Forty years of Michael Mann: Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteur's filmography

Forty years ago this weekend, Michael Mann released his first feature Thief, which in retrospect contained several signatures of the director’s work, including stories that revolve around mostly lone wolves, told with intricate cutting, artful visuals, and unexpected musical choices

The New York Times March 27, 2021 11:53:43 IST
Forty years of Michael Mann: Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteur's filmography

Michael Mann

Forty years ago this weekend, Michael Mann released his first feature Thief, which in retrospect contained several signatures of the director’s work, including stories that revolve around mostly lone wolves, told with intricate cutting, artful visuals, and unexpected musical choices. We asked 11 writers to look over a career filled with memorable movies, and pick out the scenes that still stick with them.

Heat: The Job’s the Thing

In most Michael Mann movies, a lot of the action is talk: specifically men talking, sometimes to women but mostly to other men, about their jobs. The frequency of such conversations is what makes Heat (1995) the quintessential Michael Mann film. The justly famous diner scene is, in this context, the Michael Mann-est six minutes in all of cinema.

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

In the course of a hectic, epic game of cat-and-mouse, a weary and frazzled Los Angeles cop Vincent Hanna sits down for coffee with Neil McCauley, the criminal mastermind whose plans he is trying to foil. They are mortal rivals, but also just two guys struggling with the existential demands of professionalism. They chat about marriage, about work, and while they do not exactly become friends, there is no real hostility between them. Each recognises that the other is good at what he does, maybe even the best. Of course they are: they are Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, sharing the screen for the first time. — AO Scott

Collateral: A Face in the Crowd

Mann has always been adept at coaxing menace from the familiar bustle of public spaces, and the opening shot of this classy genre thriller (2004) is a fine example. As Tom Cruise’s character, an implacable hit man, slowly emerges from the crowd at a Los Angeles airport, and approaches the camera, his purposeful stride is deliberately out of step with the sea of travelers around him. Silver-haired and expressionless behind jet-black shades, he glides through the terminal, his pale-gray, sharply tailored suit and dazzling-white shirt giving off a faint sheen. The shark metaphor is unsubtle yet perfect: In barely 30 seconds of screen time, and before hearing him say a word, we know this man is a predator. — Jeannette Catsoulis

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

The Insider: Modulating Pacino

Mann is such a distinctive stylist, with such a recognisable visual and aural aesthetic, that it is easy to overlook how deftly he directs his actors. For proof, look no further than Pacino’s big scene in The Insider. By the end of the 1990s, after his Oscar win for his roaring turn in Scent of a Woman, audiences had come to expect Pacino to work at top volume and high intensity. Instead, Mann keeps the actor on a low simmer — until this scene, when Pacino’s 60 Minutes producer, working on an investigation of Big Tobacco, has finally had enough. Mann and Pacino build the explosion we are waiting for beautifully, the director modulating the escalation like a symphony conductor, as the actor slowly but surely unloads on his bosses, only to have his closest collaborator take the wind out of his sails. — Jason Bailey

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

Thief: A Vulnerable Turn

In Thief (1981), James Caan is Frank, an artisan safecracker in Chicago. He knows that living outside the law means living on borrowed time. After showing up late for a date with Jesse (Tuesday Weld), he gets angry with her and with himself, and drives them to a diner. The yelling subsides, but the emotional register gets more startling. Mann chooses simple shots of two people in a booth, all but strangers to each other, suddenly relating with total candor and vulnerability. “My life is very ordinary,” Jesse protests. Then Frank lays out his past, present and what he hopes will be his ideal, and arguably ordinary, future — with her. Just like that. — Glenn Kenny

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

Ali: 10 Kinetic Minutes

A master class in visual storytelling, the 10-minute opening scene of the 2001 biopic Ali, starring Will Smith, sees the boxer as the Louisville Lip, ironically silent while he trains for his 1964 heavyweight bout with Sonny Liston. For this kinetic salvo, Mann cuts between a raucous Sam Cooke club performance, a Malcolm X speech, and the boxer’s meeting with his rival and a trainer (Jamie Foxx). This is all spliced with Ali’s intense training and his recollections of his childhood in the Jim Crow South: the Colored section of a bus and Emmett Till’s face on a newspaper front page. Mann’s evocative study of Ali’s interiority perfectly introduces the impressionable man rather than the invincible pop-culture icon he would become. — Robert Daniels

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

The Last of the Mohicans: The World in a Gaze

Mann’s great romance with cinema began when he saw the 1936 The Last of the Mohicans in a church basement at four years old. To Mann, James Fenimore Cooper’s tale was a “love story in war zone,” personified in Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye, who fights to protect both his adopted native family and his future with Madeleine Stowe’s British emigre Cora. Cerebral stuff, yet Mann communicates the powerful ideas of the 1992 film through eye contact. The first acknowledgment of the characters’ attraction is a staring contest that stretches for 40 seconds as the music tiptoes in the shadows. While “I will find you!” has become the meme, this moment taps into the child in Mann, who once was that appreciative boy who simply knew he liked what he saw. — Amy Nicholson

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

Public Enemies: A Career With Benefits

Mann’s 2009 gangster movie Public Enemies is a 1930 Ford with a brand-new engine. His penchant for mixing classic melodramatic impulses with new video technology stands out when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) get to know each other over dinner. Looking out of place in the swanky restaurant in her “three-dollar dress,” she asks what he does for a living, and he tells her, matter of factly, “I rob banks.” Depp and Cotillard play the scene with Old Hollywood glamour, but Mann’s digital eye (with cinematographer Dante Spinotti) gives the meet-cute a modern electricity. Capturing precise detail in their expressions, the director hones in on the frankness of Dillinger’s admission and the spell of Frechette’s swooning. Here, Mann shakes up a genre like a good cocktail. — Kyle Turner

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

The Keep: Quiet Madness

Cursed by a chaotic production history, The Keep (1983) has emerged as a trippy, fascinating curio. As with most of my best-loved Mann scenes, my favorite in that film is not one of his vaunted set pieces but a quieter, nearly silent segment. In it, madness takes over a Romanian village after Nazi soldiers unwittingly free the malevolent entity that had been contained in a centuries-old fortress. A priest drinks his dog’s blood, a white horse wanders the deserted streets, sheets flap on a clothesline. It is eerily quiet. This is Mann in Werner Herzog territory, down to a Tangerine Dream soundtrack that answers Popol Vuh’s music for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampyre. — Elisabeth Vincentelli

Forty years of Michael Mann Recounting 11 most cinematic moments in the auteurs filmography

The Last of the Mohicans: An Emotional Conclusion

There is much to love about The Last of the Mohicans (not least of which is the way Daniel Day-Lewis pronounces “Kentucky”), but I have definitely watched it in full multiple times just to get to the end. The last seven or so minutes of the film, almost entirely dialogue-free, has to be one of Mann’s greatest sequences. Call it a music video serving as a finale, if you like, but the combination of motion and emotion, human grief and natural grandeur, all held together by one of the best movie scores of the 1990s, makes it undeniable. — Gilbert Cruz

Collateral: Suspense in Light and Shadow

A reliable trendsetter, Mann has often played with cutting-edge technology, and Collateral used then-novel high-definition video to capture the cascading qualities of light across a nocturnal Los Angeles. In the finale, Cruise’s visiting hit man, trying to kill a prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) in a downtown skyscraper, cuts the power and pursues her through a law library illuminated by almost nothing more than the sprawling, indifferent cityscape beyond. Suspense becomes a matter of pure light and shadow, as the silhouette of a roving killer becomes difficult to distinguish from dancing architectural reflections in glass. The scene may have the most inspired use of mirroring since The Lady From Shanghai. — Ben Kenigsberg

The Insider: Evening Drive

Fuzzy white dots over blackness. Maybe stars in outer space. A machine that retrieves golf balls roves by, its lamps casting an alien glow. It is nighttime at the driving range, where a solitary Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is unwinding with a bucket of balls. But a slow pan reveals another golfer in the distance. His club’s metal clang snaps Wigand to nervous attention. A close-up as a golf ball swooshes into the net. The floodlights shut off. Long shadows, aquamarine hues, and an operatic score. Has our insider been followed, or is the uncanny scene proof of his paranoia? — Natalia Winkelman

The New York Times c.2021 The New York Times Company

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