Obsessions – A Michael Mann Retrospective Essay

Spoilers are ahead. I advise that you only read the parts related to the Mann films you have seen!

As people, we all become obsessed with different things. Whether it be hobbies, passions or pastimes, we can all lose ourselves to what we find the most interesting. Michael Mann’s cinema seems to be the epitome of obsessions portrayed in cinema. Many of his films seem to have some of the same beats, and even if it isn’t broken you don’t need to fix it, I can’t help but notice these repeated beats – these obsessions.

Mann’s cinematic exploration begins with The Jericho Mile, which is an interesting albeit rather stylistically flat film about a man in prison, who runs around the prison track constantly. An upsetting film as a man so desperate to run, to be free, is bolted down and trapped. As I said, when it comes to style, the film is quite bare, which means that the story is the real focus, and thankfully the story is quite interesting and unique. The racial commentary is also interesting, though it isn’t explored too deeply, and it’s also an upsetting look at how one moment can define an entire lifetime. The ending scene has quite a kick to it. Though it is one of the few Mann films I don’t consider phenomenal, the film is still very much enjoyable and entertaining, as well as setting up so many of the themes that Mann would look at in more detail as his career continued.

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THIEF (1981)
Mann’s Thief, released in 1981, 2 years after The Jericho Mile is generally known as Mann’s first film (as this was his first theatrical release, I assume). It is possibly the film where Mann’s style is clearest, his obsessions are evident in so many frames, and this ideology that is so noticeable in Thief is also noticeable through Mann’s entire filmography. There is the ideal of The American Dream, so intelligently mixed with the disturbing nature of his characters and yet – the audience feels such a sympathy for Frank in Thief, as we know he only wants what he had come to know as the ideal life (The American Dream). It’s a scary phenomenon to be afraid of a character, and to view them as a despicable criminal, but to also greatly contrast this with a Robin Hood-esque man who seems to want to escape this life of crime to live out his dream (an ideal explored further in Ferrara’s 1990 King Of New York). Frank is a no-holds-barred man, willing to sacrifice it all in order to have the woman, the money and the house, to live off of his own back and have no one to do anything for. Of course, these ideas are also apparent in Mann’s Heat, released 14 years later. The American Dream is the main focus of this film, and ultimately it is the takedown of that dream that makes it so enthralling. At the beginning, we see Frank as a con-man, a thief, and by the end we see him as a desperate dreamer… a man who once had his hands on the edge of the cliff, so close to securing the dream, but slipping… and thus, reinvention occurs. Frank becomes a new man. 

Thief is an incredibly slick urban crime thriller, and one that highlights much of what is to come in Mann’s oeuvre. 

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THE KEEP (1983)
The Keep is the one Mann film that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the rest. The film plays out as if it is supposed to be interpreted as a film about war trauma, and even has some phenomenal dialogue that fits in more with his later work, I mean, any film that has the dialogue:

“What drives people out in the middle of a stormy night?”

“Dreams… nightmares.”

is an interesting one. It’s a fascinatingly odd film, one that I couldn’t take my eyes off of despite the fact that I had no idea what was going on. The film is utterly incomprehensible, but presents some interesting ideas that are easy to appreciate. I don’t have much to say on this one, seeing as it sticks out so much, but it is interesting nonetheless.

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Manhunter was the second huge success of Mann’s career, after Thief. The film, which slips slightly under the radar now as most prefer its sequel, Silence Of The Lambs, is about the sacrifices made to protect others, a theme that comes out quite a lot throughout Mann’s work. A cop returns after being persuaded by a friend, and he must find a killer by speaking to another one. “Someone took a child and manufactured a monster.”, one character says, and I must admit that line had quite an impact on me. The film is dark, upsetting and tense, with a phenomenal sound design and a killer script. The final showdown in the film is one of the more memorable I’ve ever seen, with many of the shots sticking in my head for a long time after seeing the film. Sadly, Manhunter has become a bit of a cult classic now, as most view Lambs to be superior and so, Manhunter has lost some of its iconic status.

“Everything with you is seeing, isn’t it?” says one character, an ironic phrase to be heard in a film. Later on, there is a stunning scene where a woman strokes a tiger, and she trusts her hand to slowly glide across the coat of the beast, wholly trusting it and those around her. 

If only she could do the same with everyone.

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L.A Takedown is an unintentionally fascinating look at how budget can effect a film. Seeing as low budget seems to garner more credit for itself nowadays than anything else, I find it absolutely fascinating that this film, the original that makes Heat technically a remake, is so different and yet so similar to Heat. Though most of the story beats are exactly the same, the difference in style and technical work from LA Takedown to Heat is a fascinating study in how much a bigger budget can do for a film. 

There is also a great difference between the character of Vincent between LA Takedown and Heat, which is just as interesting as the contrast between the films themselves. Both films show that Vincent Hanna is fast on his feet, quick thinking and determined, unable to focus on anything but his work, however what I find interesting is that he seems to borderline on genuine anger management issues at times in LA Takedown, and goes much too far at some points which adds more friction to his already struggling marriage.

Whilst LA Takedown loses much of the more philosophical and contrast based greatness that shines in Heat, it’s still an interesting watch wherein you see the style of Mann develop, slowly starting to tear away from the more urban films to his bigger films that were yet to come, with a grander scale. If anything highlights an absolute obsession with an idea, or a group of ideas, it is the repetition of them, and Mann repeated them 6 years later with Heat. 
“It consumes you. I was in for sharing, this isn’t sharing… this is leftovers.”

(Sorry that the picture is of such a low quality, it’s the best I could find!)

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Last Of The Mohicans is one of the Mann films that stands out as a little odd. Mann… making a period drama? However, once you get past the confusion, The Last Of The Mohicans is really quite a good film. Despite my personal troubles with the period piece genre, I must admit that I found myself quite captivated by the film due to its character development and smaller scope. Rather than a ten minute exposition dump at the beginning of the film, Mann slowly drips information into the film, creating a brilliant enigmatic narrative hook for viewers who don’t know the history of what happened and creating an impressively honest portrait of America in the 1700’s for those who do know the historical background to the story of the film. 

Daniel Day Lewis is just another iconic Mann front-runner turned memorable Mann character in the film, and though I don’t recognise much of the cast at all, they all give good performances and keep the film feeling realistic. The cinematography is gorgeous, too, and in keeping with Mann’s typical trademarks, the film goes on to say quite a bit through rather subtle suggestions. Mann creates a sweeping epic through his smaller scope via contrasting the small, dialogue driven scenes with larger set pieces of destruction and chaos that really make the war quite petrifying rather than entertaining (a Mann trademark is making action frightening rather than entertaining), and it also turns into quite a saddening portrait of a country that has become a victim to war to such a point that I couldn’t help but think of how the country could have thrived if these opposing countries were to simple make an agreement, and the repetition of the opening shot as the ending shot, as if all this war and pain were for nothing ultimately, is a harrowing revelation. It’s a fascinating film and though I found it to be one of Mann’s weaker efforts, it was still a captivating and great technical work that managed to have me invested in a genre that typically I struggle very much to care for.

“You stay alive, no matter what occurs!”

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HEAT (1995)
Now for the big one. Released in 1995, three years after The Last Of The Mohicans, Mann’s Heat is generally considered his crowning achievement, and anyone who sees it will understand why that is. Anyone can enjoy this film, thoroughly, as there is simply so much to take from it. There is the philosophy of the characters, Vincent Hanna who is determined to do what he deems right, McCauley who has his very strict ideology on not growing attached to anything “you wouldn’t walk away from in 30 seconds when you feel the heat coming around the corner.”, and even the side characters provide interesting pieces to the puzzle from time to time, one that particularly sticks with me being when one of the men working with McCauley says that “the action is the juice.”, regarding the heists. Of course, if you don’t want to look into it as far as philosophy, you don’t need to, and you can sit back and enjoy the insanely engulfing spectacle of the film which thrills with the incredible set design and cinematography. There is one scene in particular that really strikes me other than the epic action scenes and the iconic diner scene with the two men meeting, and that is when we see Hanna chasing after McCauley, and the song New Dawn Fades (in this case, covered by Moby) plays in the background. The camera whizzes around, with as much energy as the audience at this point, the epic guitar riffs slide into the story and the thrill of what may come next is one of the greatest adrenaline rushes one can have in cinema. Finally, Hanna catches up and offers McCauley a coffee, and the iconic diner scene comes together.

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Of course, this scene is iconic for a reason. That reason being that it is a masterful pairing of two of the greatest actors ever, some of the greatest dialogue ever and a contrast so strong that one simply will be taken in by it. The two men, sat opposite one another, and they explain their principles and differences. McCauley describes that “I am never going back.”, and that he does “what I do best”. “So, you never wanted a regular type life?”, asks Hanna. McCauley laughs, jokingly saying “What the fuck is that? Barbecues and ball games?”. Hanna begins to open up, he mentions his struggles with his family, which have been created due to chasing “guys like you”, to which McCauley replies with the main philosophy of the film, “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.”. The men, now equal, despite their differences. Mann’s philosophy, all suddenly tied together, his obsession with contrast, with good and bad guys, with his characters, with the falsehood of The American Dream… they suddenly all come together, and this occurs throughout the entirety of Heat, which certainly makes it a masterpiece, and, in my opinion, the single greatest crime film ever crafted. 

The film is also Mann’s most technically profound. The score is filled with gorgeous music, as is the soundtrack, particularly from Brian Eno and Moby. I particularly love the use of a Moby cover of Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades and also the ending score track called God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters, which stands out to me as one of the single most beautiful scores ever made. The cinematography is insane and the style pops, it’s a melancholic yet incredibly tense and exciting film and one that simply remains unmatched by any American film in history.

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The Insider is another Mann film that takes a slight departure from his typical style. The film is a tense political thriller, one bursting with emotion throughout, and very much an anti-capitalist look at journalism and protecting your family. Notice that once again, Jeffrey Wigand begins the film holding onto The American Dream, and throughout the film it is slowly ripped away from him, however, this time it is ripped away by the truth, it is taken for a good cause… but that leaves the man himself no less beaten down. “You are important to a lot of people”, Lowell Bergman assures a distraught, possibly even suicidal Wigand… a man who started with it all, but ended with nothing, and ironically a pairing with Lowell Bergman that sees Bergman end just fine, if not redefined, reborn. It’s an upsetting look at how capitalism squashes the good out of people, for example the pressure getting to the CBS workers in the third act leads to them caving in, and they themselves know just how wrong this is, commenting on it once they realise their mistakes. The film contains some of the most stellar cinematography in a Mann film, with some phenomenal editing and music to mix with it. It’s a mesmerising, gripping film, and one of Mann’s most emotional films on the surface, though I don’t think it is quite as deep as his others.

“I’m running out of heroes”, says a desperate, worn down Bergman… and it would appear that Mann agreed, and so, next he made…

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ALI (2001)
Ali is clearly a film made by a man who loves Ali himself. It’s a heartfelt film and one that is made with a lot of love behind it. It also gives a fascinating insight into Ali’s life that goes a whole lot further than any typical biopic, focusing on the political climate Ali was involved in rather than just telling a watered-down life story of the famous boxer. As the tagline says, “Forget what you think you know.”, and that rings true. Ali’s emotional mixture of frustration, lust and violence mixes so well with the current climate that he was living in, when people were very unsure as to what was going on, and had even less of an idea as to how to solve these problems and move on with their lives. Ali is a fascinating study of a man and of a time, however it is the use of the camera that really captivated me technically. The camera always seems to be moving. Like a shark in water, we feel that we will die if we don’t stop moving, and so we never really do. This brings up an idea of the camera suggesting life, and whenever Ali steps into the ring, the lights seem to go on forever (a gorgeous leading lines trick that I wish were used more as it looks phenomenal), and the camera suddenly starts to fly around, brimming with life, until the ring becomes a hive of activity, and therefore, a producer of life, existence, vitality…

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Following up Ali was more of a return to form for Mann, Collateral. Released in 2004, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, Collateral is about how one night can change a person, and it is ultimately a look at what makes men tick and what the meaning in/of modern life is. 
We begin with Max, played by Jamie Foxx, being introduced to us and also introduced to a woman. Max explains the fact that he wants to own a limousine company, however when asked by Cruise’s Vincent, Max reveals that he has been driving and preparing to open this company for 12 years. Vincent’s introduction is odd, and strangely what Mann does here is use a hitman as a catalyst to change Max. The two characters, once again opposites (a trademark of Mann’s work, one of his obsessions), contrast each-other so greatly that eventually they collide, around the mid-point when Max steals Vincent’s bag, and throws his list into the street. Suddenly, Max becomes everything he needed to be. He becomes the definition of The American Dream, a strong, confident, independent man, who can do as he pleases. As Lessons From The Screenplay day in their analysis of Collateral, “To overcome his character’s weaknesses, Max has needed to be more like Vincent – the embodiment of everything he’s not. Now, his inner-self and his facade collide as he is asked to become Vincent.”. This sudden switch for Max becomes the pivotal point of the story, as we see Max deal with the dangerous drug-lords and hitmen more confidently than he would usually deal with a civilian. 

Collateral also sees Mann look into philosophy from a new angle, nihilism. A scene towards the end of the film sees Vincent berate Max and tease him, saying that Max will never achieve his goals because he has waited too long and that, ultimately, there is no point in chasing that dream anyway… Max has no purpose. For a brief moment, Max agrees, and in one last attempt to kill Vincent, and possibly even himself, he swerved his car over. We see that Max’s goal is gone… he has no purpose, however when he stands up, it is revealed that the woman from the beginning of the film is the final person on Vincent’s list, and therefore Max has a new purpose – to protect, and he does. In the end, he finds his new purpose, he saves Annie, and Vincent is killed. A total switch from the beginning, when Max was doing so little in life that he may as well have been dead, and Vincent was thriving due to this. 

“A man dies on an L.A subway… think anyone’ll notice?”

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Now things get a little harder to pin down. I can safely say that Mann’s 2006 film, Miami Vice, changed the way that I see cinema. Never before had I been so involved in characters, but furthermore, never before had I seen a film where we only see the real character for very brief moments throughout, most of the time they hide behind a facade. Sound familiar? That’s because it is… yet another re-occurring theme from Mann’s cinema. 

Now, for a tangent on Mann’s portrayal of character that works for a few of his films.

One thing I noticed that has fascinated me since was his choice to almost always cast recognisable, well known stars. De Niro, Pacino, Hemsworth, Foxx, Cruise, Farrell and many more have been at the centre of Mann’s films, and I find it interesting, particularly in Miami Vice, how the film is all about performance. This is another theme that pops up through Mann’s cinema, the idea of presenting yourself as someone you aren’t, and it really solidified in Miami Vice, Public Enemies and Blackhat. 

In this film in particular, the loss of identity is profoundly moving, heartbreaking. These cops hide behind cover to the point that, they cannot become themselves again. The ultimate sacrifice to protect and serve. Rather than being themselves, these men hide behind fake identities, behind falsehood, and rather than being themselves they are über exaggerated versions of themselves: glossy, stylised action heroes only there to protect others and sacrifice themselves. 

It’s a terrifying thought to think that you can lose yourself to the image you present, to what you dream of being, and how becoming what you want to be can mean losing yourself. The film itself is masquerading just as much as the two men are, it hides itself behind the buddy cop film, behind the mindless action film, when really it is all about performance.

In an America fuelled by lies, it seems ironic that Miami Vice would be released. “Who are you?! Who are you?!” screams one character at the men, as they become aware of the mask that has taken over the lives of these men, and that has left them out of touch with reality. The mask that has placed them into a God complex, wherein they’re the heroes and everything else is a side character or a villain. A world without love, without significance, without hope. No law, no rules and no order.

“This was too good to last.”

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Public Enemies continues with Mann’s strange presentations of memorable characters, and, if you ask me, John Dillinger may just be his finest character to date. Usually, Mann has a few huge stars to help carry his film, and to gain some instant like-ability for his characters, and oddly, in Public Enemies he casts Depp, a big star certainly, however one who hadn’t been in such a territory very often. Instead of portraying infamous gangster John Dillinger as a force, this is only how the police see him in this film. Any audience member innocently stumbling across the film and putting it on expecting your typical badass, morally questionable gangster will be shocked to find that in this film, it is only those who don’t know Dillinger who see him that way. As Mann’s camera seems to be familiar with Dillinger, we see such an odd intimacy that I have never seen before in a gangster film. It’s startling, scary and upsetting to see him in such a vulnerable way. Rather than a quick talking, impatient killer, Dillinger is a truly vulnerable character, almost animalistic with his simple desires that once again fulfil the American Dream criteria… however, Mann takes it a step further here. Instead of America helping Dillinger to achieve his dream, much like Thief, Dillinger is instead stripped of his dream by America, and plans to move away to another country to fulfil his desires. 

Mann’s Camera also acts as danger in the film. Dillinger never quite faces the camera until the end of the film, his heartbreaking death scene which remains haunting even to briefly think about. Sadly, Dillinger cannot escape his past, as no one can, and eventually, he is forced to suffer the consequences of his earlier actions.

“Bye bye, blackbird.”

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Blackhat concludes what I have named Mann’s Vulnerability Trilogy, and it sees quite a leap from the style and setting of Mann’s precious film, Public Enemies. Instead of being set 80 years ago, Mann jumps to present day, possibly even the not-so-Distant future and rather than giving us a Man Vs System tale of old (Dillinger vs the police force), Mann gives us an updated story of man vs a whole new system, the modern day system. When we meet Nick Hathaway, he is imprisoned, held against his will by the system, and when they free him, all hell breaks loose. It is absolutely worth noting that Hathaway manages to avoid trouble until the moment that he shows himself as an individual, which is Mann hinting at these technological advancements leading to this borderline apocalyptic loss of individuality, and it is surely no coincidence that the finale of the film takes place in a crowded area, in which the deaths of the characters goes almost unnoticed. Blackhat is a masterfully told story of what happens when a man is beaten down by the world and he is finally given the chance to fight back, an idea also expressed excellently in You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017) and a topic so well done in many films. Mann makes the shootouts terrifying rather than entertaining, the characters lively and vulnerable rather than random meshes of flesh with guns… and this is what makes his cinema so refreshing. That mixture of intellectualism and thrills is something seen so incredibly rarely, or, at least, seen rarely at this level of both.

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Jean Renoir once said, “a director spends his life making one film”, and I think that in the case of Michael Mann, this rings true. Though his films vary quite strongly in style and tone, they all seem to draw from the same points, and whilst I feel that Heat is the ultimate hit of this mixture of style and story, the one in which it worked most effectively, to say that Mann isn’t consistent would be to lie. I think that he is the greatest American director currently working, and can’t wait for his next film, Ferrari, which is currently set to release next year (2019). Mann’s films all carry strong casts, which seem to almost work with the strange facade he has in his films that they are these larger than life stories of spectacle, which they are on the surface, but as you dig deeper into his work, you see nothing but anguish, pain and vulnerability from these men.

Mann is also responsible for a great deal within American cinema. He is a key inspiration to many directors, such as The Safdie Brothers, who seemed to throw their own, more urban take of Heat onto the screen in 2017 with Good Time. Mann also inspired many American films that riffed on his strange characters, such as Miami Blues (Armitage, 1990) for example, which sees a crazed criminal slowly withered down into a sympathetic oddball, and even in terms of The Insider, Mann inspired many political films and you can certainly spot the early stylistic choices that are now common within political cinema. Try watching The Insider and Zero Dark Thirty back to back and saying that they don’t share any similarities with a straight face, I dare you.

What Mann has been able to do for cinema throughout his career is an extraordinary achievement, and one that I’m sure will continue. I also find that Mann has got to be the go-to for proving people wrong when they say that big budget is bad… a figurehead sadly needed.

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