“..love is a state common to both auteurist and auteur. It may even be what makes them both cineastes..” (Routt) (1)
“C’est assez miraculeux de trouver un aussi grand styliste dans le cinema Americain contemporain.” (“It’s miraculous to find such a great stylist in contemporary American cinema.“) (Olivier Assayas on Michael Mann) (2)
“..a Mann film can be imagined as a combination of Antonioni’s art sensibility, Kubrick’s meticulous construction, and Herzog’s Method recreation of reality applied to Sam Fuller material.” (Gavin Smith) (3)
It was the credits at the end of an episode of Miami Vice that first drew my attention to the work of Michael Mann. The words “a Michael Mann production” appeared over the top of an animated abstract painting of pink and blue – jazzy italics making a claim for authorship. It was as executive producer of this extraordinarily successful, groundbreaking television series that the name and the figure of Michael Mann first entered popular and global consciousness – credited and celebrated with bringing a cinematic style to television. He then used this power and notoriety to do two things. The first was to make more exceptional television. The second was to continue pursuing his passion for the cinema – to make highly individual films of his own. And so the commanding words “a Michael Mann production” metamorphosed into the more subdued, but equally significant “a Michael Mann film”. But Mann had traveled a long, hard road to get to that watershed moment of Miami Vice, and his return to full-time feature filmmaking proved to be just as long and difficult.
The Mann biography spans nations, passions and storytelling forms. Mann majored in English literature at Wisconsin University, and, at one stage, even considered pursuing an academic career. However, he fell in love with filmmaking and decided to move away from America to study at the London International Film School. His time at film school intersected with that remarkably rich middle period of the ’60s from the Nouvelle Vague to the Paris riots. It was also the halcyon time of the “director as auteur”. In London, Mann’s compatriots were Alan Parker, the Scott brothers and Adrian Lyne – filmmakers who started out in the commercial, highly stylised pictorial field of advertising. Mann himself followed a similar path, making shorts, and advertisements as well as documentaries for television. One of his first projects was an NBC documentary about the May ’68 Paris riots – a film called Insurrection. Shortly after, he also made a well-received abstract experimental short – Jaunpuri – which won a Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. (4)
Mann returned to the US in the early ’70s and directed a documentary called 17 Days Down the Line, a story about a Newsweek correspondent rediscovering his native land after five years away, a story very similar to Mann’s own at the time. (5) He went on to work as a production executive at 20th Century Fox and even formed his own company. He also had small acting roles in Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977), House Calls (Howard Zieff, 1978), Every Which Way But Loose (James Fargo, 1978) and The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979). It was, however, his scripts for television that really got him noticed. His contributions to Police Story (1973-1977) and Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) were acknowledged and applauded. This led to an opportunity to develop his own weekly television series – Vegas (1978) – for which he had a particularly unique and quirky vision. “When I wrote Vegas, I had Kerouac in mind,” said Mann, “and the drawings from (Hunter S. Thompson’s) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” (6) This television success also led to his own telefeature, a “street-influenced” (7) film called Jericho Mile (1979). Even though Jericho Mile was made for television, Mann was canny enough to shoot it on film so it also got a cinema release.
Jericho Mile tells the story of a prisoner Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss) serving a life sentence for killing his father. He is one of Mann’s first obsessive male characters – a loner with a burning ambition to make it to the Olympics. We watch Murphy in prison running in order to achieve a competitive time, and his progress is played out against the harsh criminal world inside the prison walls. The film was actually shot inside Folsom Prison, and a number of the inmates were actors in the film. The realism of the setting also extended to the dialogue, which captured the rhythms and vernacular of the prisoner’s language. Jericho Mile was a critical success. It was nominated for an Emmy Award as the year’s best drama. Together with Patrick Nolan, Mann received the Emmy for best dramatic screenplay.
After Jericho Mile, Mann worked on another tele-movie Swan Song (1980) before he embarked on his first cinematic feature, Thief (aka Violent Streets) (1981). Thief is a visually and sonically stylised work, with metaphoric images set on the wet night-time streets of Chicago accompanied by the techno sounds of Tangerine Dream. It tells the story of Frank (James Caan), a professional jewel thief who has dreams of transcending his criminal life-style. While in jail Frank constructs a collage of images – a template for the life he wants to live and the people he wants to be with. In order to achieve his dreams, he takes on one last job, but inevitably comes into conflict with the crime bosses who have different ideas about the value of his work. The film moves from wet shadowy streets, into the brightly lit, sterile offices where Frank tries to adopt a child, and ends spectacularly in a series of explosions as he blows up the places he has frequented. In his book More than the Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (8), James Naremore positions Thief in a lineage of contemporary neo-noir films, precisely because of its expressive stylisation.
After Thief Mann worked on a number of projects, including the script of Jim McBride’s Breathless. (9) He left this to make his own film The Keep (1983), an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel about a mysterious force within a Nazi fortress. The Keep was a strange generic hybrid. In one way it was “a fairy story for adults” and Mann pointed to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a source of inspiration. In another way it was a horror film complete with a metamorphosing monster Molasar who needs to destroy human life. But it also had a political subtext, which Mann explained in the following way: “..the overt politics interest me less than the states of mind: the specific kinds of aberration that explain why a lower middle-class bourgeois in Munich would be attracted to the Waffen SS in 1933.” (10) This curious amalgam of elements, however, did not seem to work and the film did not find an audience.
While Mann struggled to be recognised as a director of feature films, television still offered him many opportunities. As executive producer on Miami Vice (1984-89), he was about to make television history and change what was possible on the small screen. Even though Anthony Yerkovich was credited as the series’ creator, Mann’s name came to be associated with its aestheticised, cinematic approach to television, its experimental images and its contemporary music track. At the peak of Miami Vice‘s success, Mann produced another stylish television serial Crime Story (1986-88). Set in the ’60s in Chicago and Las Vegas, Crime Story revolved around a war between two men – Detective Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and mob boss Ray Luca (Anthony Dennison). Its diegetic world was a visual smorgasbord of ’60s fashion, cars and architecture, and it also featured a reworking of Del Shannon’s hit song “Runaway” to fit the narrative, Miles Davis playing in a club, guest appearances from Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey and a pilot directed by Abel Ferrara. The serial was a success with critics, but it did not repeat the popularity of Miami Vice.
At around the same time Mann also directed the feature film Manhunter (1986), an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel The Red Dragon. Manhunter saw the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox) in the cinema, preceding The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) by a number of years. The story is about Will Graham (William Peterson), a retired police officer who solves crimes by placing himself in the mindset of the killers. The film parallels Graham and Lecter as well as Graham and the tooth fairy killer Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan). In an epiphanous moment Graham realises that he has been studying images of the dead families in the same way as the killer had been studying those very same images. The final sequence is an inversion of the film’s opening home invasion, only this time Graham breaks into Dollarhyde’s house and stops him from killing again. This shoot-out is a spectacle of vibrant colours, extreme angles, staggered jump-cuts, and blurred movement with Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” underlining the action. One of the ways Manhunter is more than just a serial killer film is through its interest in the construction and interpretation of images and associated questions of vision and visuality. In fact, its fascination with the pleasure of images and the dangers of looking have invited comparisons with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) – a very apt point of comparison indeed.
The ’80s and early ’90s for Mann were characterised by continuing moves between film and television production. After Manhunter, Mann returned to television again, directing a TV pilot L.A. Takedown (1989) and producing the Emmy Award-winning mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990). In some ways these moves between film and television demonstrated Mann’s passion for the cinema – making television but always returning to the grandeur and spectacle of the cinematic form. In other ways they could be seen to reveal Mann’s continuing search for the ever-longer story arc, from Miami Vice and its episodic format, to Crime Story with its serial structure and its longer story arc, to the even longer mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story . This quest for the extended story-form is most evident in Mann’s transformation of his 92-minute TV pilot L.A. Takedown into the 164-minute feature film Heat (1995).
The ’90s saw Mann concentrating increasingly on the cinema. In 1992 he co-wrote and directed an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s literary classic The Last of the Mohicans (1992). The film follows Hawkeye’s (Daniel Day Lewis) journey and his efforts to protect two British sisters Alice (Johdi May) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) from the villainous Magua (Wes Studi) – mapping a difficult period in American colonial history. For a director with a reputation for making crime stories, The Last of the Mohicans provided a significant change in subject matter as well as setting. However, Mann’s impulse to stylisation remains as strong as ever, particularly in his depiction of the panoramic 18th century wilderness with its rocky escarpments, cascading waterfalls and burning villages. As well as this, the epic battles that are fought with arrows rather than bullets on this frontier of civilisation are as commanding as any of Mann’s urban street wars.
After The Last of the Mohicans, Mann returned to the crime genre with the masterful and mesmeric Heat. This is a moody, sonorous and elegiac saga, famous for the first screen pairing of Robert De Niro, as master thief Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino, as LA cop Vincent Hanna. It is a film laden with death and a sense of sad inevitability as the characters wander around as phantasmal presences, finding each other only to lose each other again. As a remake of his TV pilot L.A. Takedown, Heat is a mercurial exercise in cinematic form, shifting between the poles of elaborately choreographed action set-pieces to the long-lensed, tightly focused, intimate exchanges between couples. Personal dramas are played out in glass-walled houses, overlooking the sea or against the abstracted backdrops of flickering lights in cityscapes. Three action sequences structure the film – an ambush, a street battle and a spectacular fight-to-the-death in the film’s climactic moments on an airplane runway. These experiments with the formal possibilities of the crime genre make Heat a high point in the cinema of Michael Mann.
While an impulse to realism has been present in Mann’s films from as early as Jericho Mile, The Insider (1999) was his first dramatisation of real life events. Motivated by a Vanity Fair expose article by Marie Brenner titled “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, the film relates the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a scientist for a tobacco company, who decides to expose the industry’s deceptions about the addictive properties of nicotine. Central to the film is Wigand’s relationship with Sixty Minutes reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and the difficulties these men face in bringing this information to public attention on Sixty Minutes. And yet even in a story bound by facts, The Insider looks and sounds like a Michael Man film. There are many visual and sonic possibilities attached to the subjective point of view of the troubled Wigand. The more spectacular set-pieces include a mural in a hotel room that comes alive, a surreal golf-course at night and a car burning in the landscape. The Insider was nominated for a swag of awards, including an Academy Award for Mann as best director. In the same year Mann won a Golden Satellite Award, the Humanitas Prize, and Santa Fe Film Critics Circle Award all for his directorial efforts on this film. With The Insider, Mann was finally gaining widespread public acknowledgement for his work.
Mann’s most recent film, the biography Ali (2001), continues his interest in real events. The film covers ten years in Ali’s life, from his success in the World Heavyweight Championship title fight with Sonny Liston up to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, when he beat George Foreman and regained his Heavyweight crown. But what would draw such an individualistic filmmaker as Michael Mann to such a well-known story, and what would distinguish his film from the fictional accounts and documentaries that preceded it? The resulting film reveals Mann’s historical consciousness and his desire to tell important stories in the cinema. Mann documents Ali’s political struggles: his decision to change his slave name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, his conversion to the Nation of Islam, his responses to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and his conscientious objection. It also portrays his relationships to his wives, trainers, managers, sparring partners and the ABC sports reporter Howard Cossell. But the real achievement of Ali is the very impressionistic sense of Ali’s world that Mann constructs, from the elaborate opening montage sequence which interweaves boxing, music, black culture and racism, to the subjective shots inside the boxing ring. Cameras were even attached to the boxers’ heads, and there was a great deal of Steadicam and handheld work to convey the sensation of living inside the moment.
In a recent article in which filmmakers nominated the films of their “imaginary cinémathèque”, (11) Olivier Assayas positioned Mann together with Bresson, Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Visconti and Hou Hsiao-hsien. It is most fitting that Mann’s work should be seen alongside these other masters of the cinematic form. Watching a Michael Mann film is like being taken on a fantastic journey, in which you will be engaged with the poetics of the cinema in the grandest of possible ways.
Feature films directed by Mann:
The Jericho Mile (1979)
Swan Song (1980)
Thief (aka Violent Streets) (1981)
The Keep (1983)
L.A. Takedown (1989)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
The Insider (1999)
Police Story (1973-1977) – writer
Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) – writer
Vegas (ABC, 1978-81) – writer/director
Miami Vice (NBC, 1984-1989) – executive producer
Crime Story (NBC, 1986-1988) – executive producer/director
Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (NBC,1990) – writer/producer
Other films directed by Mann:
Insurrection (late 1960s, documentary)
Jaunpuri (1971, short)
17 Days Down the Line (early 1970s, documentary)
Arthur, Paul, “Lord of the Ring”, in Film Comment, v.38, no. 1. Jan/Feb 2002, pp.32-4.
Barker, Martin, “First and Last Mohicans” (Sight and Sound, August 1994) in Arroyo, Jose (ed.), Action/Spectacle Cinema, London: British Film Institute, 2000, pp.96-100.
Bourassa, Alan, “Tracking the Dialectic: Theodor Adorno and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans” in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. September 1996, 23:3, pp. 725-37.
Combs, Richard, “Michael Mann: Becoming” in Film Comment, March-April 1996, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp.10-17.
Fox, Julian, “Four Minute Mile” in Films and Filming, January 1980, pp.19-25.
Fuller, Graham, “Making Some Light: An Interview with Michael Mann” in Boorman, John & Donahue, Walter, Projections: a forum for filmmakers. Issue 1, London: Faber & Faber, 1992, pp.262-278.
Grindon, Legar, “Ali“, Cineaste, Spring 2002, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 32-4.
Hillier, Jim, The New Hollywood: A Movie Book. UK: Studio Vista, 1993.
James, Nick, “No Smoking Gun”, in Sight and Sound, March 2000, no. 469, pp.14-17.
Kennedy, Harlan, “The Keep”, Film comment, Nov-Dec 1983. v.19 No. 6, pp. 16-19.
Magid, Ron, “A left-right combo”, American Cinematographer, v. 82, no. 11, November 2001, pp. 34-40, 44-9.
Mann, Michael, “Bob and Al in the Coffee Shop”, in Sight and Sound, ns. 6, March 1996, pp. 14-19.
Marc, David & Thompson, Robert J., Prime Time, Prime Movers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company,1992, pp. 231-240.
McGuigan, Cathleen, “Mann is in the Details”, Newsweek, November 8.1999, vol. 134. p. 98.
Robley, Les Paul, “Hot Set”, in American Cinematographer, v.77, January 1996, pp. 46-50.
Sharrett, Christopher, “Michael Mann’s Band of Outsiders” in USA Today, March 2000, vol.128, p.74.
Smith, Gavin, “Mann Hunters” in Film Comment, Nov-Dec 1992 v28 No.6, p. 72-77.
Smith, Gavin, “Michael Mann: Wars and Peace”, in Sight and Sound, v.2 Nov 1992, pp.10-12.
Steensland, Mark, Michael Mann. Pocket Essentials Series, Great Britain, 2002.
Viviani, Christian, “La Carrière de Michael Mann” in Positif, No. 469, March 2000, pp.4-11.
Wootton, Adrian, “The Big Hurt” in Sight and Sound, March 2002, ns. 12 no.3, p. 16-18.
Wrathall, John, “Ali“, in Sight and Sound, ns.12, no.3, March 2002, pp.34-5.
Wrathall, John, “Heat” (Sight and Sound: February, 1996) in Arroyo, Jose (ed), Action/Spectacle Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2000, pp.239-241.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Impressionist extraordinaire: Michael Mann’s Ali by Anna Dzenis
Before Sunrise, or Los Angeles Plays Itself In a Lonely Place by Michael J. Anderson
Compiled by the author and Michelle Carey
La cinémathèque imaginaire
Article written for Cine-regards by Olivier Assayas.
Analysis of Michael Mann’s Heat
By Carl Tashian
The Mann Fan Site
This fan site features extensive information on the films, a biography, links section and news. Unfortunately it has not been updated since 1999.
Mann Among Men
Article by Michael Sragow, featuring an interview with the director about his techniques.
Ecran Noir/Michael Mann
Informative and intelligent French site on the American director.
All the Corporations’ Men
Michael Sragow interviews Mann about The Insider.
Making Some Light (excerpt)
Excerpts from a fantastic in-depth interview by Graham Fuller, from the book Projections: A Forum For Film-Makers.
Manhunter, a Michael Mann film based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Official website for this film, nothing too profound or thought-provoking but bursting with features.
Review by Mark Kemode.
Click here to search for Michael Mann DVDs, videos and books at
- William D. Routt, “L’Evidence”, in Adrian Martin (ed.) Film – Matters of Style. Continuum, The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992. p. 61.
- Olivier Assayas, “La cinémathèque imaginaire”, Cine-regards.
- Gavin Smith, “Mann Hunters” in Film Comment, Nov-Dec 1992, Vol. 28, No.6, p.72.
- David Marc & Robert J.Thompson, Prime Time Prime Movers, Little, Brown and Company, 1992. p.232.
- Julian Fox, “Four Minute Mile” in Films and Filming, January 1980. p.25.
- David Marc & Robert J. Thompson, op.cit. ibid. p.234.
- Julian Fox, ibid, op.cit. p.19.
- James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. California: University of California Press. 1998. P.193.
- Jim Hillier, The New Hollywood: A Movie Book, London: Studio Vista, 1992.
- Paul Taylor, “Castles in Romania”, Sight & Sound, September 1982. P. 129.
- Olivier Assayas, “La cinémathèque imaginaire”, Cine-regards.