In these days of the Great Directors, The Factual finally reaches one that isn't actually a bad one. Had to happen at some point.
Thief is often referred to as Michael Mann's first film--if you go by the standard "shown in a movie theater" definition, then yes, that is the accurate answer. Prior to Thief, Mann had filmed a critically acclaimed piece called The Jericho Mile for network television. In length, cinematography, acting and, most of all, preparation, The Jericho Mile could also certainly fill in as his first work. The effort and artistry of Jericho Mile, and it's subsequent success, was what made it easier for Mann to find financial support for Thief & Manhunter, two films that are now acknowledged as classics, but experienced virtually no public acclaim upon initial release. It was also the efficiency with which Mann delivered Jericho Mile that made it easier for him to return to television again, albeit with eventual dwindling successes.
Thief is a film made up of a lot of disparate elements, many of which are now dated to the ugly time period in which Mann shoot the picture. Tangerine Dream, Jim Belushi, Tuesday Weld and hideous typography, Thief is a film that absorbs a lot of awful business into it's dark grip, and they are only tolerable because of the elements that still hold up: the best performance of James Caan's career, including the Godfather, the masterful cinematography of Dante Spinotti, and a director trotting out the plot horses and ideals that will stay with him the length of his career. Thief is a simple story, and it's one that's been told a hundred times or more before and since the early 80's, but it's that besotted simple story told well.
The legends surrounding Thief are easily hunted down, in these trivia nut heaven days of the Imdb "Trivia" links and the lengthy Wikipedia pieces: yes, Mann staffed the film with every cop and criminal he could find, and yes, if you see it on screen, then it works, and it's real. The gun that Caan carries has seen bodies before it, the saws and slim jims have been used to steal real diamonds, and the actors behind the side characters are men who have either done time or caught those men they're pretending to kill. If Thief lacks anything, it's not accuracy: if anything, it celebrates it's reality for too long. It's a film that is as in love with showing what it takes to accomplish the task at hand as it is at showing how starkly emotions have to be ignored to survive the criminal life. Thief isn't remotely close to being the first film to ever portray an anti-hero as it's protagonist, but it certainly tread new ground in exploring how little a man who flirts with total sociopathy can escape the life he's created for himself. When Caan's character goes from single man to one with home and family, it's with a cunning simplicity and efficiency that i's rather uncomfortable to experience: it's not that he doesn't deserve it, it's that he quite literally purchases it in a matter of hours--and then proceeds to wholeheartedly embrace the dynamic of his new wife and child so fully. Caan's performance, and Mann's script, make it abundantly clear that there is no grey area here: the man is so inexperienced with emotion that he can, in a somewhat insane fashion, go from emotionless to fully in love the second the opportunity allows him too. Later in the film, when the plot dictates that he must return to a solitary existence, he calmly ends his marriage, burns his home and workplaces to the ground, and executes the men who have betrayed him. It's a fitting end to the story Mann wishes to tell, and like any decent descent into noir-ish territories, it's the only end that could be acceptable. While the ambiguous close might be interpreted by a more optimistic audience as a possible renewal, Mann and Caan clearly believe otherwise. As far as they're concerned, the thief of the title is finished experimenting with social and familial networks, and will return to what he knows to be the acceptable alternative--a barren, emotionless solitude. While the behaviors and criminal exploration that Mann deals with here are far more entertainingly addressed in his powerhouse crime-thriller Heat, Thief remains an excellent film, one that speaks to the maturity of a filmmaker who seems to have entered the business as a brilliantly professional craftsman.
-Tucker Stone, 2007