The US one sheet for Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature Thief—which screens tonight and all weekend at BAMcinématek to kick off their retrospective "Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann"—is an unusual design for its era. The colorful script title treatment is echt 80s of course, but the posterized monochrome portrait of James Caan overlaid over a photographic image of sparks from blowtorches (the titular character’s tool of choice) is something I haven’t seen before. It gives the poster an unusual three dimensional look, though at first glance those glowing goggles make it look more like a sci-fi film.
Thief was released on March 27, 1981 and was damned with faint praise in The New York Times by Vincent Canby:
“Mr. Mann may well become a very good theatrical film maker but, among other things, he's going to have to learn how to edit himself, to resist the temptation to allow dialogue that is colorful to turn, all of a sudden, into deep, abiding purple. Time after time scenes start off well and slip into unintentionally comic excess.”
As a nod perhaps to the poster he also wrote:
“Mr. Mann favors close-ups so tight you often don't know if you're seeing a blow-torch or the interior of Mount St. Helens.”
Canby’s review states that the film “opens today at the Cinerama and other theaters.” In this 1981 photo, below, looking up 7th Avenue from 47th Street, you can see Thief, and its distinctive lettering, on the marquee of the Embassy 2-3-4 along with The Postman Always Rings Twice (which opened a week earlier on March 20) and Atlantic City (which opened April 3).
Thief was based on the novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burgler by Frank Hohimer, which was the pseudonym of professional jewel thief John Seybold (who served as a technical advisor on the film).
Two months after its US opening, Thief competed at Cannes under a new title, Violent Streets. The New York Times report on the Palme d’Or, which was won by Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron, doesn’t even mention Mann’s film by its former title.
The movie was ultimately released in the UK in August of 1981 as Violent Streets, though on the UK quad poster the phrase “He’s a thief” was added to the original tagline perhaps to avoid confusion (and you can see the original poster design on the inset Tangerine Dream soundtrack album cover). The British poster is also the only one on which co-star Tuesday Weld appears prominently.
United Artists produced an international one sheet with the new title in neon signage lettering and a more aggressive tagline:
The image of Caan with the gun was then superimposed against a variety of rain-slicked nighttime street backdrops in various international posters.
Michael Mann did of course go on to become a very good theatrical film maker, as if he wasn’t already with this masterpiece.
To go back to Canby for a second:
“The movie is loaded with so-called production values. This neonlit, nighttime Chicago is pretty enough to be framed and hung on a wall, where, of course, good movies don't belong.”
Thanks to the Criterion Collection you can of course now see Thief looking very pretty hung on the wall of your home, but, while you have the opportunity, do yourself a favor this weekend and see it on screen.
P.S. Happy Birthday, Michael Mann.