By Jen Johans
It seems somehow anticlimactic to write about the work of director Michael Mann inside my house with the heat of the Arizona sun beating in through the cracks of my living room blinds in the late afternoon. When it comes to Mann, a fitting tribute would be to dictate this piece from behind the wheel of a top-down American model ’70s convertible while cruising through questionable urban landscapes with the radio blaring and the heat of the night growing cooler every time I drive through tunnels or atop bridges over troubled bodies of water.
These images are so quintessentially Mann in nature that even his name lends itself to his masculine aesthetic of an oeuvre that’s perhaps most notable for the impact of the influential smash ’80s television series he produced, MIAMI VICE. And whether he’s working on the small screen or the big (as epitomized in his grandest epic HEAT), Mann spends as much time visually fixating on shadows as he does on those who live in the gray area between what is black and white and wrong or right on both sides of the law.
It’s a new kind of crime film landscape that can’t be categorized as Film Noir or even Neo-Noir, particularly if you ask Mann who abhors these labels. His filmography focuses on the dark, shadow-strewn urban noir of the Baby Boom Generation where individuals strive to find the piece of the American dream they believe they were subtextually promised — via the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — by any means necessary.
Those who’ve viewed his entire catalog know that this signature visual style and topical obsession is actually older than VICE, and seemingly has some of its roots in the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, even if he won’t admit it. Yet this Criterion Collection remastered release gives everyone else the chance to see the character drama that first brought these ideas to cinematic life with the release of his underrated, understated, auspicious feature-filmmaking debut THIEF.
In the special features of the filmmaker-approved Criterion edition of the 1981 film, one of the most fascinating things we learn is that these same aesthetic trademarks that populate his entire filmography had actually preoccupied Mann years before he ever picked up a movie camera.
As a native Chicagoan with an admitted “cynicism about institutions,” Mann’s fascination with the urban landscape first began to reveal itself through snapshots he took as a young man in his late teens. Drawn to the architecture of the city, Mann’s early photography was filled with dominant images of bridges along with overwhelming shadows and fog. Moreover, he found himself intrigued by the idea that when you put a figurative “lid” on top of the city (whether it’s via the tops of the buildings or the night sky), you become part of an urban maze.
Like a rat that’s trying to break free of the darkness and restraint, feelings of paranoia, claustrophobia, and a world-weary mentality naturally started to evolve from this visual symbolism. And years later when he made the move to filmmaking, it became clear to Mann that this was the exact mental state and aesthetic look needed for stories that centered on characters that played the angles — all trying to find a shortcut to escape the oppressive nature of the city that surrounded them.
Having filed away these images at the start of his career spent helming short films, television episodes, and documentaries, it wasn’t until he directed 1979’s TV movie THE JERICHO MILE on location at Folsom Prison that everything clicked for Mann on a visceral level.
Leading right into THIEF, this one-two punch kicked off what would become Mann’s career-long study of right vs. wrong. While he would venture into other worlds from time to time, Mann was especially fond of exploring the law and disorder of police and thieves and the way that the sides have much more in common with one another than they’d like to believe.
And even when he found himself going as far back in time as he did in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, the men in his films still try to negotiate their environmental maze, deciding for themselves not only the meaning of their life but existentially just how far they’re willing to go to claim their own unique piece of the American dream.
While it isn’t nearly as overtly splashy as his later films, THIEF has a quiet power that still resonates today and the hallmarks of music, muscle cars, people in motion, frantic for connection are there as soon as this thing starts. Featuring a brilliant, dynamic turn by a man who specialized in characters with blustery bravado, character actor James Caan traded in Sonny Corleone’s hot temper for a (mostly) restrained, emotionally cut-off character who had to detach from everything to survive. THIEF marks not only the actor’s strongest performance but one of the two or three films that Caan felt were the best he ever made, including, of course THE GODFATHER.