In our continuing series of ‘47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams‘, we look at Michael Mann’s glorious Thief.

Before the Mohicans were all but one and Miami was Vice ridden, Michael Mann made his feature film debut – and possibly his best film to date – with the 1981 James Caan crime flick Thief.

The tale is familiar enough: a super-professional criminal begins to feel the need for something resembling a normal life, a wife (Tuesday Weld), a family, a home. Of course his criminal associates and corrupt cops want to control or destroy him and ruin his plans. However, the film is lifted from its relatively ordinary story by the amazing performances. James Caan has rarely been better. His diner scene with Tuesday Weld is a professed favorite of the actor’s and you can see why. Caan – who also produced the film – is at his wired best, suggesting a vulnerability of a man ready to fall apart or fly off the handle. Weld is more than capable of standing up to him, and add to the leads debuts by James Belushi and Dennis Farina and some excellent moments with Willie Nelson and Nick Nickeas.

The film looks gorgeous, rain slicked streets of incredible beauty. Mann hasn’t gone kitsch yet. His cops are grubby, there are workplaces and the whole thing is taken seriously. The safe cracking scenes are exciting and at the same time almost humdrum. Caan’s thief – who will appear again in De Niro’s role in Heat – is a man who gets the job done and doesn’t want any part of the glamour or the myth of what he does.

This is the kind of American movie Jean Paul Melville was trying to reproduce, but which probably didn’t exist until after Melville. Tangerine Dream provide an overbearing score, but with this material it works.

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