Mann among men

Always an unpredictable individualist, writer-director Michael Mann continues to bring his unique brand of macho melodrama to both the big and little screens.

By Michael Sragow
Published February 2, 1999 8:32PM (EST)

Michael Mann has a modus operandi as distinctive as any master criminal's. He's a hard-boiled sensualist: half muckraker and half fabulist. If he had been born 100 years ago, he'd have followed Jack London's path, not just into bare-knuckled journalism but also into transcendent evocations of the beautiful and the wild.

Talking to Mann is as surprising as it is stimulating. His unfettered intuition and exquisite awareness compel your rapt attention. It's as if you're tuning your radio dial to a brainy, original talk show host on a faint college-town station -- you strain not to miss his special code words and hard-won observations. You feel Mann gets extraordinary commitments from actors like James Caan in "Thief" (1981) or Tom Noonan and Brian Cox in "Manhunter" (1986) or Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) because he catches them up in his enthrallment with his material.

When I listen to tapes of the marathon interview sessions I held with him five years apart, one before the release of "Thief" and the other before the release of "Manhunter," they sound as if they're halves of an ongoing conversation, whether he's discussing his past or the projects then at hand. He grew up near "the Patch," one of the roughest areas of Chicago. ("It was very aggressive, it was very masculine and it was very heterosexual.") He still has a flat-A accent. "In my neighborhood," he once told me, "anyone who carried around a camera would be considered a 'fairy.'" By his count, only 13 of his high school graduating class of 365 went on to college, Mann included. It was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in English, that movies first got their hooks into him. The film that clinched the obsession was (appropriately enough) G.W. Pabst's coruscating study of urban vice, "The Joyless Street" (1925). By the time he graduated from college, Mann knew he wanted to make movies. But he didn't like the curricula of most American film schools: "It was like vocational training. You're not supposed to do 'student' films; you're supposed to do a show reel." So, in 1965, Mann entered the London Film School, where he got an M.A. in film and did what he thought he should do -- "make two-and-a-half minute, fully symbolic statements on the nature of reality that'll shame you 10 years later." Mann stayed on in London for about six years, filming documentaries and TV commercials and working as an assistant production supervisor for Twentieth Century Fox. Having been part of the Madison campus' radical days, he began to feel the contradictions of his position: "I would make money on commercials and try to put it to use on my own projects. Some material I filmed on the Paris student riots wound up on NBC's "First Tuesday" because NBC's own people couldn't get close to the radical leaders. You never resolve these contradictions."

Missing the "intensity" of life in the United States -- "the patterns and the rhythms, the color tones and the frequencies" -- Mann returned in the early '70s, eventually settling in Los Angeles. He learned how to write by toiling on "Starsky and Hutch": "For structure, nothing beats the melodrama of episodic TV." He graduated to what he calls "the Rolls-Royce of TV shows," "Police Story," and created the hit series "Vega$" before embarking on his 1979 movie-directing debut, "The Jericho Mile" -- a prison film unlike any other.

It was made for television, but on "The Jericho Mile," Mann crystallized all his trademark techniques. First he absorbed whatever "soft" information he could find about prison subcultures. He tapped into the essence of big house pride in the sports pages of the prison newspapers: "Everyone seemed to be doing great, probably because if you criticized anyone in an article your ass would be grass." Then he put that data at the service of his artifice. The story centered on a convict (Peter Strauss) who based his integrity on becoming a world-class runner. Mann was able to get around the claustrophobia built into jail-house movies by placing the bulk of the action (filmed at Folsom Prison) in the exercise yard. Each racial and ethnic group had its own turf -- blacks dominating the weight-lifting area, Hispanics the handball court. Add a music track that spun off from "Sympathy for the Devil" and "No Expectations" and you had a movie that externalized the prisoners' state of mind and conjured up what Mann called "social Technicolor."

Mann likes to talk about a movie's "genetic coding'': a swirling double helix of image and sound, character and story, fantasy and fact. His first theatrical feature, "Thief," floats on a neon-lit Styx into the heart of the underworld. The camera descends in a downpour to nighttime Chicago, where, operating with a precision that suggests telepathy, the thief (Caan) guides a drill that seems to liquefy as it chews into a vault containing diamonds. In this asphalt Hades the heist technology is out of "Star Wars" and the underworld bureaucracy is Byzantine. When a don persuades Caan to work full time on mob-sponsored heists, the thief hopes to make some big scores and ease off. Instead, the don, in his own icy phrase, ends up "owning the paper" on the thief's life. What better metaphor could there be for the constrictions of modern America than having an organization -- the government, a credit-card company or the mob -- "own the paper" on you?

Mann's perennial attempt to infuse elemental tales like "Thief" with allegory and atmosphere led him far astray in "The Keep" (1983), a vampire movie set in Nazi-occupied Romania. But again and again, he's broken through to the mass audience in the medium that masters of moviemaking usually abjure: the weekly TV series. In the mid-'80s, when asked to produce an MTV-style cop show, Mann exploited the breakthroughs he'd achieved in "The Jericho Mile" and "Thief" and came up with the phenomenon of "Miami Vice." With avant-garde vehicles and clothing, pastel backdrops to bloodletting and guest appearances by hard-news celebrities like G. Gordon Liddy as well as rock icons like Glenn Frye, Mann turned the urban schizophrenia of the '80s into an influential style. (To Mann, of course, this style was primarily "an expression of place and content, the milieu the guys are moving through.") The series used its soundtrack the way urbanites use Walkmans and car radios -- either to articulate surrounding chaos or to provide a defiant counterpoint.

Returning to the movies, Mann audaciously adapted Thomas Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel, "Red Dragon." In "Manhunter" he soldered an FBI search for a serial killer to an eerie exploration of the murderer's mind and awkward elements of family melodrama. When Mann follows the point of view of the killer as he moves from a van to a bedroom, where he shines a light in the face of a sleeping wife and mother, the director (who also served as a camera operator) puts fear and loathing in your belly. He twists the knot further when the FBI manhunter retraces the killer's steps and analyzes the bloodstains on the walls and floor. Mann conveys all the horror of a serial killer using murder as a means of aesthetic expression. And Brian Cox is a sardonic, chilling Lecter -- he talks with terrifying blandness and looks like a bleached Bela Lugosi.

Simultaneously, Mann set up another groundbreaking TV series, "Crime Story" (1986) -- a show about cars with fins and cops with teeth. Dennis Farina played the crusading detective in charge of the Major Crimes Unit of the Chicago P.D., a cop caught in changing times. In Mann's words, he's a guy with a "personalized" sense of justice: "He has his own cosmic sense of right and wrong. And that makes him a hell of a cop in 1963. It doesn't make him one hell of a cop in '69 or '70." In the pilot (the series' high point), the trail of a dangerous new criminal crew leads Farina to a cocky Irish kid (David Caruso) who happens to be the son of the hero's surrogate parents. It's a headlong story of neighborhood connections and betrayals done in an explosive mix of styles: The serious guys wear fedoras and the punks go out in ducktail haircuts; Del Shannon melds with Johnny Mathis on the sound track; age-old Sicilian traditions unravel in a suburban estate fitted out with space-age decor. The show's V-8 engine pickup powered a vision of a hyper-masculine culture -- the virile pop Zeitgeist of Mann's adolescence -- on its eve of destruction.

Nothing Mann has done has lacked intrigue, even when he returned to familiar territory in the ultra-contemporary "Heat" (1995). This cops vs. crooks epic pitted an untouchable target, master thief Robert De Niro, against an irresistible force, police lieutenant Al Pacino. It suggested new arenas of stressed-out-yuppie fantasy. De Niro is prudent and code-abiding, Pacino manic and instinctive. They play out a macho version of sense and sensibility in a vicious, morally booby-trapped universe. Ultimately, these doppel-heroes are too limited to propel a near-three-hour saga, and their domestic scenes are as stilted as the ones in "Manhunter." Still, the movie does capture a fresh urban fatalism. In "Heat," exhilaration is out. The freedom that high-stakes crime can buy has little to do with esprit; it's about practicing an illicit craft and living according to your own rules, which can be even more restrictive than society's. For the characters, excitement comes from seeing a calculation work or an educated guess pay off. For the spectators, it comes from catastrophe.

In 1992, Mann's voluptuous wide-screen retelling of that fictional war-horse of the French and Indian War, "The Last of the Mohicans," proved the breadth of his vitality and talent. Once again, Mann immersed himself in data, drawing not just on James Fenimore Cooper's original 1826 novel and on Philip Dunne's script for the 1936 Randolph Scott version, but also on the diaries of the comte de Bougainville and histories and essays by Francis Parkman and Simon Schama. Most important, he enlisted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Nathaniel Poe (aka Hawkeye), the Indian-raised white scout who tries to save the English maiden he loves from the Huron massacre of the British retreating from Fort William Henry. Day-Lewis' "white Indian" hero, with his frontier-Samson locks and prehensile alertness, rebels against bogus English authority and bridges gaps among all those who live honestly (and sensually) in the woods. Using virtuoso guerrilla and survival skills for his own ethical purposes, he's the noblest expression yet of the Michael Mann hero. "The Last of the Mohicans" reinvents the legend of the honest, all-capable frontiersman in a way that honors whites and Indians alike. It's no more "accurate" yet no less moving than, say, "Young Mr. Lincoln," and it leaves you guessing at what wonderment the filmmaker will create for us next.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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