Monday, November 10, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

One of my favourite movies is Michael Mann's "Thief" . It is from a different time, 1981 to be exact. Today, hard boiled noir and thrillers have been devalued by the routine repetition of the same dumb chases, sex scenes, and gunfights. Not that I don't like that in a cheap sort of way, but "Thief" is completely out of the ordinary. And there is not aCGI car crash or stunt in sight. Then again, filmmakers did not have those tools at their disposal. So am I just being nostalgic? No. There are other reasons.

The movie stars James Caan and as the movie opens, he's been free four years, and lives in Chicago. He is a highly skilled professional thief -- a trade he learned behind bars from Okla (Willie Nelson), a master thief. The film's opening sequence establishesCaan's expertise as he cracks a safe with a portable drill and an 8,000 degree thermal lance used to cut through a nearly impregnable safe. Some of the bit parts are played by real-life, highly successful jewel thieves, who acted as consultants. And their presence informs the superb dialogue, as every word rings true. To add to the fun, Mann cast real ex-cops to play the criminals. The movie leads up to one final caper, a $4 million diamond heist in Los Angeles, and then it ends in a series of double crosses and a rain of violence.

I keep going back to this movie every few years for several reasons. One is that "Thief" is able to convince us that it knows its subject, knows about the methods and criminal personalities of its characters. Another is that it's well cast: Every important performance in this movie successfully creates a plausible person, instead of the stock-company supporting characters we might have expected. And the film moves at a taut pace, creating tension and anxiety through very effective photography and a wound-up, pulsing score by Tangerine Dream. Though only slightly dated, it is still one of those soundtracks I'll write to, along with Vangelis' 'Blade Runner'.

Thief was Michael Mann's first theatrical film, and all the elements that characterize his later style (and this is a very stylistic film) are dominant. I love the story . It is simple and well-realized. The opening sequence and it's music remain one of my favourites. Visual story telling at it's best with so little dialogue you could count the lines on one hand. Something I still struggle to aspire to in my own screenplays. We participate with the Thief's plight and the movie shows instead of telling. That's why it still stands up today. The first ten minutes are posted above, but do yourself a favour. Find. Rent it and enjoy it on a bigger screen than this.

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