Thief (1981) Soundtrack Retrospective

“My normal instinctive choice for music would have been Chicago Blues. That’s really the music that as a teenager, I first fell I love with. So my first instinct was Chicago Blues, however I felt that what the film was saying, thematically, and the facility with which the film might be able to have resonance with audience,” he said. “I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank’s experience specific only to Frank…So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream.” —Michael Mann


From its opening scene, Michael Mann’s feature debut announces its concern with a new type of thief. No more the delicate application of stethoscope – an instrument whose early 19th-century invention signaled a burgeoning alliance between the medical profession and the new science of acoustics. Frank (played by James Caan) breaks safes and enters buildings with power tools and complex electronic equipment. If Frank’s criminal activity is newly hi-tech, so too its accompanying music, composed and performed by German synth rock pioneers Tangerine Dream.

Formed in 1967 by Prussian pianist and Dali enthusiast Edgar Froese, by the end of the 70s Tangerine Dream were one of the highest grossing instrumental rock bands in Europe, their oft-bootlegged live shows famed for their pyrotechnics and elaborate laser shows. The early 80s saw the group supplement their barrage of analogue electronics with increasingly sophisticated digital equipment while pursuing a range of major American film projects, beginning with Thief in 1981.

Froese, Franke, Schmoelling 1

Tangerine Dream
While Tangerine Dream in 1981 were a newly digitized proposition, so too was one of their chief rivals in the sphere of instrumental synth prog, Vangelis, himself on the verge of an equally productive cinematic career with Blade Runner the following year. But from the very beginning, Thief‘s score sets itself apart from the wispy floatiness of the Greek synth maven. With the first sight of Frank’s equipment the synth pads burst into a hyperactivity of competing arpeggiators, syncopated power chords, and reverb-heavy drum machines. The glistening digital sheen of the music already anticipates the gleam of the diamonds being stolen. Tangerine Dream’s music is at once more ‘pop’ and more ‘techno’ than anything you will find on the Blade Runner score.

As in most American crime films, criminal activity is here a synecdoche for capitalism itself. Thief is essentially a film about a struggle between two different forms of capitalism, represented by two different father figures. On the one hand, the old ‘master-thief’, Okla (a stethoscope man, one suspects); and on the other, Leo, a man associated with malls, rentierism, stocks and shares. Both are referred to – either by themselves or by Frank – as his father. Both of these competing capitalism’s are, in a sense, musically coded. The new hi-tech capitalism by Tangerine Dream’s digital synths and sequencers, and Okla’s old-school artisanal cat burglary by the very fact that he is played by country music legend Willie Nelson.

Only in the very last scene of the film do we really hear much in the way of ‘real’ instruments – that is, music that would not be regarded as totally alien by someone used to listening to Willie Nelson – on the non-digital score of Thief (there is a brief scene of digitally performed blues rock earlier on) and it sticks out like a sore thumb. As it turns out, Mann only realized late in the post-production process that he would need soundtrack music for this scene and by that time Tangerine Dream were too busy touring to provide it. Instead, the lot fell to Craig Safan.

images_Bsospirit_entrevistas_Craig Safan_Safan_158

Craig Safan
The track opens with acoustic guitar, soon accompanied by a sweeping hard rock electric guitar solo. The scene it complements depicts Frank’s final triumph against the forces of the new capitalism – a triumph which, in the context of early 80s America can only be regarded as pure fantasy. It is appropriate, then, that the music lends the scene precisely the atmosphere of that bit in every Guns ‘n’ Roses video where the story line pauses in order that Slash might stand, a propos of nothing, on the edge of a cliff to perform an equally ecstatic electric guitar solo.

This rewarding marriage of sound and film would become Mann’s most striking trademark and what would ultimately sell 1985’s Miami Vice to audiences across the world. Of course, not everyone was a fan. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote in his original review, “The music by Tangerine Dream sounds as if it wanted to have a life of its own, as if it were meant to be an album instead of a soundtrack score.” Caan expressed his own disdain for the group, telling Mann: “Oh, you and Tangerine Dream. Oh, boy. Headache.” To Canby’s point, he’s not exactly wrong. He’s right that the score could exist without the film — and I’ve certainly listened to it on my own accord, separate from any viewings — but there’s little arguing that the score has a parasitic relationship to the film. Without it, the world of Thief simply cannot exist.

“In Thief there’s a fire extinguisher going off in F minor. We actually found a way, in Tangerine Dream’s studio, of processing actual sound effects and rendering them into a key. This was long before digital computers. The layering can be extraordinarily intricate. During the safe-cracking sequence in Thief, the chaotic sound of the burning bar suddenly stops, and in the silence—corresponding to the bright points of light on the diamonds when the first tray is pulled out—you start hearing a high-pitched note in the key of E, and every once in awhile there’s a blast in F minor of the fire extinguisher putting out the embers. This moment happens to work for me, now, in a way that I can still look at and not cringe. It’s withstood the test of time. Other things in the film are nonsensical: ocean waves crashing in G minor—sounding big, but yielding nothing at all.” —Michael Mann, The Study of Mann

“Beach Theme” and “Beach Scene” are two different mixes of the same piece. The album version of “Dr. Destructo” is quite different from the film version. An extended version of “Dr. Destructo” was available only on a promo single. “Igneous” is a remix of “Thru Metamorphic Rocks” from the 1979 album Force Majeure. Neither “Beach Theme” nor “Trap Feeling” appear in the film.

1983 Virgin

There are currently two versions of the soundtrack available with different track listings and album covers. Version A has “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” above the title followed by “James Caan” just below. “Composed and Performed by Tangerine Dream” appears at the bottom. Version B just has “Tangerine Dream” above the title

2004, Wounded Bird Records

In 2004, Wounded Bird Records re-released version B with “Confrontation”; there were however two mispressings, one with the version A track list, and one with “Igneous” removed instead of “Beach Scene” All had the listing for version B on the CD and cover.

2014, Perseverance Records

In 2014, Perseverance Records released a re-mastered, 9 track version that included both Beach Scene and Confrontation, thus correcting the errors on previous releases where both tracks were never on the same disc.

Track listings

No.     Title                Length

  1. “Beach Theme” 3:44
  2. “Dr. Destructo” 3:18
  3. “Diamond Diary” 10:48
  4. “Burning Bar” 3:11
  5. “Beach Scene” (Version B only) 6:48
  6. “Scrap Yard” 4:40
  7. “Trap Feeling” 2:57
  8. “Igneous” 4:45
  9. “Confrontation” (Version A only) 5:37

Edgar Froese– keyboards, electronic equipment, guitar
Christopher Franke– synthesizers, electronic equipment, electronic percussion
Johannes Schmoelling– keyboards, electronic equipment
Klaus Krieger percussion on Igneous
Craig Safan– composed and performed “Confrontation”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s