Last time around I talked about Michael Mann (here) I focused on the Chicago native’s ability to entertain audiences with the sheer brilliance of his visual style. What I didn’t do, and what I plan on doing now, upon concluding a marathon of his entire filmography (starting from his 1981 directorial debut, Thief, and ending with his recent misfire about the hacking underworld, Blackhat), is to have a look at what really lies at the core of the director’s body of work. We all know and love him for his memorable camerawork, his hyper realistic shootouts resulting in some of the best sound design to ever grace the silver screen, his ability to capture the beauty of big cities at night, be it Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago, and his overall rediscovery of the crime genre. Yet, oddly enough, when asked about this idea of his films belonging to the crime genre, Mann answered coldly ”I don’t make genre films, I make dramas,” which is a valid response considering his films, if studied closely, are all about relationships and love. That’s it.
Relationships are hard to define, and most of the time cinema, especially Hollywood productions, have a hard time creating convincing, realistic portrayals of two people interacting with each other in an intimate way. How many times do we hear an audience member walk out of a film saying ”Yeah, I just didn’t buy that whole love story” or ”That was okay, I just wish there was more to A and B’s relationship, you know?” Better yet, how many times have we seen in the last decade or so, films that made us truly care about characters’ relationships? Very few, I’d say. And that’s why Mann is a fascinating director to watch; most of his films are considered macho features, male-oriented with male protagonists that are either on the good or the bad side of the law, cops and robbers, vigilantes and crooks, honest workers and corrupt yes-men. At first sight, female characters are few and their screen time is considerably limited compared to their male counterparts. However, their importance is priceless. One could even go as far as to say Mann’s male characters depend on women. Without these women, Mann’s protagonists have nothing going for them.
Let’s start with Thief, the story about a jewel thief who gets into trouble with a mob boss, where Frank (a post Godfather Jimmy Caan) is desperately trying to make sense of his own life. Amidst all the violence, all the robbing, all the swearing and drinking, there is a very tender story about a man who, raised as an orphan, uneducated, an ex-convict, wants to have something to show for his own existence. When he’s not stealing diamonds, he’s busy chasing Jessie, a young, timid restaurant clerk. Soon, Frank builds his whole life around his wife and child and they become the focal point of the movie itself. In other words, what initially set out to be a stone-cold crime flick about a man who finds himself in a tight spot slowly turns into a story about a man and his family, his everything, who must escape the violent reality they live in. Jessie is Frank’s ticket to safety, proof that there is something truly worth fighting for.
Skip to Manhunter, 1986, where the protagonist is a straight arrow, a former FBI man, Will Graham, whose life has been a mess ever since he caught the most dangerous criminal in recent history – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Here, Mann places his protagonist in a spot where he is forced to walk a fine line between being the antagonist, as his method of investigation is based on getting inside the mind of psychopaths and serial killers (which eventually resulted in him ending up in the psych ward for some time), and that of a hero, hailed by newspapers as the man who stopped Lecktor and looked upon by his son as this imposing, admirable father figure. Manhunter is thriller 101, the precursor to every other major bloody Hollywood flick (think Silence of the Lambs, Se7en or even Gone Girl), mainly due to the fact it is very much aware of what makes tragedy worth caring about; Will’s job is likely to put his family at risk, as his wife keeps telling him to back off and to not get involved with another serial killer case; he eventually soon becomes responsible for the fate of his loved ones. In other words, his family and his relationship with his wife is the only link that separates the investigator from total insanity, resulting in the following tagline ”Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.” It is not a coincidence that at the start of the film we see Graham, along with his son, build a wire fence around a spot on the beach where turtle eggs have been laid; the film is more about the constant anxiety of protecting our dear ones than it is about catching some psycho killer as one would deduce by reading the movie’s premise.
In 1995 Mann made arguably his greatest film to date, his magnum opus, Heat, where the lives of a bank robber and a cop chasing him get intertwined. What follows is a legendary game of cat and mouse, of shootouts, action and violence, but at the core of it there’s the element of relationships all over again. Love as the ultimate downfall and salvation. It is difficult to talk about this movie as every time I rewatch it I notice something different, things seem to align in a new, fresh way each time I press play. The premise to Heat is the famous quote ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” with most of the characters ultimately fighting off this strict mantra, their feelings clashing with their profession, be it that of the criminal whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the cops start chasing you, or the policeman whose duty it is to leave everything behind once the chase is on. After all, when I think of love in Michael Mann’s Heat, I think of two relationships; Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd’s and Al Pacino’s and Diane Venora’s. Both relationships are troubled for different reasons. Val Kilmer’s character is a bank robber who ends up losing all the money he makes gambling in Las Vegas and Reno, while Ashley Judd’s character is an ex-call girl turned housewife who wants some stability in her young, newly wed life. There is a tragic disconnect between the two, with Kilmer admitting to De Niro’s character ”The sun rises and sets with her, man,” when asked if he’d be able to cut off ties with her if the situation required it. The two want to make things work, at all costs, but they don’t have the right ingredients. They want to be better, but they can’t. Or simply don’t know how.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is an entirely different level of disconnect. Al Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, is at his third marriage, and this one is going bad too because again, he cannot seem to get through to his wife. His work absorbs him, sucks him dry, and his wife does not accept this. The two of them, unlike Kilmer and Judd’s young couple, are both starting to face the fact that things will most likely never work out; both are moving on in years, both are unable to function like normal human beings (she’s high on prescription drugs all the time, while he’s addicted to the sound of his work beeper) and both seem reluctant to face this problem together, as a couple. Incompetent when it comes to family matters, Al Pacino’s Hanna is convinced that relationships are nothing more but a burden in a man’s life and yet, at the same time, he keeps coming back to them. In the celebrated diner scene where Hanna and Neil (De Niro) meet for the first time, Pacino admits ”My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage – my third – because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” Once again, like in Mann’s previous works, what is at stake is not money, fame, success or anything of the sort; it’s the relationship. Each character seems to do everything for the sake of saving/maintaining a relationship. if you get killed running out of a bank, you won’t see your wife again. Same thing happens if a bad guy puts one in your brain. Love, once again, is a man’s downfall and simultaneously, his only salvation.
The final two movies I want to mention are Mann’s ode to machismo and action cinema, namely his remake of the original television series, Miami Vice and his quite recent venture into gangster territory, Public Enemies. In the formal we witness as Crockett, an undercover police detective, flirts with a woman from the other side of the fence, an accountant for the number one drug kingpin of Miami that Crockett happens to be investigating. In the latter film, John Dillinger, America’s most notorious bank robber of the 30s, afraid of getting killed with nothing to show for his own life (just like Frank in Thief) gets involved with a young desk clerk, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Both films, although dealing with opposite sides of the law, show two desperate men trying to find comfort in love. One objective. Whether it is because the world has gotten too violent (as Crockett witnesses one killing too many)…
…or too modern (as Dillinger is faced with a new reality where robbing banks is a thing from the past), love, and relationships yet again come into play and slowly but surely become the focal points and the dramatic anchors of both films. Both relationships are daring, life and death situations but somehow, our protagonists, one being a smart, perhaps the smartest undercover cop in all of Florida, and the other being the smartest bank robber at the time, are willing to take a huge risk by potentially compromising their ‘business’ with something as fragile as a relationship with someone they barely know anything about. And yet… and yet somehow it all makes sense, because Mann knows how to sell it; love becomes an indispensable element of each protagonist’s arch, as it can lead to many things; failure, exposure, damaged reputation or even, as in Dillinger’s case, death. It all comes to full circle, and at the end of the day, the sun rises and sets with her.