No notes for this screening log, but I’m really excited to write about the film I’ll be discussing below, which I technically saw last week (I only had seen two films last Sunday so I held my log back a week).
-Black Angel, 1946. Directed by Roy William Neill. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Thief, 1981. Directed by Michael Mann. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-As You Desire Me, 1932. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Hello, Sister!, 1933. Directed by Erich von Stroheim. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Great Silence, 1968. Directed by Sergio Corbucci. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Price of Power, 1969. Directed by Tonino Valerii. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Pulp Fiction, 1994. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. DVD.
It was around the time that Miami Vice came out where a group of critics—mostly those swinging around The House Next Door—suggested that Michael Mann does for city landscapes what Terrence Malick does for the natural world. But while Malick’s films have become more esoteric and poetic, Mann has always swung like a pendulum. He lies in some strange ether (which is how he has been able to keep making films in Hollywood with hundred million dollar budgets) between the art house and Hollywood. His most acclaimed film, Heat, is a three-hour epic between gangsters and cops, and the least likely to appear in academic journals, while derided films like Public Enemies will fill entire textbooks..
Mann’s first film, the 1981 heist film Thief, might be the perfect meshing of these two universes—it’s a film with much to discuss, but it’s also visceral in its impact. It’s a film that makes Drive look downright cliché. Not because the narrative doesn’t exist, it has a classic one that drives every moment, but the shots and beats of the film peddle to a tune all on its own. It’s the reason I posted an image like the one last week that I felt captivated by Thief. The film isn’t a deconstruction, or minimalist, as it is an artist’s take on something familiar, like Pollok’s take on Picasso’s Guernica.
The opening sequence of the film sets this intense tone, as we see our protagonist, Frank (Caan, possibly his best role), breaking open a safe. Using an electronic score by Tangerine Dreams that wouldn’t be out of place in soft-core pornography, Mann gives the opening heist a sexual frankness. The drills smashing themselves through the steel are shown as a fetish, placing us within the brain of how Frank feels. Those close-ups of metal tearing through metal are the money shot.
What separates Thief from a normal “one last job” film (it certainly is one, after all), is that Mann often goes for the abstract within his shot structure. Characters jammed on one side of the frame, projected in long shots that capture an atmosphere of foreboding dread and cool simultaneously. His characters are full of emotions, especially the beautiful Jessie (Tuesday Weld), but they often feel strained to something different, as if Michelangelo Antonioni was directing them. During the film’s most bravura sequence—a long sit down between Frank and Jessie at a diner (the shots begin with blue orbs of light outside their faces, but Mann moves the camera closer and closer till they are both bearing their soul)—Frank shows Jessie a collage he has made, representing his perfect life. It makes no logical sense—it’s simply images and places and people all pastes together from magazines—but it creates a tone and a feeling of what that perfect life is.
Thief becomes more focused on its narrative as it progresses, but it never loses sight of its abstractness. The film’s big heist sequence is doused in a blinding light, as if Frank’s plan to crack the safe is like Zeus throwing lightning into the safe. But as he sits down and looks at his artistry, he gives a weak smile. He is no god. He is artist. One who doesn’t work in colors or molds, but in performance. And Mann, too, is an artist. One who works not in convention, but in something once removed. Something familiar, but working on its own construct.