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Thief is a singular film that portrays the life of the high-end burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and local Chicago characters, Michael Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. Mann's style mirrors the blues—a man with nothing, who has something, has it taken away, and sacrifices everything to get it back. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder's torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, meet night people who come home as the sun rises, who steal riches while we sleep, and get to know an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Ultimately, with everything he's sold himself out for at risk, Frank has no choice but to throw it all away. In what plays out like Tarkovsky's 'The Sacrifice' by way of 'Mean Streets', Frank tears down the artificial construct he thought was the life he wanted and reintegrates with himself.
Impressively constructed, tightly directed, atmospherically shot and crafted with perhaps the strongest sense of narrative evidenced anywhere on Mann's CV, 'Thief' manages to be, in its shattering denouement, a morality tale, a work of bleak existentialism and a fuck-off good action thriller all rolled into one.
(Mann, it should be noted, says that he did not base the movie on The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, despite the fact that it says so in the opening titles: “I optioned that book. I thought maybe there was something in it. I decided there was nothing in it. I find that the guy who had written it was kind of creepy and so there’s nothing at all based on that whatsoever, but there had been a history of the negotiation. So, that’s why it’s in the credits.”)
Before filming began in Chicago, James Caan also spent time with expert safecrackers, some of whom hadn’t exactly retired. For his character, he borrowed the persona of jewel thief John Santucci, who ended up in the movie as crooked police officer Urizzi. “We didn’t have a props department because all we did was use all of John Santucci’s work tools and his attitude, his perspective on life,” says Mann, who populated Thief with real burglars and ex-cops. Dennis Farina, a Chicago detective, served as an adviser to the director and ended up landing his first film role as a crime lord’s hired goon.
“All these guys grew up in the same neighborhood and they all knew each other,” Mann says, “and they’re usually chasing each other.” The set, Caan says, was split “like the Dodgers and the Yankees.”
For the main cast, Mann chose actors with a bit more experience. Oscar nominee Tuesday Weld appears opposite Caan as Frank’s world-weary love interest, Jessie. Willie Nelson has a supporting role as Frank’s dying mentor and friend, Okla. For Frank’s boss Leo—who’s based on real mobsters Phil Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf—Mann initially auditioned dozens of people in New York, but couldn’t find anyone who’d be right for the part. He got so frustrated by the process that he asked Bruckheimer whether he was doing anything wrong. “He gave me some of the best advice of my career,” Mann says. “He said, ‘No, the right person has not walked in the room.’ And we kept looking.”
As The Celluloid Highway appears to be undertaking something of a mini Michael Mann retrospective, I thought it only appropriate to return to his debut picture Thief, and the contribution to it, of the German progressive electronic group Tangerine Dream. At this point in the bands history they were relative novices to the world of soundtrack composition. Their first soundtrack was for William Friedkin’s haunting and often beautiful remake of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1955) which went under the name Sorcerer (1977). Without a doubt the textured soundscapes of Tangerine Dream were a major creative highlight of the production. In these early formative soundtrack years for the band their type of cosmic electronica was often used as a counterpoint to the unfolding narrative. Their cold and clinical tones would seem wholly inappropriate for the sweat and dirt of a poverty stricken area of South America, but time and again the music provides depth to Sorcerer.
The rain soaked street life of Michael Mann’s debut is equally ill fitting, but the expressionistic and noir visual strategies pulse with a neon rhythm that compliments the music rather well. With the exception of early albums such as Electronic Meditation, Alpha Centauri, Zeit, and Atem (the so called ‘Pink Years’), and the first few albums for Virgin Records, the albums of Tangerine Dream became interchangeable. This extends to their soundtrack work and is in evidence on Thief. Both Beach Scene and Beach Theme are the same track, but slightly remixed. And the track Igneous is a remix of Thru Metamorphic Rocks from their excellent 1979 recording Force Majeure. The two Beach tracks represent the commercial heart of the Thief soundtrack. This is one of the most appealing melodies ever composed by the group, and quite rightly has a prominent place within the film. Two versions of the soundtrack exist; the most common version contains both versions of the Beach track, but omit’s Craig Safan’s rock number Confrontation, which plays over the end credits. The original LP released on the Elektra label contains this song as does the 2004 CD re-issued on Wounded Bird Records. As an indication of Tangerine Dream’s prominence in the UK, the soundtrack album achieved a respectable peak position of No 43, and spent three weeks on the chart. A promotional single featuring Dr. Destructo backed by an excerpt from Diamond Diary was also released.
On why Mann chose Tangerine Dream:
It was on my first picture, Thief, and Berlin was still a divided city. I had culled music ideas from Tangerine Dream's Alpha Centauri and Phaedra, that I referred to constantly during shooting. In post, after shipping a dupe of the film, many phone conversations and cues back and forth, we spent a week together on the final in their studio. Their studio was amazing. It was a gutted cinema near the Berlin Wall.
Earlier, I had been divided between choosing music regionally native to Thief, Chicago Blues, or going with a completely electronic score. The choice was intimidating because two very different motion picture experiences would result. Right then, the work of Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Faust was an explosion of experimental and rich material from a young generation coming of age out of the ruins and separating itself from WWII Germany. It was the cutting edge of electronic music. And, it had content. It wasn't a sonic atmosphere. There was nothing in the UK or the States like it.
On sound effects used throughout the film:
Q: Sometimes you'll match an image entirely to music, but you also use sound effects melodically and integrate audio textures.
A (Mann): You have no idea, it can actually get quite nuts. In Thief there's a fire extinguisher going off in F minor. We actually found a way, in Tangerine Dream's studio, of processing actual sound effects and rendering them into a key. This was long before digital computers. The layering can be extraordinarily intricate. During the safe-cracking sequence in Thief, the chaotic sound of the burning bar suddenly stops, and in the silence—corresponding to the bright points of light on the diamonds when the first tray is pulled out—you start hearing a high-pitched note in the key of E, and every once in awhile there's a blast in F minor of the fire extinguisher putting out the embers. This moment happens to work for me, now, in a way that I can still look at and not cringe. It's withstood the test of time. Other things in the film are nonsensical: ocean waves crashing in G minor—sounding big, but yielding nothing at all.
United Artists would be created not by “moguls” or bankers but by artists, by movie talent—including a woman. In 1909 a young Canadian actress named Mary Pickford made her first appearances in one reel (eleven-minute) films made at Biograph studio in New York City. In 1911, she received her first on-screen credit for a Biograph film called Their First Misunderstanding. The American film industry had been resistant to crediting actors; instead, it relied on studio branding as the main marketing strategy. However, the importance of actors to audiences was recognized in the 1910s. Even film style changed in response to popular actors, who were recognized as “stars” that could sell movies week after week to the public and fuel box-office receipts.
Known to her audience as “Little Mary,” “The Girl with the Curls,” and “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford became the biggest female star in the first quarter century of American film history. Pickford’s only rivals in box-office popularity were smiling action hero Douglas Fairbanks, who would become her second husband in 1920, and Fairbanks’ good friend, Charles Chaplin, whose “Little Tramp” comedy persona was beloved worldwide. During the 1910s, Pickford moved from studio to studio to acquire more money but also more power to guarantee the quality of her films. In 1916, she became the first Hollywood star to produce her own films under a partnership agreement with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount. In 1918, she moved to First National, but by 1919, she was fed up.
As Hollywood corporatized with vertical integration linking production to distribution to theatrical exhibition, the studios depended on “block booking,” which forced movie theater exhibitors to take groups of films — sight unseen, titles unknown. Pickford learned that her spectacularly popular films were used by Famous Players-Lasky and then First National to force theater managers to commit to these large packages of films. Pickford had enough of letting a major studio profit in the millions from her popularity and even sell inferior films with it. She, Fairbanks, Chaplin, prominent director D.W. Griffith, and movie cowboy William S. Hart joined together to form a distribution company for independent producers. Hart dropped out of the radical experiment, but the others stuck, and on April 17, 1919, United Artists (UA) was incorporated. The partners hoped the new enterprise would guarantee them both artistic control and improved profits. An unprecedented declaration of independence by Hollywood’s top talent, it was a business venture, but, as scholar Tino Balio, has noted, it was one rooted in artistic idealism too.
In the early 1920s, United Artists offered some big, bold box-office hits, like Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood, and quiet, sensitive ones, like D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. Pickford won over audiences with her film version of the popular novel of girlhood, Pollyanna. Apart from the popularity of individual films, UA would become a bulwark against the overwhelming dominance of vertically integrated studios that sought to eradicate competition, preventing independent productions from reaching movie theater screens. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court would demand via the “Paramount decrees” of 1948 that studios stop their widespread stifling of competition. Block booking, vertical integration, and other policies like blind booking, would have to end, but this was over twenty years away.