Thief (Michael Mann / U.S., 1981):

From the opening, a driving sense of image: Rainy asphalt and vertical lamp posts arranged against a gilded nocturnal sky for an opulent convergence of lines, at the center is the professional thief (James Caan) at work with drill and goggles. The blade corkscrews to the other side of the safe, a zoom into the hole reveals the locked gears, thus Michael Mann's existential athlete with his back against the wall. (He finishes the job in time for breakfast by the edge of Lake Michigan.) A "self-employed" independent (cf. Siegel's Charley Varrick), the safecracker evinces the intransigence and terror of a man carrying prison walls inside him. "There are sometimes pressures." Wealth and family with a fellow loner (Tuesday Weld) form the goal, the underworld capo (Robert Prosky) sponsors the final robbery and then refuses to let him go. L'audace, as a flambeur would have it, toujours l'audace. A crossroads of Seventies hardness and Eighties lambency, a midpoint between Straight Time and Miami Vice, a remarkable debut. In a tangle of wires and dials, the artist and his tools—after the vault is lit up with blowtorch sparks, he leans back and savors a leisurely cigarette. (A cityscape of cold metal and glass earlier on might be a Harry Callahan study, Mann unsettles it splendidly with James Belushi in a Hawaiian shirt.) Free agents and corporations: Outlaw autonomy runs "against the way things go down," as the boss explains in an upside-down POV shot, the dream life assiduously assembled blows up in an instant. The key thing is to have enough of a soul left to bare it in an empty diner at night, the adopted father behind bars (Willie Nelson) is reborn as the adopted son in the suburban domicile. "Why don't you join a labor union?" Mann knows the folly of purity in changing times, and sends his antihero into the darkness to the hum of Tangerine Dream. Cinematography by Donald Thorin. With Tom Signorelli, Dennis Farina, and John Santucci.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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