|by David Cornelius
I’ve been watching “Collateral” a lot lately, which got me to thinking of Michael Mann, which led me here, to this column about Mann’s work the 1980s. It’s in the 80s, you see, where Mann hit it big, creating the TV series “Miami Vice,” what with its unshaven, neon T-shirt-clad heroes and Glenn Frey music. He then followed that as executive producer on the less successful (but far better) cop show “Crime Story.” But the decade is also where Mann gave us his best film - a film which also remains one of his least remembered.
In fact, the 80s hold plenty of forgotten work for Mann, beginning and ending with two films currently unavailable on video Stateside: “The Jericho Mile,” a TV movie first broadcast in 1979 and given a European theatrical run one year later, and “L.A. Takedown,” a 1989 TV production notable for its being an early draft of the “Heat” screenplay. I regret that I have seen neither; in this age in which everything eventually gets a DVD release, that may hopefully be remedied, and soon.
Anyway, to best discuss Mann’s overlooked theatrical releases of the 1980s, one should work backwards, beginning with 1986’s “Manhunter.” You all know the film by now, of course, as the success of the Hannibal Lector series has allowed this early take on “Red Dragon” to go from forgotten to respected. But at one time it was indeed forgotten, a shame considering this was Mann’s first work following “Miami Vice,” and it shows. The picture is as sleek as anything to come out of the decade, the “Vice” style front and center. There’s both a coolness and a coldness to be found here, especially in Brian Cox’s elegant take on Lector (or “Lecktor,” as they spell it here). While ultimately not as chilling as Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs,” it’s also unfair to compare, as they’re two separate beasts with two distinct styles. Besides, “Manhunter” far outreaches the next two Hannibal films. But seeing how the arrival of Brett Ratner’s hackneyed “Red Dragon” brought “Manhunter” out of video limbo for good, there’s not much else that demands to be discussed. Long story short: if you haven’t seen Mann’s take on the material, do so now. It’s a bold, compelling work, and if nothing else, it’s of interest to see a rough draft of a future franchise.
Moving backwards, past the “Vice” years, on to 1983 and a type of film you’d never expect from Mann: a World War II horror flick. “The Keep,” based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson, is one of Mann’s rare failures, and yet it’s such an interesting failure that it still manages to remain watchable, long after the plot has run amuck. I credit this to Mann, whose moody visuals rescue his own shaky screenplay, and to Tangerine Dream, who always add a touch of the mysterious with their haunting musical scores.
The film begins well enough. It’s the Carpathian Alps, 1941, and the Nazis have just rolled into town, Jürgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne among them. Their mission is to safeguard a centuries-old fortress known by the locals as the Keep. But when you’ve got a spooky old fortress that nobody knows how it got there, and its walls are covered with crosses, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to finish the bit of dialogue that begins, “It’s not designed to keep something out...”
Yes, kids, there’s an ancient evil living inside, and those greedy Nazis, thinking the crosses are made of silver, start tearing the place up in search of hidden loot. Their penalty: getting their souls sucked out of their heads in what looks to be a right unpleasant manner.
It just so happens that the foremost authority on the Keep is also a prisoner at a nearby concentration camp, and soon we get the forced arrival of Ian McKellen (!), playing a rickety old Jewish scientist who realizes that a Nazi-killing monster might not be such a bad thing. Oh, and it also just so happens that heading toward the Keep via Greece is a glowy-eyed Scott Glenn, playing “Glaeken,” whom I think is a supernatural something-or-other sent from God/heaven/the other side to defeat the Nazi-eating soul sucker.
And this is the Cliffs Notes version of the plot. Left out are plenty of detours and wild meanderings, all of which serve to leave the viewer scratching his head by the closing credits. (As our own Scott Weinberg puts it, “I was a little confused, and I watched the whole movie.”) There seems to be something missing here - indeed, even the iffy special effects suggest that “The Keep” is an unfinished work, and a handful of key scenes just never made it. (The Internet Movie Database tells of multiple versions of the film’s ending, as well as additional bits of Glaeken character development, which implies that careful re-editing may have rescued the plot.) As it stands, the film is more style than substance, and while its tone is captivating, the rest is frustrating.
The same most definitely cannot be said of “Thief,” Mann’s 1981 theatrical directorial debut. The film still stands as my favorite of all the director’s works, as well as one of my favorite caper movies. The movie, starring James Caan as Frank, the poor schlub who’s ready to retire and who’s tricked into pulling one last heist, sounds like your run-of-the-mill crime drama, right down to the tired premise. But Mann, adapting Frank Hohimer’s novel “The Home Invaders,” presents the tale with such detail that the film rises above its familiar plot points.
The opening sequence alone sells the film: a seven minute sequence, absent of all dialogue (minus the occasional background radio chatter), in which Frank and his team of thieves bust into a massive vault, all of which is presented by both director and cast in a very matter-of-fact tone. This is our job, the movie tells us, nothing fancy, it’s just what we do. Sure, we get Mann’s typical flourishes (note the camera swoop through the drill hole and into the safe’s lock), but it’s all low-key. There’s nothing swanky here, no Danny Ocean or Thomas Crown level of cool. It’s just guys doing their thing.
It should be noted that Hohimer was a professional thief serving a prison term when the film was in the works. And that’s what we’re working with here. Mann replaced the glamour of the traditional caper with stark realism. He even went so far as to hire both actual criminals and actual cops to both work on camera (look for former Chicago officer and future Hollywood tough guy Dennis Farina, making his film debut here) and behind it; adviser John Santucci (who also plays a dirty cop in the film) taught the cast how to use actual break-in equipment. That’s a real safe being busted, and a real hydraulic drill doing the busting.
(Mann’s penchant for the authentic strained the already tight budget by insisting that Caan wear an actual Rolex, even though the watch it mentioned only once in the script and a fake would’ve done the trick.)
The plot of “Thief” rolls on two levels. The broader level is the crime thriller, in which Frank must deal with slick crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), the obligatory shoout-outs and such to follow. Here’s the stuff that will appeal to fans of the mob genre, with stylized violence and tough guy posturing that leaves this a worthy companion to De Palma’s “Scarface.” (“Thief” is the better of the two, in fact.) It’s here that we see the seedy underbelly of life, as I guess it’s called, with crooked cops and bribed judges, suburban mobsters and dangerous thugs.
It’s the second level that really gels the movie, however. This is the softer side of Frank, his relationship with would-be girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and his friendship with war buddy and current inmate Okla (Willie Nelson), who’s dying, but doesn’t want to die in jail. There’s a desperate sadness in both these relationships - with Okla, a loyalty that hurts, as it forces Frank to confront the system that will surely win; with Jessie, a yearning for a better life that will surely never come around.
In fact, the film’s harshest moment comes not during a gun fight or break-in, but in a simple trip to the adoption agency, where Frank and Jessie are denied adoption rights due to Frank’s shady history. Frank explodes with rage, and you can feel every ounce of bitterness finally erupt. Here’s a man who thought he was going places in life, realized otherwise, then found out it’s too late to change.
It’s the sad, lonely life of a criminal that Mann captures perfectly with “Thief.” But he also captures the dark slickness of that same life, the one that enthralls us, that keeps us watching stories of the other side of the law. It’s a fine line, but balanced beautifully here. Mann’s work comes off as both a thriller and a deep character study along the lines of “The Asphalt Jungle.” And like Huston’s classic, “Thief,” too, is a masterpiece of the caper genre.
Too bad, then, that it remains one of his least known works. After “Miami Vice,” Mann’s work became increasingly popular, from the box office successes of “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Heat” to Oscar nominations for “The Insider” and “Ali,” and now, “Collateral,” which many feel will earn multiple Oscar nods as well. But it’s here, in Mann’s very first try at a feature film, that he gets it best. If you haven’t seen “Thief” yet, I urge you to track it down. And if you have, I urge you to see it again.
“Manhunter” is available in multiple DVD editions from both MGM and Anchor Bay. “The Keep” is currently only available on VHS from Paramount Home Video. “Thief” is available on DVD from MGM. Season One of “Crime Story” is available on DVD from Anchor Bay; the movie-length pilot episode is also available separately from the same company, for those who don’t want the whole season. And yes, the complete first season of “Miami Vice” will be arriving on DVD in February from Universal.
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originally posted: 01/11/05 16:03:26
last updated: 01/18/05 04:43:05