The Directors Series-Part II: The Michael Mann Retrospective
Thief - 5/5 - 1981 - Directed by Michael Mann - Starring James Caan
And that is the last place that you wanna be. 'Cause no matter what happens, I will never, ever take a pinch from a greasy mother****er like you!"
Michael Mann's first theatrical film, Thief is simply a crime masterpiece and also feels ageless. A sublte, yet intriguing character study of our main protagonist in a visually stunning world that is vibrant, beautiful, dark, and violent.
Frank is a thief, and a pretty damn good one too. His only preferred choices of scores are cash and rough diamonds, nothing else. He is a man of his word and a master of his tradecraft. When he is begins to feel the lost time, he seeks out Jessie, a local women who has his eye. He wants to live high with a wife and kid, but there's obstacles standing in his way. The medical problems of his long time mentor and father figure, Okla, the newly impending police case on him, and the local mob man who seemingly owns him.
Michael Mann's Chicago isnt your typical one. This city is filled with many people of different likes, and there's a rough, crazy side to it. Theres a beautiful outlook with people that Frank might try to be normal in, and then there's the gritty side, with the scummiest, and ruthless of people. Mann's Chicago soars to life wonderfully with the vibrant colors, subtle effectiveness, and grimy atmosphere. It is essentially a painting that has been brought to life.
The character study lies within Frank, played almost too perfectly by James Caan. When your in prison for so long and come out, you almost a facade going, and you're conflicting with your world. The truth and the lies. The reality and the fantasy. The fantasy is that Frank wants to live a quiet, beautiful life with the woman he loves and his child. He wants to live in happiness with wealth, luxury, and love, but the reality is that he cant. He lives in a world, where its do or die, and he knows he cant truly expose his family to this, its not for them. In the end he is conflicted before making a big decision that will change him forever. He has to let go and accept reality and deal with these problems head on.
Mann's world is gritty and realistic. With lush, beautiful cinematography and perfect lighting, the atmosphere is raw and moving. It feels almost real. Packed with great performances from James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson, James Belushi, Robert Prosky, Dennis Farina, and Tom Signorelli. Mann's screenplay is loaded with realism and pitch perfect details, as well as an array of characters. In the end, Michael Mann handles everything extremely well and doesn't over complicate things. He keeps it simple and shows us the world of a thief. A big positive in Thief is the music score from Tangerine Dream. This film was the biggest reason I got into them, and their score only helps to not only propel the film and move with it, but it tells its own story. A sharp new wave esque style that has beautiful, haunting, and adrenaline rushing cues.
Prior to watching it this morning, I haven't seen the film in while. The last time was April 2011, Aero Theater, the 30th anniversary screening of the film with a live discussion with James Caan. It was a great night, in fact one I will always remember, as Michael Mann was two rows behind me. It was a unique feeling to be sitting in the same theater as that man, who is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, he is an inspiration and a hero. Michael Mann is a legend, and I was proud to meet him and James Caan.
Thief is a terrific neo noir crime film, it's a masterpiece. It is one of the greatest films of the 1980's.
The Keep - 3.5/5 - 1983 - Directed by Michael Mann - Starring Jurgen Prochnow
Michael Mann's second theatrical film, The Keep is definitely one of the stranger films from him and it happens to be, at least for me, one of the most under appreciated horror films of the 1980's. It may not stand as tall next to say Thief, Collateral, or Heat, but it is still one hell of a film and very creepy.
They were all drawn to it, the keep that is. A Romanian citadel in the center of a small village. A small group of German soldiers goes there one day to occupy the keep and the Captain is made aware that the 108 T-Shaped icons throughout are made out of nickel, not silver, thus shunning any belief of there being any silver in the keep. That night, an evil entity, known as Molasar, is freed from his sleeping state in the keep and begins to slowly kill the soldiers.
It definitely goes for the "less is more" approach using a moody synth score by Tangerine Dream, a brooding atmosphere, and haunting chills. Sure the score might sound strange for a horror film set in World War II, but dammit does Tangerine Dream do such an amazing job, like they did on Mann's previous film, Thief The atmosphere is what I like a lot. The film didn't rely too heavily on gore, but instead made you feel different or slightly spooked watching, knowing or not knowing what the hell this evil entity or demon was inside this mysterious keep. It was just absolutely fantastic.
Every Michael Mann film looks SPECTACULAR and here it looks just about that. For primarily taking place in just one location, this film manages to be visually appealing to the eyes and perfectly, yet strangely balances beauty and horror. The cinematography, the color palate, everything just looks so well here. The special effects, surely they are outdated by today's standards, but damn does the first look at Molasar look simply incredible. For a film with a small budget,it takes you on a ride through the unknown and the bizarre. The Keep is packed with excellent performances throughout with the film starring Scott Glenn, Ian McKellan, Alberta Watson, Robert Prosky, Jurgen Prochnow, and Gabriel Byrne.
It isn't without it's problems as at times the transition from one scene to the other isn't fluid enough for the films narrative leaving a question mark or two floating above your head as well as the editing being a bit iffy in places. This though can be do to the fact Paramount Pictures practically butchered the film. Supposedly the film was at one point three and half hours long, and the studio cut it to a mere ninety minutes and gave the film a limited release. There hasn't been a release of the film on Blu-Ray or DVD for that matter, which is disappointing, because with the right team, this film could see a magnificent transfer for fans of the film and Mann.
The Keep, for being what it is at just ninety minutes, is quite good and certainly at times sinister and very atmospheric. You might be able to find this still lurking on Netflix or some torrent sites, unless you feel like shelling a pretty high amount of money on ebay for a VHS or betamax.
Manhunter - 4.5/5 - 1986 - Directed by Michael Mann - starring William L. Petersen
"Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black."
I last watched this film about a good year ago, and honestly, every time I watch Michael Mann's Manhunter it gets better and better upon each viewing. Only select films have that effect with me. I believe this is one of the best Hannibal Lecter films made and one of the best serial killer films ever made.
Upon this re-watch I was looking more at it from a study point of view, particularly looking at protagonist, Will Graham (played by William L. Petersen) and our antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde, or "The Tooth Fairy" (played by Tom Noonan). We see both characters change somewhat considerably throughout the course of the film. Will Graham has since retired after bringing down Hannibal. Though he returns to only offer some new info regarding the murder cases that involve The Tooth Fairy, slowly we see this scarred and broken man return to being the detective genius that he was. The same detective genius who brought down the psychological mastermind that is Hannibal Lecter.
It's as if throughout the film he changes, slowly becoming more and more obsessed with capturing The Tooth Fairy. The same obsession that got him close to the Chesapeake Ripper and capturing him, Hannibal. With Francis Dollarhyde, The Tooth Fairy, he is a troubled man, not one that you can have any remorse for, since in the end he is nothing more than a psychopathic serial killer. Though, his persistence and interest with one woman, Reba, makes him feel more or less, like a human being again, instead of this monster that he chooses to be. That is until she hurts him, inadvertently and he returns to his old, killer ways. By the end of the film, both men change and complete this 360-degree character turn (if this makes sense).
With Brian Cox, he plays the character of Hannibal quite well. He is polite, well mannered, well spoken, and simply this genius, though he happens to be a psychopath as well, The Chesapeake Ripper. When we see him, he comes off as this regular man in prison, but it's the nature behind his evil doing, the horrific crimes that make him purely evil. The nicest ones, are always the scariest ones I tell myself. It's a character, along with Dollarhyde that continue my pursuit through the studies of criminal psychology and really fascinate me.
This is a great looking film. No really it is. It almost feels very Miami Vice-esque from wardrobe, to sets, locations, music, style, everything. It doesn't take you out of the film at all, it, for me, sucks you into this world. It's a dangerous world, a scary one with real life monsters, but one that is fascinating. Every shot is just absolute beauty as cinematographer, Dante Spinotti brings Mann's vision to life perfectly and Mann's color palate is just amazing here. The use of colors works so well for the different moods going on.
If there was one thing I would have love to seen added in the film, it's the strange working relationship Will Graham has with Hannibal in the film. It's visible in Red Dragon and slightly here, but I think if Mann further delved into it, it could have been truly fantastic. Funny, watching this today and then realizing that an all new episode of NBC's Hannibal television series airs tonight. Michael Mann's Manhunter is one of his finest films made and it is surely not to be missed.