The Mann Who Would Be King: a look at the career of Michael Mann (part one)
Every director worth their salt has dabbled in the crime genre like Coppola and Scorsese, but there’s one director that also belongs in the crime pantheon: Michael Mann.
One of the great living directors without an Oscar to their name, Mann is back with ‘Heat 2’, a novel that acts as both a prequel and sequel to his beloved 1995 classic.
With a career that has its roots in television dramas and student riots, it’s been a journey like very few in the arts.
To explain how Michael Mann rose to the level of a director with a brand ala Spielberg, we must understand how he got his break.
In our latest two-part director spotlight, we explore how Mann went from a student filmmaker genius to one of the great innovators in film and television.
The French Connection
To some, the Michael Mann story begins with 1981’s ‘Thief’, his firecracker debut that follows James Caan’s Frank as he carries out crimes in Chicago.
However, the Mann story begins well over 10 years before that.
The son of grocers from Chicago, the young Mann encountered Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Doctor Strangelove’ in 1964 and never looked back.
An English literature graduate, Mann was always drawn towards battles between good and evil, but in Kubrick’s jet-black satire, there is nary a redeeming character to be found.
This would later go on to inform the career of Mann – characters dealing in absolutes, and are forced to make the tough decisions.
The 1960’s were an exciting time for young filmmakers to break through, with shifting societal norms and shocking headline news influencing the creative minds of that generation.
Mann attained a master’s degree from London Film School in 1967, one of the most influential years in modern cinema.
The classmates of Mann went on to greatly influence modern cinema, with directors like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne also going on to change the cinematic landscape.
A generation angry at the lost potential caused by the Vietnam War, economic inequality and racial strife spilled over, and this was reflected in the hit films of that year.
The more socially-aware and liberated generation turned out in their droves for films like ‘The Graduate’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’.
Mann’s generation were starting to influence, and yes, make films that reflected their radical world view.
A big break came for a young Mann when he shot student footage of the 1968 student riots in France, often seen as Europe’s answer to the social strife that enveloped America in the same decade.
The festering volcanic anger and the thematic element of a powder keg ready to erupt are present in all of Mann’s films, and it is not difficult to see where these influences came from.
Mann’s efforts in France led to him receiving a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his work on ‘Janupari’, which documented the social unrest that had swept France.
This early accolade leads the 20-something on the path to becoming one of cinema’s great directors.
Following that, Mann got his break in television, being taken under the wing of TV writer Robert Lewin.
Lewin was known for his work on ‘Hawaii Five-O’ and the ‘Mission Impossible’ series and gave Mann a crash course on how to write for television.
It was in the world of television where Mann began to flex his muscles, and his first feature film, ‘The Jericho Mile’ is a perfect example of a TV movie.
Shown on television in the United States but released as a film in Europe, ‘The Jericho Mile’ has a classic Michael Mann set-up.
A man is sent to prison for murder, and finds solace in running.
‘The Jericho Mile’ is a perfectly constructed bit of television, and tells a simple three-act structure wonderfully.
The first act deals with Peter Strauss coming to terms with his life behind bars and discover his talent for running, the second act deals with him training so he can get in shape for the Olympics and the third act deals with the fallout.
It’s a fantastically-paced bit of television, and it establishes a major theme in Mann’s work: he will put in the research.
Filmed on location in Folsom Prison, ‘The Jericho Mile’ is an early demonstration of Mann’s verisimilitude.
Multiple prisoners are actors in the film, which is more effective than any special effect.
The sense of authenticity given to the film by filming on location is a crucial detail in establishing the tone and mood of the piece, and another Mann staple comes into play here: his love of music.
Mann has directed for so long that music tastes have shifted among the general populace and he has adapted with the times.
This is why ‘The Jericho Mile’ features a stunning sequence set to ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ by The Rolling Stones and why his ‘Miami Vice’ film has an amazingly awful shoot-out set to a nu-metal cover of ‘In The Air Tonight’.
For his work on ‘The Jericho Mile’, Mann took home an Emmy for his efforts for his writing efforts, as well as a Directors Guild Award.
The sky was truly the limit for Mann.
To Catch A Thief
‘Thief’ is an assured and whip-smart debut that help set the template for shows like ‘Breaking Bad’’, ‘Ozark’ and ‘Barry’.
The anti-hero is seemingly one of the default character archetypes in media, and while Mann wasn’t the one to invent this character (the films of Leone would see to that) it was placing the anti-hero in a crime setting that made the character a stock type.
What is so remarkable about ‘Thief’ is James Caan’s livewire performance, and the film is one of the late actors’ very best performances.
Caan is able to go from gentle to a demon in the flash of an eye, and Caan reeling off Mann lines about how to make a living and survive in the modern world is pure cinematic gold.
Caan turned down iconic lead roles in films like ‘Superman’, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ but Mann was able to convince the Oscar-nominated star to headline his debut film.
Speaking to The Ringer in 2021, ‘Thief’ was the kind of film Caan was itching to make.
"There was just this unbelievable character," he said.
"It’s almost, like, too much. It’s almost like the Hunchback of Notre Dame."
This understated sensitivity is the key strength of ‘Thief’.
‘Thief’ began the grand Mann tradition of having an absurdly stacked cast.
Willie Nelson, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina, and William Petersen round out the cast of ‘Thief’ and fitting of Mann’s Chicago upbringing, reading out that list is like reading out the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls line-up but with iconic character actors.
With a decent budget backing up Mann’s vision, ‘Thief’ was a hit straight out of the box, with the film serving as a great calling card for Mann.
Keep On Keeping On
The triumphant debut of ‘Thief’ is all the more baffling when you consider Mann’s follow-up film, ‘The Keep’.
An incredible premise – a Romanian village in World War 2 must keep an evil force at bay while seeing off occupying German forces – was chopped off at the knees by Paramount.
The assembly cut of ‘The Keep’ ran at over 3 hours long, but the finished product runs for just over 90 minutes.
Mann tried to fight for a 2-hour cut to be released in cinemas, but even this request was shot down, which led to the film having an incredibly disjointed and unnatural feel.
‘The Keep’ is perhaps the biggest miss in Mann’s career, which is frustrating considering how much potential there is in the premise.
Another incredible cast, including our own Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen, Robert Prosky, Jurgen Prochnow and Scott Glenn, are coupled with some impressive creature design work, but Mann himself has disowned the film, and is reluctant to discuss it in interviews.
In a career of cops and robbers, Mann briefly heading to the world of horror fantasy is an incredibly cool idea on paper, and ‘The Keep’ has some decent moments in it, but by and large the film has been forgotten.
Inherent Vice/Night Of The Hunter
Mann bounced back from ‘The Keep’ remarkably quickly.
‘The Keep was released in December 1983 and sunk like a stone at the box office, but this didn’t deter Mann one bit.
Within the year, he helped create the sensation known as ‘Miami Vice’.
Contrary to popular belief, Mann was not the creator or even a director on the show, but Mann pioneered another concept in the world of television: the role of the showrunner.
People had oversight of television shows before, such as James L. Brooks on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘Taxi’, but Mann was more explicitly involved in the day-to-day running of the show.
Mann was responsible for what storylines were tackled, what guest stars appeared on the show, the overall tone of the show, and more minute details such as the licenced music to be used and even the clothes of the characters.
While it is Anthony Yerkovich who gets the creators credit, the show is far and away Michael Mann’s project.
The pilot episode for ‘Miami Vice’ is one of the all-time great television pilots, and is often cited alongside the pilots for ‘Lost’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ in helping the shows become cultural sensations.
The ending of the pilot episode has one of the very best Mann needle drops, in the form of Phil Collins’ hit ‘In The Air Tonight’.
‘Miami Vice’ made Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas household names overnight, and the ending of the first episode shows them driving around Miami late at night, facing an uncertain fate, while Phil Collins’ classic track plays in the background.
A staple of 80’s television, ‘Miami Vice’ is just as much a part of Mann’s legacy as ‘Heat’.
Despite his influence over the show, Mann only ever wrote one episode of the show, but would return to the scene of the crime in 2006 for a feature-length film version – which we will get to later.
Mann remained in the crime sphere with ‘Manhunter’, an adaptation of ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris.
Depending on who you ask, the film is either the superior Hannibal Lecter film, or a poor man’s version of what Jonathan Demme did to great commercial and critical success in 1991.
Choosing between ‘Manhunter’ and ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ is like asking someone if they prefer Coke or Pepsi, and from a subjective standpoint, both are excellent films concerning Hannibal Lecter that are doing very different things.
Mann’s style is incredibly well-suited to the world of Hannibal Lecter, with some beautiful cinematography.
‘Manhunter’ marks Mann’s first collaboration with Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and Spinotti is just as vital to the Mann aesthetic as the music or fashion.
Spinotti’s style of framing a shot favours the rule of thirds and the main objects in any given shot are in the foreground became a prevalent part of the Mann oeuvre, and ‘Manhunter’ also solidified another classic Mann trope – the two main characters sitting across from each other, never breaking eye contact.
Before he was Logan Roy, Brian Cox played an unforgettable version of Hannibal Lecter, and prior to raking in the millions on ‘CSI’, William Petersen offered a great spin on the Will Graham character.
‘Manhunter’ was the first time Hannibal Lecter was brought to the screen, but it was not a hit by any measure.
The film failed to make its budget back, and this failure prompted mercurial producer Dino De Laurentiis to turn down the chance to adapt ‘Silence Of The Lambs’.
As for Mann, he retreated back to the world of television, helping innovate the medium once more.
‘Crime Story’ was one of the first television shows to have a plot line that carried over an entire season, and while this is something audiences take for granted in 2022, this approach is yet another way in which Mann influenced the modern television landscape.
Unlike ‘Miami Vice’, Mann was more hands-on with ‘Crime Story’, writing and directing numerous episodes, and helping shape the shows’ ambitious multi-decade plotline.
‘Crime Story’ isn’t merely good in the “this is good for the 1980s” sense, it is a show that still goes toe-to-toe with the best shows on television today.
Inspired by the films of Fassbinder, ‘Crime Story’ is yet another fantastic show that has been lost to the sands of time, yet still possesses a sizeable fanbase thanks to Mann fans.
The show ran from 1986 until 1988, and fans would have to wait 6 more years for Mann’s next film.
In the meantime, Mann sketched out what was later to become 'Heat' with a TV movie by the name of 'LA Takedown', which answers the age-old question of what would happen if you had $500 to film 'Heat'.
By all accounts, Mann's return to the big screen was worth the wait, and the director had a stellar 1990s.
Mann secured a second Emmy for his work on producing 'Drug Wars: The Camarena Story' in 1990, and with his second Emmy in tow, he set about to make perhaps the most populist film he had made up until that point.
'The Last Of The Mohicans served as Daniel Day-Lewis' first major film since taking home the Oscar for 'My Left Foot', and in Day-Lewis, Mann may well have found his ideal leading man.
Similar to how Tom Cruise and Brad Bird worked so well on 'Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol' as the pair had similarly driven work ethics, Mann and Day-Lewis were able to match each other's intensity and wanting to get the details right.
On paper, 'The Last Of The Mohicans' may seem like a film that's of a piece with films like 'Unforgiven' or 'Dances With Wolves', but 'The Last Of The Mohicans' has a sweeping romance at the centre of the film that made the film part MTV, part war film.
Our hero Daniel Day-Lewis survives deadly encounters with soldiers, takes in gorgeous scenery, and even finds time to fit in a relationship worthy of Bacall and Bogart.
In terms of influences, Mann is unashamedly populist in his leanings, citing Howard Hawks as a major factor in his work.
'The Last Of The Mohicans' feels like the most classical film in Mann's filmography, and just as easily could have been released in the decade of Mann's birth (the 1940s).
For the first time, Mann's efforts were also recognised by the Academy, and while Mann himself didn't receive a nomination, the film took home an Oscar for its Sound Design.
A bonafide blockbuster with awards love is enough to set any director up and help them gain momentum.
With Michael Mann, he finally decided to pull the trigger on making his Los Angeles crime epic for the big screen.
That film was 'Heat'.