With the releases of Thief and Rififi, The Criterion Collection has released two classics of the crime/film noir genre. Where Jules Dassin’s Rififi represents a perfect distillation of the classic noir model, Michael Mann’s Thief takes those tropes into the modern era. My review of the Blu-rays of Rififi and Thief follows after the jump.
In Rififi, the film starts as Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) gets out of prison and is immediately invited by his old friend Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner) to go on another heist. He declines as he thinks the score is too small, and then goes to check on his former girlfriend, who’s become a kept woman. She’s working for Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), who takes an immediate dislike to Tony. But his encounter with his former flame is enough for Tony to reconsider the heist, but he wants a bigger score, which will require another person besides Jo’s friend Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel). They recruit the best safecracker in the world, Cesar le Milanais (Dassin, the director), whose Achilles’ heel is his love of women. But as is often the case with a heist, as hard as it is to steal, it’s even harder to keep your gang together and get your reward before the cops, and before Pierre can get his hands on their score.
Rififi is most famous for a show-stopping burglary that happens in the middle of the film, and is done in silence to keep from tripping alarms. Dassin was so pleased with the sequence that he remade it slightly in the later movie Topkapi, and this heist was influential on both Jean-Pierre Melville (specifically The Red Circle) and Brian De Palma (in Mission: Impossible). And, make no mistake, it’s a classic suspense sequence that is riveting in its minimalism. If the film was crap, it’s a great enough sequence to recommend the film, but it turns out the film surrounding it is also excellent.
Dassin had a checkered career, as he was blacklisted from Hollywood and came to Europe to continue his career. Dassin knew he was washed up when he directed the searing film The Night and the City in 1950, and it took him five years to get another movie off the ground in Europe with Rififi. And though his previous American movies had showed a nihilistic sensibility, Rififi keeps in that tradition as everyone is doomed. That’s often the way in the film noir, but few were so great at expressing the fatalism as Dassin. Rififi, which I’ve seen numerous times, is a stone cold masterpiece, and makes the case that Dassin is one of the most underrated old Hollywood masters, something all the more insulting considering the ridiculousness of the blacklist. Watching Rififi makes you want to watch more Jules Dassin films, which is the greatest compliment you can pay any movie.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release upgrades the picture quality of their previous DVD release, without adding any new supplements. A DVD version is also included with this release, while the film has received a new 2K mastering, which is stunning in its clarity. The Blu-ray release is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in 2.0 French mono, with optional English subtitles. The supplements are modest, with the highlight being a twenty nine minute interview with Dassin, which was recorded in 2000 (eight years before his death). Though he was elderly, he’s sharp as a tack and offers great anecdotes about his life and the making of the movie. Also included are a still gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Michael Mann’s Thief was the writer/director’s first feature film (he spent some time in serialized television and directed a TV movie), and few first films are so well formed and revealing of a director’s sensibilities. James Caan plays Frank, the best jewel thief in Chicago. He works with his normal crew (which includes James Belushi), and has spent his life in and out of prison. But after his recent heist is ripped off, he gets close to the powerful mobster Leo (Robert Prosky), who recovers his money and wants Frank to run some huge heists for him. Frank likes being an independent contractor, and doesn’t want to be bound to a lifetime contract, but accepts one big score with the goal being that it will allow him to get out of the game. He hopes that for a couple of reasons. His mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) is in prison and wants to get out because he’s dying, while Frank has been romancing Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and they want a kid.
One of the most fascinating things about Thief is that he makes Frank the hero of the piece. Falling in line with previous films about criminals, it shows that he is a professional in the sense that he has a code and obeys it. There may be nothing noble about his pursuits, but he’s pure in his work, and no one gets hurt. In that, Frank falls in line with a number of characters that Alan Delon played for Jean-Pierre Melville, and this kind of perfectionist is an archetype in Mann’s work, as a variation on the character is presented in Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral (to name a few). There’s also a great sense of verisimilitude. Mann knew Chicago cops and criminals and has a journalist’s eye for detail and character. There is so much nuance in here, and also a practical understanding of how these people operate… again, things that are part and parcel with the Mann style.
The film is also immaculately shot. Mann’s eye for detail and for color was fully formed in his first feature, and the design is perfectly complimented by the score by Tangerine Dream, which creates an otherworldliness to the proceedings, but also amps up the tension. Mann gets great performances out of his cast, with Caan perfect as the world-weary thief and delivers one of his finest performances in the film, especially a scene in a diner when he breaks and explains his time in prison in a clinical, somewhat detached, but empathetic portrait of a messed up life. He’s perfectly complimented by Weld, an actress who never found the breakout role, but was always great in whatever she did. And then there’s performers like Prosky and Dennis Farina, performers that Mann helped launch with this film.
What also makes the film revolutionary and a masterpiece is that Mann allows Frank to take over. When faced with cops who are shaking him down for a cut of his earnings, and Leo, who just wants to use him up, Frank is the only person to root for. In old Hollywood, Frank would be doomed to either death or prison, but Mann broke away while still working within the framework of genre. Thief is a dazzler, and a worthy addition to the Criterion collection.
The Blu-ray comes with the DVD version, and is presented widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. After years of unimpressive standard definition transfers, this Blu-ray is a revelation. The design of this film, the precision of Mann’s imagery has never looked so sharp, and the detail and color has never looked so good. The same could be said of the new surround mix, which is all encompassing and excellent (with the score benefiting most from the surround mix). The film comes with a commentary track, though it dates back to the film’s laserdisc release. That said, the stories on it shared by Mann and Caan are great, even if they do occasionally lapse into silence. There’s new interviews included, though, which helps make this one of the best releases of 2014. First up is a new chat with Mann (24 min.) done by Scott Foundas, and it’s an excellent chat, and Foundas prods the director well. It’s followed by a brief talk with Caan (11 min.), who loves the film, and then an interview with Johannes Schmoelling (16 min.), one of the members of Tangerine Dream. The package is wrapped up by the film’s theatrical trailer.