Talk about starting as you mean to go on. The first ten minutes of Thief, Michael Mann's theatrical debut, contain a near-perfect encapsulation of his entire career: visually, thematically, musically, laying the roots from which the likes of The Keep, Manhunter, Heat, The Insider and even Last of the Mohicans would eventually spring.
James Caan, the thief of the title, is shown breaking into a safe, a long, slow, painstakingly meticulous process that leaves you in no doubt that you're watching a consummate professional at work (there's a telling shot of him abandoning countless gold watches and necklaces and merely selecting a series of nondescript envelopes, whose contents, of course, turn out to be far more valuable). Although he has accomplices, they wait outside: he prefers to work alone, with just the sound of his drill and Tangerine Dream's score (in this case a continuous pulsing electronic buzz) for company. (By all accounts, this is a pretty fair encapsulation of Mann himself at work - I once went to a talk by his one-time producer Art Linson, who made it clear that Mann is a ruthless perfectionist on a Kubrick-like scale, as if that wasn't obvious from his films!)
And that's Mann's career in a nutshell: his films are invariably about lone professionals, dedicated solely to their expertise (and very successful with it) and only deigning to interact with the rest of society when it has something to offer - usually something along the lines of jobs or money: romance usually plays a very minor part, if it isn't an outright distraction. James Caan's Frank is clearly cut from exactly the cloth as the protagonists in Mann's later films (though there's precious little chance of them throwing a party if they ever got together).
So when Frank is approached by a local mobster (Robert Prosky) who admires his skills and wants to bring him on board, his response is predictable: "I am self-employed. I'm doing fine. I don't deal with egos. I am Joe the boss of my own body - so what do I have to work for you for?" But he does succumb to these blandishments thanks to the sheer challenge of carrying out the most audacious heist of his career (breaking into a safe whose door is so thick he needs to use an 8,000-degree thermal lance) - but when he brings it off triumphantly, what are the chances of him getting paid as agreed when there's no written contract?
The DVD transfer is adequate but a little soft and grainy for my taste (some of this is clearly down to it being non-anamorphic NTSC), a particular drawback given that such a vast amount of the film is set at night: the shadows lack detail. That said, it's framed at the correct aspect ratio (critically important for a director like Mann who watches his framing with pixel-perfect precision), and fondness for almost abstract shapes and colours, particularly in out-of-focus backgrounds, comes across loud and clear.
So the fact that it could have been better doesn't stop this from being comfortably the best small-screen version of Thief to date (it's a colossal improvement on the first version I saw: a pan-and-scan monstrosity that had been retitled Violent Streets, a spectacularly pointless title change for a film that contains very little violence and none of it on the streets!).
Sonically, there's little to complain about, with the original Dolby Stereo soundtrack given a full Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. That said, there's not much in the way of sonic thrills - it isn't a patch on Mann's later work, for instance - and the music score is rather less impressive when it emerges from the background and comes centre stage: it probably sounded state-of-the-art at the time the film was made, but it's now all too obviously mired in the early 1980s. Chapter stops have been set at a very generous 32.
The extras won't exactly make Criterion look to their laurels, but they're a distinct cut above those on the other Michael Mann DVDs released to date. There's the original theatrical trailer, an eight-page booklet with anecdotes about the filming (why couldn't this have been incorporated on the DVD in the form of production notes?), and an impressively expensive-looking menu that gives off sparks whenever a selection is made.
The meatiest extra is the commentary by Michael Mann and James Caan, though neither of them is exactly a natural in this particular medium - there are quite a few silent patches, and genuinely interesting shooting anecdotes are interspersed with what sound suspiciously like private in-jokes from which the rest of us have been rigorously excluded. Then again, doesn't that merely prove that Mann is perfectly in tune with his characters?