By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Saved from the Vietnam draft by asthma, Mann enrolled at the London Film School, where he made “pretentious” student films he refuses to screen anymore, then segued into commercials and documentary production, funneling the money he made into more personal projects. (His 1970 experimental short film, Jaunpuri, won a prize at Cannes.) After six years, he returned to the U.S. and settled on the West Coast, landing work as a writer on Starsky and Hutchand Police Story, before being hired by the late Aaron Spelling to create the series Vega$in 1978. His true debut came the following year with The Jericho Mile, a feature-length film for television about a Folsom prison lifer (brilliantly played by Peter Strauss) whose distance-running prowess earns him a shot at the Olympics and a rare glimpse of life beyond the jailyard walls. Shot on location with many real inmates in the cast, Jerichowon three Emmys, including one for Mann and co-writer Patrick J. Nolan’s script, and it remains one of the most authentic and starkly unsentimental of prison movies. More importantly, in Strauss’ Larry “Rain” Murphy, it offered early evidence of Mann’s affinity for men of heightened self-awareness — antidotes to the Freudian psychoanalysis that is the familiar model of dramatic characterization. “I’m interested in the phenomenon of it — awareness heightened, or awareness absent, and the price you pay for either,” Mann says, in one of many concerted attempts to disabuse me of making thematic connections between his films.
His first two theatrical features, Thief(1981) and Manhunter, together with Viceon TV, announced Mann as one of the most breathtaking cinematic stylists of his era. These were gripping thrillers in which the documentary hyper-realism of Jerichowas married to a feverishly beautiful graphic sensibility: dramatic colored lighting, actors framed small against great canvases of water and sky, jarring frame-rate manipulations, and long set-pieces in which dialogue was displaced by contemporary pop music. It’s impossible to discuss Mann’s work without addressing these matters of style, though Mann himself would just as soon that we not. He's suspicious of the superficiality of visual beauty, he says, and resists the “modernism” label that would make for such an easy fit (except to say that he’s “really fascinated with what’s happening right now”). But what is powerful and moving in Mann’s work (and, admittedly, rather hard to describe) is the way that style — which is to say everything that is in the frame, from the costumes to the locations to the movement of the camera itself — seems to grow out of the characters, to be expressiveof something, as opposed to the vacant prettifications of Adrian Lyne or Tony Scott. I am talking about the way, in Manhunter, that the sensual caress of a blind woman’s hand against the skin of an anesthetized tiger tells us more about that woman than any dialogue possibly could; how, in Heat (1995), the flashing lights of an airport runway become a desperate, Gatsbyesque beacon; or how, in The Insider, an elaborate hotel-room mural manifests the escapist dream of the beleaguered whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). These are images as abstract and epochal as anything in Kubrick's 2001.
“What I try to do — I mean try, because you don’t get there all the time — is to have impact with content,” Mann says. “It’s those moments in which you’re trying to bring people beyond filmed theater. If I have an ambition, it’s that. In The Insider, I had violence — lethal, life-taking aggression — all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people. What am I making a film of?What am I shooting?What’s in the viewfinder of that camera? It’s a head, talking, in space, in a place. So then, the excitement for me as a filmmaker was the challenge of making suspense and drama involving life and death in which everything I’m shooting is only a human face. So, you start thinking about what you can do to make the places talk.”
To date, Mann’s masterpiece remains Heat, the sprawling chronicle of a career thief, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), planning one last score before dropping out of the game, while staying one step ahead of the dogged LAPD detective, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who's intent on bringing him down. It was another story of professionalism, and one that had haunted Mann for decades: He had written the script in the 1970s, first discussed making it in the 1980s, and had directed half of it as a TV movie, L.A. Takedown, in 1989. Heat was promoted at the time as the first screen pairing of two legendary Hollywood stars and quickly immortalized for a breathtaking shootout on the streets of downtown L.A., but what was more notable about the film was the full dimensionality in which Mann envisaged nearly a dozen major characters, skirting police story clichés to show them all (cops, crooks or otherwise) in a richly human light.
“Why would their lives be less than dimensional?” he asks, as if the answer were obvious. “Of course they’re dimensional: They have mothers and fathers and kids. I knew a lot of these people, people like this. What do you have? You have a complete human being. The Tom Sizemore character: He has a nuclear family. He cares about his kids the same way you care about your kids. The big difference is that he doesn’t care about your kids: He’ll use one of your kids as a shield.”