Michael Mann made his feature debut with this characteristically overstuffed 1981 thriller. Info
Hailed as an inspiration for contemporary neo-noir like Breaking Bad and Christopher Nolan's Batman, Miami Vice director Michael Mann's 1981 feature debut, Thief, lacks the tight editing of its successors. The Chicagoland thriller drips with alluring lighting, and is stuffed with details like uncut diamonds, steel-melting rods, and unnecessarily long conversations. The highly stylized adventure follows ex-con master thief Frank (James Caan), who learned the craft from his prison mentor Okla (Willie Nelson?!). After 10 years locked up and four years free, Frank wants to use his powers for good by stealing his way into the upper middle class. He also harasses a waitress (Tuesday Weld) into marriage.
Thief is procedurally obsessed to the point that you watch heists in real time, as Frank works tools like a huge portable drill, the camera analyzing his movements in documentary style. The best scenes involve dialogues with crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), who acts as the emotionally manipulative father figure that Frank apparently craves. In a movie with such an impressive mix of poetic dissertations on urban crime, symbolic shadows, and neon visuals, there are some confounding scenes. The visions of domestic bliss always feature Frank's loyal pal/partner (Jim Belushi), and we actually spend five minutes with the hardened criminal family frolicking at the beach. Esquire praised Thief as "a movie for guys who like movies," which probably isn't so far off from its intentions. Still, Thief's surreal attention to detail is genuinely hypnotic, and I've never been more bewildered by climactic explosions. —Reid Kurkerewicz