastly different decades, remain clear companion pieces and the calling cards of Mann’s feature-film depictions of the clockwork of crime. If Heat was to become his signature film, it was Thief that unrolled the blueprint for Mann’s meticulous aesthetic.

Bathed in both the jewellery-box shimmer of nocturnal Chicago, looking magnificent in a new Mann-supervised 4K transfer, and the dated yet fitting synth score by Tangerine Dream, we trace Caan’s spiritually worn safecracker, Frank, in his attempts to retire and get himself a wife, kids and a regular-type life. He just needs to take one last job… Where the Chicago Mafia are just around the corner.

More than with Heat’s Neil McCauley, Thief portrays the dehumanising effect of prison. Even Frank’s attempt to woo coffee-shop waitress Tuesday Weld feels like a man planning a score. In Folsom, Mann became fascinated by the demeanour of the high-end thieves. How it was all about discipline. There is not a single contraction in Frank’s lines. “Talk very slowly and distinctly,” explains Caan, “and you never have to repeat yourself.”

It was Thief that unrolled the blueprint for Mann’s meticulous aesthetic. Stands up well.

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