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Feature


For his first theatrical feature, Michael Mann (Manhunter, Public Enemies) returned to the rain-soaked streets of his home-town, Chicago, for a stunning piece of neo-noir starring James Caan (The Godfather, Rollerball) at his toughest.

Caan plays Frank, a jewel thief and former convict who is looking to settle down with his girlfriend (Tuesday Weld, Once Upon a Time in America) and begin a family. But when his ‘fence’ is thrown from a window and the Chicago Mafia begin to flex their muscles, his hopes of a quiet life become anything but…

With a sterling supporting cast in the shape of James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson and Dennis Farina, lush electronic score by Tangerine Dream and the assured direction of Mann, Thief is a standout eighties crime flick that paved the way for the his later urban thrillers such as Heat and Collateral as well as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.


About the transfer: This new HD master was provided by The Criterion Collection and delivered by MGM via Hollywood Classics. The transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Director Michael Mann's original 35mm answer print was used as a colour reference, and Mann supervised and approved the entire transfer. The added Willie Dixon fisherman scene was sourced from a 35mm internagative made from a print. All picture restoration work was completed by The Criterion Collection.

The original stereo soundtrack was remastered to 5.1 surround at 24-bit from 35mm 4-track magnetic audio stems, and approved by Mann.

Transfer supervisors: Lee Kline/Criterion. Michael Mann.
Colourist: Gregg Garvin/Modern Videofilm, Burbank.


Video


Arrow's Thief is based on the same director-approved and supervised 4K transfer Criterion did for its own release of the film. The resultant image is, for the most part, wonderful, exhibiting fine a fine grain structure that preserves plenty of detail. There are soft shots of course, but these are clearly inherent to the original photography rather than the result of any nefarious digital tinkering. The image is also spotlessly clean. The contentious issue with the new director's cut of the film is the colour grading, which deviates significantly from previous home video releases. As you can see from the details above, Mann was heavily involved in the creation of the new transfer and as such we should probably take this as his definitive vision of the film. However, about thirty seconds into the picture it’s plainly evident that the grading is incredibly reminiscent of numerous contemporary films, displaying a 'teal' colour scheme that will be all-too familiar to anyone who's watched more than a handful of features in the past few years.

With written confirmation of Mann's involvement I have to assume that this is how he always intended the film to look, or at the very least how he wants it to look now. Unfortunately it's such an anachronistic grade I honestly found it quite distracting. Now I'm not disputing that the original answer print had a cooler tone, or at least that Mann always intended the film to have such a stylised appearance, but the issue here is that a look that would once have been accomplished photochemically has now been achieved by way of digital tools and it just looks off. If someone like me can pick up on this on my first viewing of the film one has to wonder what long-time fans are going to make of the changes. Still, putting aside my misgivings about the overwhelmingly blue palette I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the technical merits of the presentation. Criterion's Blu-ray looked fantastic compared to the older DVDs, but Arrow's presentation manages to eclipse it with a superior encode that preserves more of the grain structure with fewer artefacts.

Perhaps the greatest advantage Arrow's package has over Criterion's is the inclusion of the theatrical release of the film on a second disc. Although not as technically proficient as the director's cut – you'll see film artefacts, coarser grain, red push and blown highlights - the theatrical cut is of a standard that would earn a very respectable score in isolation. In other words, if I hadn't seen the version taken from a 4K master I'd have been more than happy with this version of the feature. Ultimately I have no way of knowing if it's a more accurate representation of the original theatrical release, but if you'd dead against the more stylised look of the director's cut you don't have to compromise because the familiar look of theatrical version is on hand.

Audio


As usual I have far less to say about the film's aural characteristics than I do about the visuals. The director's cut of the film features both the original stereo soundtrack in LPCM 2.0 and a multi-channel DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, while the theatrical cut features only and LPCM 2.0 stereo track.

The 5.1 track isn't particularly expansive or dynamic. There is some surround activity, notably the rainfall near the beginning of the film and the more action-oriented sequences towards the end, but things generally stay firmly rooted up front. The biggest issue I had with the soundtrack was that of the relative volume of the constituent parts, as I had to crank my amp up higher than usual to alleviate problems with indistinct dialogue. This lead to my wife descending the stairs on a couple of occasions in order to ask me to turn the volume down, particularly during the later moments of the film or whenever the (admittedly great) Tangerine Dream soundtrack swelled. Unfortunately acquiescing to said requests once again rendered the dialogue all-but indecipherable. I found the LPCM 2.0 track more balanced in this regard, but of course it loses the immersive qualities of the multi-channel mix. The theatrical cut is ‘limited’ to the original stereo presented in LPCM 2.0, but it is perfectly functional.

Extras


Arrow has crammed hours of bonus content onto this two disc set, offering both contemporary and vintage material that offers plenty of insight into the creative process. Here's what you can expect to find:

  • Audio commentary by writer-director Michael Mann and actor James Caan
  • The Directors: Michael Mann: A 2001 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Mann, James Belushi, William Petersen, Jon Voight and others
  • Stolen Dreams: A new interview with Caan, filmed exclusively for this release
  • Hollywood USA: James Caan: An episode of the French TV series Ciné regards devoted to the actor, filmed shortly after Thief had finished production
  • The Art of the Heist: An examination of Thief with writer and critic F.X. Feeney, author of the Taschen volume on Michael Mann
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Optional isolated music and effects track on the theatrical cut
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brad Stevens

The audio commentary by Michael Mann and James Caan was, I believe, originally available on the 1995 release of the film, so it’s quite aged now. Still, it provides plenty of background info on the film-making process, although there are numerous periods of dead air, accounting for a fair portion of the total running time.

‘The Directors: Michael Mann’ is a 2001 episode from the TV series ‘The Directors’ (unsurprisingly). It takes us on a journey through Mann’s oeuvre, both the highs and lows, with clips from many of his films. Of course it doesn’t cover his later works, but it does feature interview footage with Mann and a number of his collaborator. The show’s lengthy runtime makes for a solid addition to the set. ‘Stolen Dreams’ is a new interview with the James Caan, who talks about Thief and his career in general. He has plenty to say about working with Mann (a few tongue in cheek jibes are the order of the day) and reiterates his comments about this role being his favourite.

‘Hollywood USA: James Caan’ is an episode of French TV show that sees Mann relaxing on his boat with friends and family, while journalist asks him varied questions about his personal life and career. Caan’s real-life persona doesn’t appear all that far removed from his on-screen one, and it was nice to see him interacting with his young son (fishing, playing golf and so on) and giving candid answers to the questions posed. His anecdotes about working with John Wayne on Howard Hawks’ El Dorado are particularly interesting.

‘The Art of the Heist’ is an audio essay by author and critic F.X. Feeney that runs for over an hour. It is divided into chapters and plays alongside footage from the main feature. It provides a wealth of information that is sure to appeal to Mann fans and film aficionados in general. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included, as is an isolated music and effects track on the theatrical cut of the film that showcases the Tangerine Dream soundtrack (one might argue that the theatrical cut itself should be considered bonus material). Rounding things off are Arrow’s customary booklet, which includes an essay on the film by Brad Stevens, and a reversible sleeve featuring both newly-commissioned and original artwork.

Overall


It may be a new year, but Arrow carries its rich vein of form forward with this impressive release of Michael Mann’s theatrical début. The British label has taken on the giant that is Criterion and beaten it at its own game, delivering a package that surpasses the US release in every department. Arrow’s presentation of the director’s cut features stunning visuals that exceed the standard set by Criterion thanks to superior encoding, while the inclusion of the theatrical cut is of genuine value to those who might be less than enthusiastic about the revised colour grading. Sonically it’s no slouch either, and the comprehensive and informative bonus material lends substantial worth to the package as a whole. This is a must-have purchase for fans of Michael Mann’s work and a damn fine Blu-ray release to boot. As such, it comes highly recommended.
 
It’s worth mentioning that this particular release, which includes both cuts of the film, is limited to just three thousand units, so if you want a copy you’d be well-advised to pick one up now in order to avoid future disappointment!

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

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