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 Great Movie Scenes: Thief / Drive

It can be disheartening that WordPress, the host for this blog, keeps detailed statistics. These tend to prove that very few ever visit the Needlefish, and of those that do, practically none of them ever view the entries on movie scenes or songs of the day – but dammit, I love doing them. If you can’t be self-indulgent in your own blog, well, I guess that I just don’t know.

Thief, Michael Mann’s early 1980s masterpiece of mood and cinematography, might just be the most stylish movie ever made, with its pulsing electronic score by Tangerine Dream, and its extended shots of dark, lonely, and very soggy night-time roads and alleyways. It’s said that to get the right look, Mann had water trucks follow him around from shot to shot, keeping the streets all good and reflectively drenched.

Attached is the virtually wordless opening scene, and it sets the tone from almost the first frame. This is a movie about professionals, master criminals who specialize in high-end heists that involve technology, skill, and teamwork – and absolutely no violence, no drama. Guns and screaming are for punks. They come in the dead of night, alone at the scene, spoofing alarm systems, monitoring the police bands, and deploying exotic tools to get the job done quickly and cleanly. Don’t you just love that drill that attaches to the safe by way of its integral electromagnet? Isn’t it great how James Caan operates with all due speed, but in a thoroughly dispassionate and economical way, wasting no time, taking no false or unnecessary steps? He just gets the job done, and this clearly isn’t his first rodeo. Note how he disdains all the baubles in favour of boxes full of uncut diamonds in tidy little envelopes, utterly untraceable. Then, the unhurried getaway, the team members splitting up, discarding coveralls, switching cars and going their separate ways in silence, each fully versed in the drill.

They’re just so totally cool.

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding paid obvious homage to this scene about 30 years later, in the opening of 2011’s Drive. The beginning gives off the exact same night-time vibe, with a cool criminal expert going wordlessly about his business, monitoring the police bands and executing his getaway with consummate professionalism, all of it set to a pulsing electronic score.

Winding even tips his cap to Mann with the neon graphics of the opening credits:


Style over substance? Not in my book, not for either movie. These are compelling dramas, very film noir despite being in colour, and anyway, what’s wrong with style?

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