Archive for the ‘Michael Mann’ Tag

Thief (1981)   4 comments


No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne

Frank (James Caan) works alone.  He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves.  They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept.  They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value.  It’s a tidy operation.  Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses.  Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts.  It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.


All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections.  At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him.  Frank likes running the show.  Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate.  The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more.  Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people.  For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky.  When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.

“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”  Oops, wrong show.

The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre.  Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on.  LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does.  In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn.  In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”.  He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob.  Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side.  THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms.  Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.

Sean on Jupiter

Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character.  Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter.  As odd as it sounds, he’s honest.  As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him.  When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable.  He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times.  In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.”  James Caan revels in this role.

“Quit calling me Sonny.”

Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film.  The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT.  More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free.  THIEF looks great too.  Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.


Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities.  When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him.  He knows he’s free.


This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.  Here’s the link.  THIEF  The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre.  If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film.  It’s a lovely place.

Manhunter (1986)   2 comments


A serial killer strikes during the full moon and kills entire families in their beds. When local police come up empty, they call the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (the always awesome Dennis Farina) for help.

See? I told you I was awesome.

Crawford, in turn calls his best profiler, Will Graham (William Petersen). Graham has a knack for getting into murderers’ heads and seeing horrific crimes through their eyes. This ability has taken a toll on his psyche however and Crawford finds him at his beach house recovering from a nervous breakdown. Crawford talks Graham into working the case and soon he’s back in the mind of another maniac.

Manhunter starts with a well worn movie plot. The burned out cop comes back to work on a big case and conquers his own demons. In the hands of another director, Manhunter could easily resemble a made-for-TV movie doomed for the USA network between a commercial-heavy showing of Top Gun and a rerun of Psych. What elevates this film is the stylish direction of Michael Mann (Thief, Heat) and the top drawer performances by the film’s cast.

Petersen, who made To Live and Die in LA with William Friedkin the year before, is at the top of his game as the world weary Graham. His stillness and intensity are perfect for this film, especially when he’s walking the crime scenes, reliving the murders. He describes in detail the actions and thoughts of the killer. It’s his empathy which allows Graham to discover the first solid lead in the search for the killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy by police. After making discoveries he can’t explain, Graham looks to serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the man who nearly killed him a few months before, for information on the Tooth Fairy. The doctor toys with Graham and they share the best dialogue in the film.


Graham:”I thought you might enjoy the challenge. Find out if you’re smarter than the person I’m looking for.”
Lecktor: “Then, by implication, you think you’re smarter than I am, since it was you who caught me.”
Graham: “No. I know I’m not smarter than you.”
Lecktor: “Then how did you catch me?”
Graham: “You had…disadvantages.”
Lecktor: “What disadvantages?”
Graham: “You’re insane.”

Point taken.

I have to talk a bit about Brian Cox here. His Lecktor has all the menace of the Hopkins version without the theatrics. Don’t get me wrong. I like Silence of the Lambs a lot and Hopkins does a terrific job in his role. Brian Cox took a different, subtler approach though and it seems a lot more likely that he could hide in plain sight than Hopkins could.

After the conversation with Graham piques Lecktor’s interest, he uses his technical acumen and charm to hotwire a telephone and cajole Graham’s home address out of an unwitting receptionist. After a terrific forensic investigation sequence featuring talented character actor Bill Smitrovich, Crawford and Graham discover that the Tooth Fairy has reached out to Dr. Lecktor, putting Graham’s family at risk. Graham and Crawford make a move designed to bring the Tooth Fairy out into the open. The shocking scenes that follow give us our first glimpse of the killer. When his plot backfires, Graham must reexamine the crime scenes and walk with the killer again.

While Graham crawls inside the head of the Tooth Fairy, we see our madman at his job. Withdrawn and desperately lonely, the killer (Tom Noonan) presents us with a problem. We know about his brutal crimes and yet we pity his awkwardness and even cheer for him when he makes a connection with his blind co-worker, Reba (Joan Allen).

I wish I were a tiger.

We care about him. We care because Tom Noonan delivers a nuanced and frightening performance. We care because Thomas Harris and Michael Mann wrote a compelling screenplay. We care because director Michael Mann combines the straightforwardness of a police procedural with the artiness of a 1980s music video and the drama of grand opera. A haunting soundtrack by Michel Rubini, The Reds, and The Prime Movers, along with stellar use of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida provides the setting for a fascinating cerebral thriller. Kim Greist, as Graham’s loving, yet fearful wife, and Stephen Lang, as a ruthless tabloid reporter, show great range, but it’s Petersen who really shines. After watching Manhunter and To Live and Die in LA, I wonder why he didn’t get more leads or at least a few juicy character roles. Manhunter depicts the analysis and pursuit of a serial killer. If it stopped there it would be a satisfying watch. It doesn’t.


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