Tag Archives: Films of 1981

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 1)

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5)
Clash of the Titans (June 12)
History of the World Pt. 1 (June 12)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12)
The Cannonball Run (June 19)
Superman II (June 19)
Dragonslayer (June 26)
For Your Eyes Only (June 26)
The Great Muppet Caper (June 26)
Stripes (June 26)

The list of films above would have made for an incredible movie summer, but the fact it only represents one single month of the Summer of 1981’s movie releases is astounding. From action to fantasy to comedy, June 1981 brought something for everyone, and I’m hard pressed to find another movie month before or since with the same depth of quality releases. June 1981 was unmatched in box office success with five films each earning more than $50 million domestically, with Raiders of the Lost Ark at the top of the year’s domestic box office with $212 million ($289 million in the US & Canada, and $389 million worldwide). In terms of the comedy and special effects of some of these films, let’s just say they were products of their time. But while some of these films haven’t exactly aged well (Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams, Clash of the Titans), forty years later some are still consistently watched (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Stripes), while others are old favorites that continue to be revisited (Dragonslayer, The Cannonball Run, For Your Eyes Only).

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5), directed by Tommy Chong, is a film that comes up on my radar every few years either on streaming video or back in the day when it would be part of a late night screening on cable TV with friends. Written by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, the film begins as the title characters make their small fortune driving around L.A. in an ice cream truck selling weed disguised in ice cream wrappers. As they dream about using the money to move to Costa Rica (Cheech) and buying more guitars (Chong), they’re tailed by LAPD officers Drooler and Noodles who get a sample to take back to their precinct for testing. Stacey Keach reprises his role as Sgt. Stedenko (previously in Up In Smoke), but this time around he’s showing the effects of being a little too into the product he’s trying to get off the streets. While they treat themselves to dinner, Cheech and Chong run into Donna (Evelyn Guerrero, reprising her role from 1980’s Next Movie) and the “crazy hamburger dude” played by Paul Reubens (also from Next Movie), who gets Chong to exchange all of their cash for a bogus check. Their attempt to get their bag of cash back takes an unexpected turn (after they almost get killed by Donna’s racist, escaped convict biker boyfriend) and they find themselves trapped in a mental institution. Nice Dreams was light on plot but has more than enough gags to keep you laughing, though the humor was definitely of its time (translation: elements of the story definitely wouldn’t be filmed today). It grossed a solid $35 million, but down from Next Movie’s $41 million in 1980.

What more can be said or written about Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12), which was the the top grossing film of 1981 ($212 million US & Canada, $354 million total worldwide) and one of the great film franchises of all time? Before the film’s release Harrison Ford was already world famous for a couple of films called Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back, but his role as Indiana Jones in this throwback blockbuster propelled him to bankable leading man (prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford’s leading roles outside of the Star Wars franchise were in the films Hanover Street, Force 10 from Navarone and The Frisco Kid, none of which grossed $10 million in North America). Ford makes archaeology exciting and cool when Professor Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government in 1936 to find the location of the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, visiting several exotic locations (Nepal, Cairo) along the way. Producer George Lucas co-wrote the original story with Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers, The Right Stuff) as a love letter to the adventure serials of the 1940’s, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado) wrote a screenplay that incorporates the cliffhanger elements of the old movie serials and grabs the audience from the opening sequence. His script was brought to life and ingrained in our cinematic memories by director Steven Spielberg (how many times have we seen the clip of the giant stone rolling down towards Indy?) for a non-stop, action filled ride. Even after 40 years, Raiders of the Lost Ark never gets old.

Superman II (June 19) is regarded by many as the best of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The film begins with a montage of the key scenes from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and once the audience is back up to speed, continues with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in Paris putting herself in harm’s way to get the world’s biggest story: a terrorist group has taken hostages on the Eiffel Tower and set up a hydrogen bomb. Clark/Superman saves her and launches the bomb into space just as it detonates, saving Paris but freeing three Kryptonian criminals (General Zod played by Terence Stamp, Ursa played by Sarah Douglas, and Non played by Jack O’Halloran – introduced in the first film’s opening trial scene on Krypton) from their exile in the Phantom Zone. Earth’s sun provides them with identical powers to Superman and they make their way to Earth with the intent of world domination (what else?). In the meantime Clark and Lois are assigned an expose in Niagara Falls, where Lois confirms that Clark is Superman. He takes her to his Fortress of Solitude where he chooses to have his powers stripped in order to be with Lois as a mortal being. But by now Zod has taken control, and Superman’s old nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has joined the fun. Though it was filmed simultaneously with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Superman II has a more lighthearted tone and cinematography more in tune with a comic book film due to Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) taking over directing duties after original director Richard Donner was removed from the project. Donner reportedly shot over 70% of Superman II, and several original elements pieced from outtakes were reintroduced to the film for the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006. Superman II earned $108 million in North America and $190 million worldwide. In my opinion Superman II doesn’t match the original film’s heart and (in honor of Richard Donner) verisimilitude, but it’s a worthy sequel with a fun plot and dynamic visuals, making it a staple for fans of the comic book film genre.

Clash of the Titans (June 12), directed by Desmond Davis and written by Beverley Cross, is a fantasy film based on Greek mythology that showcased respected actors Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier and the classic visual effects of the great Ray Harryhausen. The film begins with King Acrisius of Argos exiling his daughter Danae and her baby Perseus to the sea for bringing shame to the kingdom. On Mount Olympus, Zeus, who had impregnated Danae and is the father of Perseus, orders Argos destroyed by the Kraken and Danae and Perseus saved. Perseus grows into adulthood as a favorite of Zeus on Seraphos, while his other son Calibos is punished for his arrogance with transformation to an abomination with horns and hooves. Calibos’s mother Thetis (played by Maggie Smith), angered by Zeus’s treatment of her son, transports Perseus (now an adult played by Harry Hamlin) from Seraphos to the island of Joppa where he is befriended by an old poet/actor named Ammon (Burgess Meredith) and begins his journey to earn the right to marry Princess Andromeda and save her city from destruction by Thetis. Clash of the Titans would be Ray Harryhausen’s last film before retiring, showcasing the effects on which he built his illustrious career in films such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts (also written by Beverley Cross). While the effects are dated by today’s standards (and even by the 90s for that matter) it’s a film that could be an inspiration to young, aspiring visual effects wizards who with today’s available and affordable technology could recreate Harryhausen’s effects at a fraction of the time and cost. Clash of the Titans may not hold up as well forty years later, but it’s still a joy to watch not only for the nostalgia but also because it’s refreshing to see an epic story told on a simple scale, unlike most overdone epic fantasy films of the last twenty years. It earned a respectable $41 million in North America and $70 million worldwide.

In History of the World Part I (June 12), writer/director Mel Brooks takes the audience on a comedic journey through human history beginning with the dawn of man and ending with the French Revolution (with stops at the Old Testament, Imperial Rome and the Spanish Inquisition along the way). It’s a very funny film by Mel Brooks if not at the level of previous classics Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, and is remembered and enjoyed today for several classic scenes (who could forget the catchy tune about the Spanish Inquisition?) and their memorable quotes (“It’s good to be the king…”). Watching the Imperial Rome and French Revolution scenes makes you wonder what could have been had Brooks expanded these scenes into their own feature films. At a $10 million budget, Brooks puts it all on the screen with a cast that includes Madeline Kahn, Gregory Hines and the great Harvey Korman, elaborate production design and some of the best traditional matte painting work of that era by Albert Whitlock (a behind the scenes look at that process can be seen here and Mel Brooks’s reaction to Whitlock’s work on History of the World Part I is priceless). It earned $31.7 million in under 500 theaters. If only there could have been a Part II.

Director Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (June 19) is that lighthearted, laugh a minute comedy that you just need sometimes, and is the antitheses to May’s disappointing racing film King of the Mountain. One look at the film’s poster and you know exactly what kind of ride you’re in for. Neeham (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, Stroker Ace) with screenwriter Brock Yates (who conceived the Cannonball Run challenge and actually won it with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes in 1971) crafted a classic example of an ensemble comedy along the lines of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with a high octane upgrade. Racer J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) is focused on winning in the Cannonball Run, an illegal cross country race from Connecticut to California, with his sidekick Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise). They’re disguised as ambulance drivers to outsmart the smokeys, complete with a doctor of questionable qualifications (Jack Elam) and a kidnapped environmentalist as their patient (Farrah Fawcett). They’re up against racers of equally dubious tactics in former Formula 1 racer Jamie Blake (Dean Martin – whose performance makes you wonder if he really was drunk throughout this film or if he really was that good of an actor) and Morris Fenderbaum (Sammie Davis Jr.) who are driving a red Ferrari dressed as priests. The cast of cannonballers includes Jamie Farr, Roger Moore, Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw and Jackie Chan. It’s not a perfect film, feeling a little slapdashed at times, and more than a few of the jokes wouldn’t pass today’s standards, including humor related to drinking and driving, kidnapping, cultural stereotypes, speech impediments, mental health issues and racial jokes. Ironically the tamest part of this movie is driving over the speed limit. But to its benefit, the film moves at a quick pace with a generous amount of the Burt Reynolds/Dom DeLuise comedy dynamic. This film was made to be a crowd pleaser and didn’t fail as it earned $72 million at the North American box office.

Next up, we continue our look at the films of June 1981 with four films that opened the weekend of June 26th: The Great Muppet Caper, For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, and Stripes!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Excalibur and Knightriders)

Excalibur

Release Date: April 10, 1981 (US)
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Helen Mirren, Paul Geoffrey
Directed by John Boorman; Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur); Cinematography by Alex Thomson; Edited by John Merritt

John Boorman’s classic Excalibur is one of a handful of films that has had a profound effect on me from the first time I watched it (in case you’re curious, the others are Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso), and to say this film hit me at the right time is an understatement. I missed out on seeing Excalibur on the big screen at my local movie theater in April 1981, but the day the film launched on cable television I was hooked to the point where I noted each screening listed in the monthly cable guide to watch it every chance I could. Excalibur is an incredible film on all levels, especially the production design and costumes that make earlier films of the genre look too polished (the look of the film was said to be influenced by Roger Christian’s lost but ultimately rediscovered 1980 short film The Black Angel). Excalibur also came in my life as my interest in Dungeons & Dragons developed, opening my mind to a world of imagination and creativity that extended to storytelling and art (I’ve lost count of how many knights, wizards, thieves and rangers I drew back then!). So Excalibur is a very personal film for me because with each screening, even forty years later, I’m transported back to a time in my life when a group of us would meet up Saturdays for a marathon D&D game that would last into the night.

Excalibur begins with a night battle of armored knights thundering through the forest on their armored, snorting horses. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) surveys the field as the armies of Uther and Cornwall face off in the fog, swords clanging against their heavy plate mail. Uther (Gabriel Byrne) confronts Merlin about the sword he was promised, but Merlin will only give it to him if he wages a truce. The next morning, the arm of the Lady of the Lake rises from still waters to produce Excalibur. With Excalibur in hand, Uther offers his enemy Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) the lands to the sea if he enforces Uther’s will as King. As they feast to celebrate their truce, Uther can’t keep his lustful eyes off of Cornall’s wife Igrayne (Katryne Boorman), and casts the newfound peace aside to wage a war for another man’s wife.

As his army lays siege to Cornwall’s castle, Uther requests Merlin’s magic as an advantage. But Merlin will only oblige in return for the product of Uther’s lust. Uther pulls his army back, and that night Merlin uses the Charm of Making to draw in the fog, which pulls Cornwall’s men out to battle Uther’s army. Merlin transforms Uther into the form of Cornwall so he can enter the castle. Meanwhile, Cornwall is killed when he is thrown off of his horse and impaled. At that moment his daughter Morgana senses his death, but Uther arrives in the form of Cornwall and tricks Igrayne into giving herself to him. She is in disbelief the next morning when the real Cornwall’s dead body is brought back to her.

Nine months later, Igrayne has given birth to Uther’s son. But his joy as a father is short lived when Merlin arrives to receive his end of the bargain: their baby. Igrayne now realizes it was Uther that arrived in Cornwall’s place that night during the battle, screaming as Uther rips their child from her arms and hands him to Merlin, who leaves under the creepy eyes and silver tongue of Cornwall and Igrayne’s daughter Morgana. The next morning as Uther rides through the forest to get back his child, he’s ambushed and severely wounded. He staggers through the mud with Excalibur in hand to keep it from his enemies. He declares that no one will wield Excalibur but him, thrusts the sword into a stone with the last of his strength and dies.

Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) serves as a squire to his father Ector (Clive Swift) and brother Kay (Niall O’Brien). A joust is held to give victorious knights the right to try to draw Excalibur from the stone and be named king, but the sword does not free itself for the unworthy. Arthur forgets his brother Kay’s sword back at their tent, but by the time he gets to it, it’s been stolen. Arthur chases the young thief to retrieve it but soon loses him in the woods. In desperate need of a sword he’s faced with Excalibur glowing in the stone and innocently pulls it free. Kay finds Arthur holding Excalibur, and Ector orders him to put it back in the stone so the people can see him free it. Uryens (Keith Buckley) forces his way to the stone to attempt to free it. But the sword won’t move for him and the worthy Arthur easily pulls the sword from the stone again to be declared king. Ector confesses to Arthur that Merlin brought him as a baby to them to raise as his son. Merlin appears to tell Arthur he is the son of Uther and the new king, but Uryens and his men declare trickery by Merlin and sides are drawn.

Arthur escapes the crowd to follow Merlin into the woods, questioning his ability to be king. Merlin tells him as king he will be one with the land and the land one with him. The next morning as Arthur starts to get a feel for the sword, he follows Merlin to his destiny: Leondegrance’s castle at Cameliard is under siege and Arthur leads his new allies to defend him.

Arthur and his new army arrive to the castle of a severely outnumbered Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart), who can barely hold Uryens’ men from scaling the wall. His daughter Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) sees the brave squire turned king scale the castle walls and single-handedly fight his way save Leondegrance. He then jumps into the moat, knocking Uryens off his horse and forcing him to swear faith to him as his king. Uryens refuses to swear faith to a squire, so Arthur hands him Excalibur to knight him to the surprise to everyone around him. Uryens is overtaken by Excalibur and knights the young king, swearing his undying loyalty. After the battle, Guinevere stitches up Arthur’s wound and wins his heart.

Fast forward to an older, confident Arthur who is faced with a single knight that his army cannot defeat: Sir Lancelot. Each of his knights defeated handily by the lone knight, Arthur faces Lancelot on a bridge and commands him to move for them to pass. The coolly confident Lancelot, burdened with the curse of not finding a worthy match that can defeat him, challenges Arthur to a joust. Arthur is knocked off of his horse but refuses to yield. Lancelot has the advantage but accepts hand to hand combat, making it look too easy as Arthur’s rage gets the best of him. Lancelot draws blood and Arthur is knocked onto the rocks of the falls below them. Arthur calls on Excalibur’s power and by his rage the sword breaks in half as it knocks out Lancelot. Disgusted with himself and his treatment of the worthy opponent Lancelot, Arthur throws the broken Excalibur into the water, ashamed of his vanity destroying the sword of his father. The Lady of the Lake appears with a mended Excalibur, and at Merlin’s prodding Arthur takes it from her hands in disbelief. Lancelot, finally bested and having given up his castle and land, pledges himself to the king. Time passes, and after a successful battle that ends a war Arthur calls his knights together, pledging to build a round table to tell their deeds, a castle around the table, and to marry a queen to bear an heir.

But the future the Arthur hopes for is thrown off course when Lancelot is tasked with escorting Guinevere to the wedding, and their hearts are brought together. Lancelot’s loyalty is pledged to the king, but his love to Guinevere, keeping that love in check by spending much of his time away from Camelot and the new queen. This arouses the suspicion of the now adult Morgana (Helen Mirren), who pushes Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) to accuse Guinevere of infidelity with Lancelot. Lancelot successfully defends her honor, but they ultimately give in to their temptation. Arthur discovers their infidelity and thrusts Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies. Guinevere and Lancelot wake up, horrified by the sight of Excalibur. A king without a sword will lead to a land without a king, plunging the kingdom into despair and hunger for years to come.

No spoilers here. Each scene in Excalibur is reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite painting (see John William Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalot and Sir John Everett Mills’ Ophelia), with director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hell In the Pacific) filling the screen with imposing armor designed by Terry English and the lush greens of the production’s filming locations in Ireland (Cahir Castle in County Tipperary was the location of Leondegrance’s castle). The young cast is a Who’s Who of today’s dramatic royalty which includes Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and the amazing Helen Mirren. I was a surprise to me that many critics in 1981 were dismissive of the film. While Boorman’s and Rospo Pallenberg’s adaptation deviates from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur, Excalibur truly stands on its own as a pure fantasy film for its sincere, uncomplicated story. And that sincerity is unmatched by the more recent Arthurian fantasy films that with all of their flash never had the heart of Excalibur. Boorman’s direction, the cast, production design (especially the armor!) and locations are magic on the screen, critics be damned. And one magical sword gave us one timeless classic.

Knightriders

Release Date: April 10, 1981
Starring: Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest
Written and Directed by George A. Romero

The other (kinda sorta) Arthurian themed film released on a crowded April 10th weekend was horror director George A. Romero’s Knightriders, starring Ed Harris as the king of a traveling renaissance fair complete with knights competing in jousts on motorcycles. The film is a deviation from Romero’s better known horror films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) as a heartfelt but exciting drama representing the dynamics and social structure of the film’s renaissance fair troupe and the king trying to keep them together. But it’s the motorcycles that set the film apart from what could have been a straightforward drama, lending an authentic cool factor to the story. Like Excalibur, Knightriders was also a favorite of mine when it debuted on cable TV in the early 80’s. That was a time in my life when we spent our Saturdays playing D&D and Sunday mornings riding our Honda on dirt trails with our friends.

The film begins with Billy (Ed Harris), also known as the troupe’s King William, waking up with his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) in a lush forest, absorbing the serenity and sounds of nature. But Linet’s watchful, concerned eye sees the crown weighing heavily on the king’s head. After his morning routine which includes self flagellation, Billy dons his helmet, starts his motorcycle and hits the road with the royally garbed Linet holding on to him. In Bakersfield, the renaissance fair is under way as locals partake in the food and trinkets, but the real show is on hold as two local deputies hassle the troupe for a bribe in spite of their legal permit. Morgan (Tom Savini) wants to pay them off and be done with it, but Billy won’t allow them to be strong armed, holding the line and daring the deputy to stop their show. Principles intact, the games begin.

Emcee Pippin (Warner Shook) introduces the motorcycle riding knights of the day’s jousting tournament as they draw lots for their opponents. Lances are sawed down to break easier, but the contact and falls are real. Morgan has his eyes on William’s crown and to get there has forged an all too real mace that outweighs the fake weapons, drawing concern from Alan (Gary Lahti) who predicts someone will get seriously hurt. That prediction nearly comes true when William is forced to defend his crown against Morgan. Already recovering from a shoulder injury that hasn’t fully healed, William stands up to the challenge and his duty as king even if he’s not fully healthy. When knocked off his bike and close to losing his crown, his knights led by Alan and Rocky (Cynthia Adler) save William from defeat and he’s brought to Merlin’s converted bus for medical treatment.

As he receives treatment from Merlin (Brother Blue), Alan gives him an earful about how he’s taking unnecessary risks that could jeopardize his health and the group. Billy gets back enough strength to return to the games, and when a young boy asks him to sign his picture in a motorcycle magazine, Billy disappoints him by declining the autograph due to the article painting him as the type of rider he refuses to be. Morgan happily signs the boy’s magazine as “the next king.” Another successful fair completed, the troupe cleans up the field, hangs up the weapons and hunts wild turkeys for their dinner as a community, each with their own roles (including Friar Tuck’s distillery).

But their night’s sleep is broken up by a nighttime raid by Bakersfield Deputy Cook (Michael P. Moran), who plants marijuana in a member of the troupe’s camper but offers Billy another chance for a payoff. Morgan practically begs him to pay Deputy Cook off so they can make their next gig, but Billy refuses and gets hauled to jail along with Ban (Marty Schiff). Billy orders the troupe to stay put until he’s back but Linet takes charge and goes against Billy’s orders, having the group pack up and get a head start to their next town. Alan gets his new girlfriend Julie (Patricia Tallman) to hit the road with him, getting her away from her drunken father and her abused mother. As Ban gets beaten up by Cook in the Bakersfield jail, Angie (Christine Forrest) and Pippin find the troupe’s lawyer Steve (Ken Hixon) who gets Billy and Ban out of jail and back on the road. But for Billy, the fight with Cook is not over.

Billy catches up with the troupe but is incensed they went against his orders. For Billy the troupe is a community and an extension of his ideals, which begins to come apart when smarmy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) attempts to sign Morgan and his knights away for a bigger and more lucrative act. Infighting and conflicts between Billy and the troupe take a toll and Billy starts to question himself as king. Lines are drawn, and one true fight for the crown must take place.

No spoilers here. George A. Romero’s Knightriders is a beloved film that forty years later still has loyal fans, myself included. The motorcycle sequences are still fantastic, making you wish they expanded the battle scenes, and Ed Harris delivers a performance that unquestionably establishes Billy’s principles and values. His heart is in this role, with no less commitment from the supporting cast that brings out the camaraderie of the troupe in their scenes. It would be unfair to dismiss the motorcycle themed plot and action sequences of Knightriders as gimmicks because Romero crafted a near perfect film on all levels. Could you imagine a drive in double feature of Excalibur and Knightriders? This is a film that lives up to the amazing image on the movie poster. Long live the king.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Thief and Diva)

Thief

Release Date: 3/27/81
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Cinematography by Donald Thoren

It was Michael Mann’s Thief that inspired this retrospective and motivated me to revisit the full list of films of 1981 to declare it the most underrated year of cinema. Older films should not be judged simply for dated elements that can detach viewers from the story, but it’s an unfortunate fact that some films don’t withstand the test of time. Thief doesn’t fall into that category and still hits on all cylinders 40 years later, with gritty cinematography, smooth editing, and a score that screams early 80s cool. These elements still inspire, which is why Thief is one of the best films of 1981 and set the stage for the great work Michael Mann would bring to television and cinema over the course of his career.

Thief hooks you in from the opening sequence, and it starts with three simple elements that are expertly brought together: The electric blue title on a black background. Rainy streets at night. A mesmerizing soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. But these signature 80’s touches shouldn’t be judged as mere tropes, but rather as the foundation for a style that would be imitated throughout the decade and beyond, making Thief one of the premiere examples of 80’s neo-noir. While the foundations of March 1981’s other noir films Cutter’s Way and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on murder and greed, Thief makes it all about the heist.

The film begins on a rainy Chicago night as three men quietly walk into a car that pulls out onto an empty street, on their way to their night’s work. Parked in a dark alley the driver sits in the car as the spotter, listening to the police radio for any hint of their activity. The tech whiz Barry (played by Jim Belushi) disables the alarm. The safe cracker Frank (played by James Caan) works an industrial drill into a seemingly impenetrable safe. They know if they each do their jobs right, there won’t be a hitch. Frank cracks the safe, throwing aside everything except the boxes of diamonds. The score successful, they methodically pack up and move on without a word. No questions about next steps or mistrust about who holds the loot, these guys are professionals down to the coveralls and separate getaway cars.

By day Frank runs a successful car dealership, but his main financial interests are based on his night work. He meets with his middleman Joe Gags at a diner to move the diamonds for cash. Gags offers to buy them outright for $185,000 and they arrange for Barry to pick up the payment. Gags lets Frank know there are some “stand up guys” that want to meet him, but Frank resists because he doesn’t want the complications. After their handshake deal Frank turns his attention to the hostess Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld), scoring a date with her for later that night. Afterwards as he takes a break from his work at the car lot, he reads a letter from his friend Okla who’s currently in prison and needs to see Frank as soon as possible.

But even the best laid plans can fall victim to an unexpected hitch. Frank gets an urgent message to call Barry who tells him he can’t make the cash pickup because Gags cheated the wrong guy, Attaglia, and was pushed out a window with their $185,000 in his pocket. Frank pays a visit to Attaglia’s steel plating company to make him cover the $185,000 that will now end up in police evidence. He’s not in the mood for Attaglia playing dumb, so Frank makes him an offer he can’t refu—, sorry, he puts a gun to Attaglia’s head and tells him he has until that night to pay up.

Frank stops at the prison to see Okla (played by Willie Nelson) who asks Frank to help him get out as soon as possible. Frank tells him to hang tight because he only has ten months left in his sentence, but Okla doesn’t have that long due to a heart condition and he doesn’t want to die in prison. Frank gives him his word he’ll get him out, and another weight is added to his shoulders.

Later that night Frank arrives at the pickup spot for his $185,000, unphased by the two men Attaglia brought with him. Meanwhile two cops on a stake out are taking pictures of the transaction, and Barry is perched on top of a nearby billboard with a gun pointed at Attaglia’s group…just in case. The creepily in control Leo (played by Robert Prosky) calmly hands Frank his money but also has a proposition for him. Leo is the upstream guy who had Gags in his pocket and runs scores all over the country. He offers Frank the opportunity to work on higher stakes jobs that could make him a millionaire in months. All jobs would be properly cased, and if he’s caught there’s also a lawyer to spring him. Frank is hesitant, but if he accepts he’s only bound to two or three jobs with the opportunity to then move on if he chooses. Frank tells him he’ll think about it.

His meeting with Leo makes him two hours late for his date with Jessie, who sits fuming in a crowded club, not interested in going on with their date. She has no patience for his excuses but he has even less patience and drags her out to his car, flashing his gun at anyone trying to stop him. On Okla’s advice, and with Jessie in the front seat as a captive audience, he comes clean about his work as a thief. Over coffee at a diner (and after Jessie calling him an asshole) they let down their guards and open up: how Frank went to prison for stealing $40, and Jessie’s ex moved drugs and died. She’s happy with her ordinary, boring life but she gives Frank a chance. This diner scene is priceless, and Frank’s moving story about how he survived prison is just one of many pieces of Thief that make it notable. Caan and Weld play their scenes with authenticity, with Jessie bridging the hard hitting scenes with moments of tenderness and devotion.

Frank calls Leo from a payphone to accept his offer, but for only for big scores, and shortly after he and Barry fly out to LA to case their first job. When he gets back he wastes no time starting a life with Jessie buying a house in the suburbs. Now the work begins. He contracts his old friend Sam, a machinist, for the equipment he’ll need to burn through the safe. Sam is surprised by the safe’s specs, which will need custom equipment that he may not even be able to build, but he’ll find a way. But while the bigger job will give him a bigger score, it also comes with bigger risks, and a bigger commitment that he may not be prepared for.

Okla’s granted early release thanks to the creative work of his lawyer and a $6,000 cash payment to the judge. Frank and Jessie try to adopt a child, but his criminal record makes them less desirable as parents and their dream is crushed. Frank calls the case worker out on her hypocrisy, telling her he was a child of the system who understands the despair of growing up in an institution. But his words and his temper get them nowhere as he and Jessie are escorted out. Mann masterfully ends the sequence with a simple shot of Frank and Jessie later that night as they sit outside their home, silently and in each others arms, as their house begins to look more empty.

Soon after Frank is tailed by two Chicago detectives and is pulled over. Sergeant Urizzi and his partner offer to “make life easier” for Frank and establish a new business relationship to the tune of giving them ten points on any score through Leo. Frank refuses, but it’s far from over and he’s now a marked man. Chicago PD watch Frank’s every move, bug his house, and take him in at gunpoint on a bogus traffic violation to “persuade” him to take their offer. Frank confronts Leo about the increase in the heat. Leo says he’ll take care of it and also helps Frank with the adoption issue. His family complete, his equipment built, and the building’s alarm password recorded, it’s time to get to work. But as Frank will realize, each new “gift” comes with strings attached, and honor among thieves doesn’t count for much.

No spoilers here. Director Michael Mann, cinematographer Donald Thoren and editor Dov Hoenig constructed a near flawless film that is perfectly matched with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, and arguably sets the tone for 80’s neo-noir. But it’s James Caan’s performance that truly makes the film memorable. He brings more to the role than just a safe cracker looking for one last big score (though Caan actually looks like he can crack a few safes between movies if he wanted to). The weight of his performance brings Frank’s humanity front and center: he’s a man who is loyal to his friends and ultimately wants the family that eluded him in life, and will do anything to protect it. Caan’s performance as Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather will always be his signature role, but Thief will always be Caan’s signature film.

Diva

Release Date: March 11, 1981 (France)
Starring: Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Jacques Fabbri, Thuy An Luu, Anny Romand, Chantal Deruaz
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Screenplay by Jean Van Hamme & Jean-Jacques Beineix (based on the book Diva by Delacorta)
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot

While the the look of Michael Mann’s Thief exudes a gritty realism, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s French crime thriller Diva stands out for the beautifully saturated cinematography and methodically crafted directing style of the cinema du look that puts the noir elements in the story and a cool 80’s new wave sheen in the visuals. For years I’d confused this film with 1987’s Aria, and revisiting Diva was a welcome rediscovery of an intriguing film that mesmerizes with each scene.

Jules (played by Frederic Andrei), a postal carrier in Paris, attends the performance of opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (played by real life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) after his shift. Still wearing his postal hat and jacket, he stands out among the well dressed audience. But the postal bag on his lap hides a Nagra reel to reel audio recorder he uses to bootleg her performance, and gets the attention of two men sitting behind him. After the recital he briefly meets Hawkins backstage for an autograph. She is charmed by his postal outfit and politely chats with him, but Jules is quickly pushed aside by one of her acquaintances. Everyone backstage is focused on Hawkins which allows Jules to swipe her dress from the performance. He returns to his modest loft located in a mechanic’s garage with his new trophy and listens to his high quality recording of the night’s recital.

The next day while Jules is on his rounds, a young woman named Nadia (played by Chantal Deruaz) wanders in a train station, standing out among the morning commuters with bare feet and fear in her eyes. A car pulls up and two mysterious men, L’Antillais (played by Gerard Darmond) and Le Cure (played by Dominique Pinon) enter the station looking for her, but Nadia’s behavior makes the audience wonder if she’s trying to escape from them or actually draw them in. They spot her and she quickly heads for an exit. Outside the station she eyes Jules’ idling moped, but rather than stealing it she clandestinely drops something into one of the side bags. In the distance, Paula (played by Anny Romand) and Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau) sit at a cafe table observing Nadia but don’t intervene when the two men catch up to her. She bumps into Jules, but as he tries to help her up, Le Cure shoves him aside flashing a police identification. Paula gets up to help Nadia but she is held down by Krantz because something is “off” about the situation. Jules rides off and the goons shove Nadia into the back of their car, but she breaks free. As she tries to escape she gets an ice pick in the back, killing her instantly. As the two goons drive off, Paula curses under her breath over Nadia’s dead body.

Jules chats up young shoplifter Alba (played by Thuy An Luu) and asks her on a date. At a junk yard L’Antillais’ car is destroyed as he tries to explain the situation over with an interested party on the other end of the call. At a police precinct, Paula and her partner Nortier (Gerard Chaillou) explain to Commissioner Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) that Nadia was a prostitute who was trying to blow the lid on an international drug and prostitution ring known as the “West Indian Network.” Saporta is skeptical and doesn’t want to pursue it. The man with Paula at the station, Krantz, is an informer who had a relationship with Nadia, and he tells the chief she was going to name of the head of the West Indian Network. The chief is suddenly more interested in the case when he hears she named names on the audio tape she dropped in Jules’ moped bag.

Jules brings Alba to his flat to impress her with his recording equipment. She’s taken a liking to Jules and gives him a stolen Rolex as a gift, and he shares with her Cynthia’s performance of “La Wally” from the night before. Meanwhile at a local carnival, Krantz runs a game stand but meets the same fate as Nadia with an ice pick in his back. Back at Jules’ place, Alba is moved by Cynthia’s performance and borrows it for her boyfriend, conceptual artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). After Alba leaves, Jules picks up a prostitute, having her wear Cynthia’s blue dress for their tryst. While he’s at her place, the two men from the recital tear up his apartment. When Jules returns, he breaks down in tears at the destruction of his precious recordings. He stays with two friends, and the next morning one of them calls in from work to tell Jules two men came in asking about him. He borrows his friend’s motorcycle so as not to be recognized on his signature yellow moped. But while reaching into his moped’s side bag for his gloves, Jules finds Nadia’s tape. Paula and Nortier see the aftermath of Jules’ apartment realize others are interested in Nadia’s recording as well.

By now the theft of Cynthia’s dress has made front page news. Jules makes his way into Cynthia’s suite under the guise of a flower delivery. She offers him a tip, but instead he gives her back the blue dress from her performance. She recognizes Jules as the postman she met after the show, but he doesn’t get the reaction he was expecting for his honesty and she threatens to call hotel security. He confesses he’s traveled to see her European shows, giving details of each performance down to the songs performed and the encores she wouldn’t give. Cynthia warms up to him when she realizes he’s a true fan and sets up a date with him for later in the night. At her afternoon press conference, she is asked why she never records her performances to which she replies that she doesn’t agree with that combination of art and commerce, and that bootlegs are a violation. The two men from the concert take their leave from the press conference.

In a dark parking garage, L’Antillais and Le Cure meet up with the man who has a vested interest in Nadia’s bombshell recording: Commissioner Saporta, the head of the West Indian Network. He instructs them to find Jules and the tape no matter the cost, and if he goes down, they go down with him. Meanwhile Jules meets with Cynthia for their date, spending the night and early morning hours walking around Paris until they return to her suite and their acquaintance turns romantic. Her comfort with Jules allows her to let him listen to her rehearse, something she had never allowed before. That morning, Gorodish is called by the two men that saw Jules bootleg the recital and they express their interest in obtaining the recording. Soon after, they call Jules at Cynthia’s suite to shake him down for the tape. The men, Taiwanese businessmen, then show up at Cynthia’s hotel to make an offer to her manager: she signs an exclusive recording contract with them or they release the bootleg without consequences or payment to her due to Taiwan’s non-compliance with international copyright laws. Jules’ dream come true of a relationship with Cynthia is now in danger of turning into a nightmare due to his actions at the concert.

Jules leaves the hotel and is quickly tailed by Paula and detective Zapotek (Patrick Floersheim). Jules leads them on a chase through and under the streets of Paris in a chase sequence that kicks up the adrenaline. He tracks down the prostitute from the previous night and asks to hide in her place. While alone in her apartment, Jules plays Nadia’s tape. As he hears her statement of Saporta’s role in the West Indian Network, he realizes the woman giving him sanctuary is also a part of it. As he sneaks out, he’s spotted by L’Antillais and Le Cure and another chase ensues.

No spoilers here. Diva is a cool thriller that stands out for its European flair when compared to the straight shooting Cutter’s Way and Thief. Diva is filled with emotional and visual ebbs and flows, where even the smaller, somewhat inconsequential scenes decompress the film into a methodically paced thriller but reveal their importance later on. Beineix’s direction combined with the beautiful camera work and seamless edits (especially the cuts to music) assemble each scene like perfectly placed pieces of a puzzle. The script’s two levels of intrigue from Nadia’s recording and Jules’ bootleg give the film a constant energy and motion without being overbearing, and keep the audience guessing as to who will get to Jules first and who he can truly trust. Analog was never cooler.

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