Hollywood’s definitive painter of the crime genre, Michael Mann packs his movies with bloodcurdling shootouts, random intrusions of bad rock music, and stoic leading men who leave too many of their shirt buttons undone.
But two of his most famous scenes are nothing more than long coffee-shop conversations. In the diner chat from Thief (1981), which runs for ten minutes, an elite burglar named Frank (James Caan) sits across from cashier girl Jessie (Tuesday Weld). She’s nestled inside a fur coat, fuming with hostility — he’s shown up for their date two hours late — and he’s trying to break her down, asking about her past existence as a trophy wife. A witty remark delivered with knowing timing — “Where were you in prison? Would you pass the cream, please?” without a beat between the questions — betrays Jessie’s interest in Frank. He catches on, shuffles out of his leather jacket, and requests a fresh batch of cream. He fails to light a cigarette and then keeps it between his fingers as he begins telling prison stories. Soon, Jessie takes off her coat, too.
Mann is recognized as the movies’ most exacting and obsessive chronicler of cops and criminals, night-owl figures whose commitment to the job leads to ruined relationships and chronic solitude — a reputation duly borne out in BAMcinématek’s twelve-title retrospective. But the relatively unmacho qualities of Thief‘s diner scene — the sensitivity to real-time body language, to the awkward fitfulness of everyday conversation — are no less essential to the identity of his work.
Another iconic coffee-shop colloquy, from Heat (1995), pits yet two more Godfather alums, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, against each other at the same table — but the movie also features a second intimate diner duet, one in line with Thief. This time, it’s the elite crook (De Niro) who asks the girl, a shy bookstore clerk named Eady (Amy Brenneman), to pass the cream. She sparks up a conversation, and De Niro’s cautious Neil gives in to her signals, suspending his code of isolation. He slides one seat closer at the counter and charms her with introductory questions. Strangers at the start of the scene, Neil and Eady are soon standing on his high-rise balcony, sipping something stronger and peering down at the shimmer of Los Angeles. When pressed for his family history, Neil says: “My father, I don’t know where he is. Got a brother somewhere.”
Few would jump to label Mann a first-rate writer of dialogue. But “My father, I don’t know where he is” is emblematic of Mann’s very particular skill. Between the backwards syntax and the gruff polish of De Niro’s movie-star delivery, it lands with thundering force — worlds of truth in a terse couple of words. In Thief, Caan’s Frank, chewing the inside of his lip and opening up to Jessie about life in prison, tells her: “You gotta get to where nothin’ means nothin’.”
In both cases, there is a powerful sense of entire monologues having been shredded down to their naked essence — of a character being allowed to seem inelegant in the service of something like authenticity. These are lines that feel like they’re coming out of the mouths of real-life criminals — and they very well might have, given Mann’s record of painstaking research. For Thief, he had Caan correspond for weeks with real crooks; the production even launched the screen career of the late Dennis Farina, at the time working on the Chicago police force. For Manhunter (1986), a scalding adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, Mann based his characterization of Tom Noonan’s terrifying Francis Dollarhyde in part on letters the writer-director exchanged with the serial killer Dennis Wayne Wallace.
This preoccupation with capturing the substance of real-world crime also fuels many of Mann’s virtuoso near-wordless sequences. When depicting an intricate heist like the climactic safe-cracking mission in Thief, he loves to settle in and observe the grunt work: the sawing-through of rooftop concrete, the scattershot sparks of powerhouse machinery, the exquisite final turn of a busted lock. In the hyper-elaborate shootouts in Heat and Public Enemies (2009) — the former sprawled out across busy L.A. intersections, the latter set in the dark at a Wisconsin lodge — Mann scores his action with little more than the piercing clap of semiautomatic gunfire. Critics are quick to point to this nuts-and-bolts diligence as the quality that elevates Mann’s set pieces over those of his contemporaries, but his approach has the added effect of exposing what’s unglamorous about this line of work. In a trailer-park confrontation in Miami Vice (2006), an agent (Elizabeth Rodriguez) stares down a target and, before ending his life in the blink of an eye, tells him: “What will happen is I will put a round at 2,700 feet per second into the medulla at the base of your brain.” The moment is shockingly quick and intense but also dispiritingly ordinary — this is every day.
In his transition to high-definition digital video throughout the Aughts, Mann has retained his devotion to authenticity while also doubling down on this atmosphere of existential and vocational ennui. He has morphed into a director concerned above all else with impressions, leading him to more uninhibited decision- making: He opens Miami Vice with an immediate jolt of a nightclub scene in which bodies swim through light to “Numb/Encore,” and he sets an out-of-nowhere appearance from a darting coyote in Collateral to Audioslave’s “Shadow on the Sun.” (Not surprisingly, the increasing abstractness of his work has also opened him up to withering ridicule and diminishing commercial returns.)
Visually, this switch has meant the conversion to an engulfing nocturnal aesthetic. Starting with Collateral, Mann’s movies have become haunted studies of creatures of the night. There, the effect is such that Tom Cruise’s Vincent, a contract killer who hires Jamie Foxx’s Max to be his chauffeur for the evening, comes to resemble something almost undead — a vampire in a gray flannel suit. In Miami Vice, undercover partners Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) conduct their high-stakes business like phantoms beneath overwhelming purple skies. In Public Enemies, Mann offers a more communal vision — John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is an oddly and warmly domestic sociopath who thrives on interacting with the public and is entirely willing to run mundane errands for prostitutes — but Depp still moves with the leer of a predator through the movie’s cold Midwestern nights.
Mann has directed crime stories for over three decades, but his perspective on this milieu is eternally conflicted: He’s attentive to the hard-won expertise of pros on both sides of the law, but he invariably undercuts the visceral thrills of a robbery or gunfight with deep moral ambivalence. People die in Mann movies, often graphically and with lingering, reverent sadness.
The breakneck prison escape that opens Public Enemies swiftly becomes an elegy when Dillinger, safe in the getaway vehicle, watches his gunned-down mentor (James Russo) bleed out on a dirt road. A similar sentiment prevails at the end of Heat, as one man grasps the frail hand of his dying opponent and a twenty-second close-up of Pacino’s face communicates a kind of anti-triumph — a resigned disappointment that work like this even needs to be done in the first place. Or take the close of The Insider, after CBS has finally aired its Big Tobacco–incriminating interview with Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Pacino) now curls up next to his wife (Lindsay Crouse) in bed. “You won,” she tells him. “Yeah,” he whispers. “What did I win?”
Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann
Through February 16