It opens largely sans dialogue. Buzzing neons and street lights show the way. Some suspect a teal hue has been added to the film of late, a case of an auteur enacting his right to revision. Such acts have plagued other filmmakers. George Lucas is the most famous example of such creative stubbornity, his Star Wars Saga now a very different beast to the films released between 1977 and 2005. Others have tinkered too, with Spielberg switching guns for walkie talkies in the wake of 9/11 (a decision since reversed), while Billy Friedkin adjusted the contrast of his French Connection rather significantly for a high definition home video reissue some years ago (again, since rescinded).
How Michael Mann’s Thief looks in 2013, regardless of any retrofitted visual additions is undeniably impressive. In terms of fitting within Mann’s own aesthetic style, it couldn’t slides in neatly, while certainly maintaining an air of the authenticity of the shooting period. That director’s latter day stylistic shift, in which the digital has been embraced with both hands, in films like Collateral and Miami Vice, makes for an equally authentic experience, albeit one that differs greatly from the early, celluloid films. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find that, afforded by the possibilities of digital, Mann had returned to his earlier film’s and adjusted where possible. This is not intended to be a defence of such practices, merely offering a line of reasoning.
The two cinemas of Mann, those of celluloid and 35mm bring with them each a kind of organic cinema. While “organic” is often a term most ordinarily associated with the fine grain of film, of the natural and non-technological, digital also has it’s own biological make up. The notion of pixels standing in for recorded light at varying frequencies (resolutions), dependent on the trapping conditions, may be lacking the hands-on science of processed celluloid, but the essences of the techniques remain similar. The digital is a growing, developing organism thanks to technological development.
In shooting Thief Mann looks to the everyday. Scenes are lit by natural light sources (though no doubt given a boost by off-screen sources too). Office Lamps in daytime, car lights at dusk, and countless windows on a nighttime skyline are accompanied by street lights and other assorted road furniture. In one of the film’s centrepiece sequences, a first date between the film’s protagonist, Frank, and potential love interest, the sight of cars passing underneath becomes the dominant visual attribute. Later, as the film descends further in to Abaddon neon-showroom lights and the shine of firelight in the distance reflects in the bonnet of our hero’s Cadillac.
Prior to such languid and symbolic posturing, Mann renders his heist a Rififi in neon. Notably the film ends happily ever after 90 minutes in, as Frank sits and admires his masterpiece. Ala, the film has other things in mind, and carries with it a sick twist. One final descent in to Hell follows, sparked by the setting ablaze of a lot full of cars and a meeting with the big bad himself. Freeze frames and jump cuts punctuate the closing shoot out, while the final shot of the film emphasises the layers and texture of the film’s aesthetics.