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Michael Mann – A career in brief

Michael Mann is a filmmaker of great consistency, whose career is nevertheless characterised by contradictions. He’s one of Hollywood’s most cinematic craftsman, but his body of work is and always has been yoked to television. He makes muscular, efficient action movies that are marked by an unconventional taste for European flair and a tang of despair. And while he’s scaled rare heights with the likes of Manhunter and Heat, these two modern masterpieces sit alongside cult horror clunker The Keep in his back catalogue.

Alright, that last point is a low blow, but a useful one. It’s an extraordinary testament to the quality of Mann’s medium-hopping track record that a single entry should stick out so thoroughly and dejectedly (the haunted castle Nazi chiller is the only one of Mann’s films unavailable on DVD). And it’s because, for the rest of the time, Mann makes beautiful films about tough, uncompromising guys, from James Caan’s ‘one big score’ heist man in 1981’s Thief to Robert De Niro’s glacial pro Macauley in the era-capping Heat and, most recently, John Dillinger himself in Public Enemies.

Mann’s background offers a pat explanation for his mix of machismo and aesthetics. The director grew up close to his World War II-vet father in Dillinger’s adopted home of Chicago, then studied in Europe, gaining a graduate degree from the London Film School in the Sixties. But this is pop psychology. What he did next was more telling, snatching his first taste of filmmaking in the London advertising industry alongside future Hollywood counterparts Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott.

By the time Mann and his peers began making waves in the late Seventies, Hollywood was busy readjusting itself to a world of home entertainment and cross-media merchandising, and hungrily absorbing the cold, efficient aesthetics of advertising that the young directors knew so well. Prepped by a few years working in television – writing the first episodes of Starsky & Hutch and creating Vega$ – Mann springboarded into films using the mongrel Movie Of The Week format, delivering The Jericho Mile to ABC in 1979.

A graduation to feature films followed with Thief in 1981, followed by the early misstep of The Keep and then, overlapping so thoroughly so as to blur the boundaries between cinema and television entirely, the electric eclecticism of Miami Vice, the meditative thrills of Manhunter, and the lesser-known but wonderfully detailed dramatics of Crime Story. They look worlds apart – MTV cops, pre-Silence Of The Lambs Hannibal Lector and period mafia intensity – but common themes and threads run through them all: strong men operating on the fringes of the law to battle those on the other side and the tantalising similarities between the two.

These ideas were also at the heart of L.A. Takedown, a 1989 television film that would have been unremarkable had Mann not remade it for the big screen six years later. The result was Heat, and a masterclass of cinematic presentation – those same ideas but now big and wide enough to contain the onscreen collision of Pacino and De Niro, and refined into a something approaching a manifesto painted in melancholy blue.

It’s Mann’s finest work, and though he’s delivered several accomplished movies since – The Insider, Ali – it’s the one still echoing in his latest films. Miami Vice repeated the remake trick in reverse, and less successfully, with percussive automatic fire and open-shirted gruffness a simplification rather than a refinement of Mann’s style, and Public Enemies told the same story but with more hats and vintage Fords.

Key Films

Thief (1981)

A blazing debut, with James Caan sympathetically lean as reluctant heist man Frank, the first of Mann’s ultra-pro heroes. The film is grizzled and authentic, with several ex-cops and cons filling out the cast.

Manhunter (1986)

A complex and stylish treatment of first Dr Lecter novel Red Dragon, with William Petersen’s fragile profiler preserving the purity of his family by dipping his mind into serial killer madness.

Last Of The Mohicans (1992)

An unusual step away from the city for Mann, who proves that 18th Century native Americans do stripped macho efficiency just as hard as De Niro in a sharp suit. Add a dash of romance, some lush scenery, and you have a period winner.

Heat (1995)

Patient, painterly modern noir masterpiece, dropping thunderclap action sequences into a tightly plotted, despairing character piece. Achieves the near impossible and does Robert meets Al justice.

Miami Vice (2006)

Mann’s made better films, but this is a legacy piece, a eulogy to the influential art deco eighties mainstay. The remake is overly bare and brutal, but recaptures in meaner, modern form that Jan Hammer rush.

Public Enemies (2009)

A dabble with digital film has shorn Mann of his lush cinematics – how this period piece might have looked – but what’s emerging is new and mobile, and retains the director’s urgent sense of men doing what men do.

This text first appeared in Total Film #178

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