Thursday, 12 February 2015

Blu-ray Review: Thief (Arrow Video)

The cinema of Michael Mann has yielded a rich crop since the early '80s, with the likes of 'Manhunter', 'Heat' and 'The Insider' delivering high octane tension and beautifully drawn character studies of troubled individuals.
In many ways, 'Thief' - his feature debut - is my personal favourite from his filmography, and the performance of James Caan bears a lot of influence in my choice.

Caan plays Frank; an ex-con who is in a hurry to make up for the 11 years he lost while in jail. Frank was just 20 years of age when he was locked away, and looks towards a couple of lucrative jobs to ensure financial comfort. A successful car dealership is but a backdrop for his proposed money-making activities, which unfold via a wordless jewellery heist, set to Tangerine Dream's imposing score. The end result of this $185,000 dollar earner will change his life forever, as his proceeds are diverted, leading him to Leo (Robert Prosky); a major player in highly organised crime who has contacts in all the right places and some of the wrong ones, too. When Frank agrees to work for Leo, his demands are agreed with a nod and a smile, but things take a turn for the worse when Leo suddenly moves the goalposts leaving Frank in a no-win situation.
With partner Jess in tow (the splendid Tuesday Weld) and a adopted baby bin the mix, Frank must decide whether to abandon his new life and once again become his own man or bow down to an increasingly callous boss who seeks to run every aspect of his employee's life. The dual between Frank and Leo is fascinating to watch, with both actors at the very top of their game. Indeed, 'Thief' boasts several top-tier performances: we have Willie Nelson (playing Okla, Frank's 'father' in jail) whose eyes, expressions and attention are compelling in the extreme during a prison visit, and Tuesday Weld whose conversation with Frank in a diner must figure amongst the very bestscenes in her director's career, and also in her own.
A word, too, for James Belushi in his movie debut playing Frank's partner-in-crime, who was clearly hungry for this role and made the most out of it.

'Thief' displays an amazing level of expertise and maturity from a director who cut his teeth on some quality TV shows, with every scene meticulously planned but at no cost to the flow of the picture.
It's a film that all participants can look back on with pride and warmth, and for younger viewers, there is no better place to begin their journey through Mann's body of work.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray presentation features a sparkling 4K transfer of the director's cut of this film,with strong contrast and excellent detail,with solid interior and exterior scenes that display real depth: check out the rain-slicked streets; the welding during the opening heist and Mann's carefully chosen colour scheme. It's a winner!
The generous extras begin with a Mann/Caan commentary track, where Caan recalls he was attracted to this film by its beautiful simplicity, and goes on to breakdown his character and the changes he makes in great detail. It's a real treat to listen to the pair holding forth on this film; to hear their thoughts on the diner scene which Caan rates as the best piece of writing he's ever read, and also to get Mann's take on the true thrill of directing.

Next up is 'The Directors: Michael Mann'. This is a 59m 28s instalment of the TV series from 2001, featuring contributions from William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Madeleine Stowe and other key players. We hear about Mann's time at the London Film School; Petersen talking about the sheer amount of research and detail that goes into Mann's work, and hear from other contributors who echo Petersen's admiration. There are also clips from a number of films, including 'Heat', 'The Last Of The Mohicans' ("a love story set in a war zone") though 'The Keep' is dismissed in a handful of words which is disappointing for fans of this film.

'Stolen Dreams' is a 14m 32s James Caan interview, recorded in September 2014. Caan talks about his character in 'Thief', and how he elected to play the role. He also recalls how Mann turned up at his trailer during a shoot clutching the script for 'Thief' and why the decision to accept this gig was easy.

'Hollywood USA: James Caan' is a 24m 38s episode of a French TV series by Cine regard, and was shot just after 'Thief' had wrapped. We hear about Caan's approach to acting; his friendship with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and his answer to an extremely personal question. There are also clips from 'Thief' and 'El Dorado'.

'The Art Of The Heist' is the final extra on this disc - save for a theatrical trailer - being a 66m 29s examination of 'Thief' by author and critic F.X. Feeney, recorded in October 2014. Feeney takes an experts look at the film, using a selection of clips to detail the extensive research undertaken and Mann's choice of actors, highlighting the fact that the director's television work taught him dramatic structure. He also touches on Mann's London "boot camp"; why Caan was the perfect choice for the role of Frank and the various musical temperatures in his work. Apparently, Mann seriously considered re-doing the 'Thief' score with a bluesy soundtrack. I for one am glad he didn't.

The second disc in this set - which I haven't seen - contains the theatrical version of 'Thief', and the option of listening to an isolated score and fx track.
As usual, Arrow have included an informative booklet to complement this release, and it features an excellent article by Brad Stevens 'Stealing Back To Thief'. This is an absolute joy to read, with some terrific observations and comparisons that aid appreciation and enjoyment of the film when you give the disc another spin, which you surely will sometime soon.
The booklet contains colour stills and is rounded off by notes about the transfer.

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