This past weekend, Michael Mann’s Thief celebrated its 40th anniversary, and what struck me the most on rewatching Mann’s debut was just how much he was a fully formed version of himself already. It’s not a given that great filmmakers are already a refined, complete version of themselves on their first film. While you got glimpses of who Scorsese would become in films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese wasn’t really Scorsese as we know him until Mean Streets. Disclosure: Mann’s first film is technically the TV movie The Jericho Mile, and while it is a fine TV movie, it doesn’t contain much of what we associate Michael Mann with, so we simply pretend Thief is his first film in the same way we consider The Sixth Sense to be M. Night Shyamalan’s first film.
There is a distinct cool to Mann’s films that has you whispering “fuck yeah” under your breath every few shots. Like an American descendant of Jean-Pierre Melville, he has mastered cool like few ever have. Every film of his contains at least one sequence that’s the absolute coolest shit you’ve ever seen. Even in The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps Mann’s most un-Mann-like film, the finale is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Thief is full of these moments. When James Caan lights up a cigarette after pulling off an impossible heist as the music swells? That’s cinema right there, baby. Thief is where it all begins for Mann and his immaculate sense of cool, soaking the film in greens and oranges, letting neon street lights light the way. A synth-focused score and rock soundtrack that would be a staple in his work was on full display here with one of the best Tangerine Dream scores, and it’s the coolest shit ever. It is a great shame Steve McQueen did not live long enough to be directed by Michael Mann.
Mann’s examinations of cops and criminals have remained unreplicated because there is a distinct spirituality to Mann’s depictions that others simply haven’t recreated. He’s looking right into the souls of these characters and their archetypes. What does this dichotomy all mean? What do good and bad really mean to these people? Watch any of his films to know what I mean. His greatest examples of this are Heat and Miami Vice of course, but it all starts here. Everything he put into this film is exactly what he puts into his subsequent Manhunter, making it one of my favorite films of all time.
Mann roots the dialogue in the lingo and terminology of these people and doesn’t really bother explaining each term to you, further pulling you into their world. Think of the opening in Miami Vice, where they’re pulling off an operation and you’re just thrown into it without them stopping to explain cop lingo to you. It may appear disorienting, but as the film goes on you’ve found yourself just more immersed in this world than you would otherwise. It helps his casting has always been immaculate to make you feel like these characters could only exist in his world. Speaking of, may I refer you to this excellent tweet that sums up why Thief is great.
Mann’s greatness started immediately with Thief, and contained all that made him great right off the bat instead of a few films in. That’s a rare feat, and one to be treasured. That’s why we love Thief, and why we love Mann. So congrats to 40 years of Thief, and here’s to 40 more.