Michael Mann, the 72-year-old American director whose name is synonymous with stylish crime movies, is getting a retrospective of nine of his 11 feature films this week at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Missing are his not-well-regarded 1983 horror film The Keep, and his just-released cyberthriller Blackhat, which has earned mixed reviews.
From the balconies to the nightscapes to the swooping cameras to the lonely heroes, his distinctive mix of chaos and precision has been filling screens, on TV and in the movies, for about 40 years now. What makes a Mann's world?
M is for Manhunter, which is both the title of Mann's 1986 serial-killer movie and the subject of many of his films (Manhunter, Heat, Public Enemies). In each case, one man, a cop, chases another, a criminal, who is in some sense his mirror image. M is also for masculinity, the theme of the TIFF programmer's essay on Mann's film that goes with the retrospective. So far, he's given us not one female protagonist, though in the 1970s he did work on the TV series Police Woman (along with Starsky and Hutch and Police Story).
I is for images. Images aren't just important to Mann, they're also important to his characters as fetish-like objects. While in prison, Frank (James Caan), the thief in Thief, has a collage of images and photographs that guide his actions. Max (Jamie Foxx) in Collateral keeps a postcard of a island in the Maldives in the sun visor of his cab (Mann men find solace in water). The FBI agent Graham (William Petersen) in Manhunter connects to the mindset of the serial killer known as "the Tooth Fairy" through home movies. ("It was maddening to have to touch her with rubber gloves on, wasn't it?")
C is for crime. Criminals of various persuasions are at the centre of Mann's work: The thief (Thief, Heat and Public Enemies), the serial killer (Manhunter), the corporate criminal (The Insider), the drug dealer (Miami Vice), the hitman (Collateral), the hacker (Blackhat). In Ali, and The Last of the Mohicans, transgression is also the theme. The idea is the alienated man and the social system he finds himself in: Breaking the rules becomes the form of expression for these otherwise inarticulate characters. In a famous 1948 essay called The Gangster as Tragic Hero, American film critic Robert Warshow wrote that America's movie gangsters take on all the grief that cheerier movies deny. Or, as Tom Robbins said in 1980's Still Life with Woodpecker, "Outlaws are can-openers in the supermarket of life."
H is for home invasions. In Thief, Mann's first feature, Frank pointedly doesn't do home invasions, even though the film is based on a novel about a cat burglar. At the movie's end, Frank blows up both his own and his adversary's homes. Manhunter begins and ends with home invasions, and the final sequence is an inversion of the film's opening home invasion, only this time Graham breaks into serial killer's house and stops him from killing again. In the professional realm, male-on-male violence is cool, but hurting someone's family is crossing the line. Said Mann of a gangster character in Heat: "He has a nuclear family. He cares about his kids the way you care about your kids. The difference is, he doesn't care about your kids."
A is for amygdala. In last week's New Yorker, Mann explained to reporter Tad Friend that his job is to manipulate the nervous system at a pre-conscious level: "We're programmed to hide, to hunt, to lust – so much of us is limbic-system response, and the amygdala will register dislike of something far more quickly than the cerebral cortex can think about it."
E is for existential, the overused word that brings to mind "to be is to do" graffiti and post-war cafes, and that trails Mann like Gauloises smoke. His movies are about characters who define themselves in terms of responsibility and freedom. And who, actually, spend a lot of time at diners explaining their philosophies of life. "All of Mann's films dramatize Existential philosophy, exploring the protagonist's world view and the issues raised by these views," writes Victor M. Gaine in his 2011 study Existentialism and Social Engagement in the Films of Michael Mann.
L is for London. Mann went to graduate school for film studies at London Film School and stayed for seven years, working in commercials alongside such slick English directors as Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne. At least some of that high-gloss style came from his swingin' London education.
M is for Miami Vice – the TV series, not the movie. If Mann had never made a film, he'd still be famous as the producer of this five-year TV series, originally conceived of as MTV Cops. The addictive drama about vice cops Crockett and Tubbs (Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) who looked like fashion models and drove Ferraris while busting criminals is a byword for 1980s' excess.
A is for Ali. Mann's only real "biopic" is a study of one man with a professional code fighting the system (not to mention a lot of big, violent, sweaty opponents) on his own professional terms, with a rich, subjective use of sound and image. In other words, a Michael Mann film.
N is for neo-noir. In this case, the term refers to films of the 1980s that resembled the black-and-white psychological thrillers of the 1940s, such as Mann's Thief, Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat, Bob Rafelson's Black Widow and Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Mann defined it the best. His use of wet streets, reflecting lights off skyscrapers, the urban maze, and what he called the "lid" of the night sky in Thief created a new kind of landscape, part menace, part poetic rapture.
N is for night. The most intense scenes in Thief and Manhunter, the climactic shoot-out in Heat, all of Collateral, and much of Miami Vice were shot at night. Later, in the digitally shot Collateral and Miami Vice, Mann reinvented the urban night in movies that looked like dark, smothering velvet, sensual and lethal.