Sunday, February 9, 2014

To Be (Cont'd): Michael Mann's Thief (1981)


This 4-part conversation between myself and Nick Usen on Michael Mann's Thief was written throughout the month of January for To Be (Cont'd).

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Nick,

As I re-watched Thief in preparation for this conversation, I was immediately struck by something apparent but nonetheless indicative of Michael Mann’s cinema. The film opens at night (in the rain, no less), an obvious yet apt setting for a filmmaker whose most memorable narratives tend to transpire around the witching hour. It’s a correlation that’s not exactly absolute--Mann’s most celebrated set piece, the muscularly staged heist sequence in Heat, occurs in broad daylight--but aside from, say, Wong Kar-wai (or, to name a contemporary American counterpart, Abel Ferrara), few filmmakers utilize evening backdrops as suggestively or consistently as Michael Mann.

A quick scan of Mann’s filmography bears easy examples: The “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” sequence in Manhunter, the cacophonous opening club scene in Miami Vice, the decades-in-the-making showdown between De Niro and Pacino in Heat, almost the entirety of The Keep and Collateral--all are indelible showcases set under a blanket of night sky. Thief, Mann’s 1981 theatrical debut, established the template straightaway. The film opens at night, with a car ominously navigating a rain-soaked cityscape. From there, the film alternates between sun and moonlit scenes, adhering to a logical narrative timeline--though even at this early stage it is interesting to note how naturally Mann works under the cover of darkness.

These nocturnal environments are appropriate for what has turned out to be Mann’s major aesthetic preoccupation: the male body in urban landscapes. Indeed, now 11 features into a three decade-plus career, he has yet to make a film with a female protagonist. He has ventured into more exotic locales on occasion, most notably with The Last of the Mohicans and more recently with Ali, but he never strays far from male-dominated, metropolitan stories. His is an almost defiantly masculine cinema--though I think it’s less a case of Mann ignoring the fairer sex than simply an outgrowth of the intensity with which he wrestles with his thematic preoccupations. He has from the beginning situated his males in tough environments, on dangerous ground, and against violent antagonists. Still, amidst these coordinates are some unique contrasts: professional (Heat) and white collar (The Insider) crime, contemporary (Collateral) and historical (Public Enemies) settings, seedy (Thief) and stylish (Miami Vice) syndicates. Mann covers a lot of ground without often leaving his home turf.

For its part, Thief tells a familiar story of an ex-con named Frank (James Caan) planning one last score to secure a financial future for him and his reluctant romantic partner, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). In proceeding features, Mann has often played with the function of archetypes, as well as worked in genres and milieus often ignored by the greater critical populace. This may be what has prompted a reclamation effort by younger critics championing him as a “vulgar auteur.” At the same time, these very characteristics are at least partially responsible for the film’s placement just outside the quote-unquote canon, though it appears the film’s Criterion release will go some way toward correcting the oversight. To my mind, Thief remains Mann’s most zealously drawn, thematically nuanced work, if not his best (an honor which may in the end go to the ambitious, aesthetically radical Miami Vice).

Notably, all the hallmarks of a debut film are absent here. Mann had spent more than a decade working in television prior to Thief--writing, producing, and directing everything from sitcoms to documentaries to a Movie of the Week--but the transition nonetheless proved inevitable and the result accordingly confident. Mann’s work with his actors--which in addition to Caan and Weld in two of their most natural roles, also includes choice parts for Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina, Willy Nelson, and Robert Prosky as Frank’s cold, cunning gangster boss/father figure Leo--is loose yet efficient, reverent yet comfortable. His script, based on a novel by Frank Hohimer, is full of sharp, occasionally antiquated dialogue (I’m personally still waiting for “goof” to make a comeback), and situational action that calls on the director’s budding talent for constructing kinetic set pieces (you can sense a similar, if embryonic, attention to procedural detail in Thief’s central jewel heist as you can in Heat’s elaborate bank robbery). But what continues to linger and appeal to my cinematic senses after multiple viewings is the film’s sense of patience, a hallmark of Mann’s work that can give his films a protracted, casual feel even as they depict such ruthless, violent activity. To wit, Thief’s opening moments (nearly ten minutes, in fact) play out wordlessly as we watch Frank and his gang break into a vault only to realize that their score has been intercepted, a development that will ultimately put Frank in service to Leo, a partnership that will prove both lucrative and grave for all involved.

There’s one last thing I want to touch on before getting your thoughts, Nick, and that is Thief’s third act pivot, moving as it does away from the contemplative pace of its initial setup into a more stylistic and expressive mode. There’s a memorable scene which transitions the film into this heightened gear, wherein Frank and Leo have a disagreement about the terms of their partnership, and it’s a confrontation that will pit the two against each other for the remainder of the narrative. The very next sequence features a fixed overhead shot of the hood of Frank’s car, the neon billboards and street lights reflecting in vertical symmetry, smearing the margins of the frame. He soon arrives back at his car lot, which he runs as a cover for his criminal activity, to find a member of his crew being ambushed by Leo’s men. During the attack, Frank is captured and brought to an unidentified warehouse, where he’s beaten and told in no uncertain terms to cooperate or be killed like his partners.

I admire this scene for many reasons, but from a cinematic standpoint I find it to be Thief’s most interesting sequence. Mann’s editing style, which has thus far been rather seamless, is heightened considerably at this moment, as Leo’s threats are juxtaposed with quick cuts that challenge physical continuity and essentially present a montage of Prosky’s movements. It’s a technique obviously employed to build tension, as is the upside down shot of Leo directly preceding it, but it’s quickly contrasted with a slow motion shot of a body being dumped into a water tank, creating a disorienting spatial field. Jumping successively between perspectives--from Frank’s to an omniscient point of view and back again--it becomes at once easy to follow the action and difficult to reconcile the continuity of the compositions. It’s a method utilized to similar effect a few years later in the climax of Manhunter, and one that in combination with his otherwise methodical narrative approach, largely defines Mann’s early period. The cumulative effect of this methodology arguably renders Mann’s 80s output the richest of his three loosely-outlined phases: his initial trio of films, his mainstream studio entertainments (running roughly from 1992’s The Last of the Mochicans to 2001’s Ali) and his continuing experiments in digital (from 2004’s Collateral to 2009’s Public Enemy and his forthcoming technological thriller Cyber). What makes this pertinent is the increased use of these editing and narrative tactics in his more recent work, lending his corpus an arc aside from simple genre affiliations. Is this something you’ve picked up on as well, Nick? Or is Thief simply the work of a fresh filmmaker who has since grown into an entirely different artist with circumscribed thematic and aesthetic concerns?

 -Jordan

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Thief, Part Two: Bodies As Tools

January 16th, 2014

Jordan,

Before preparing my response, and even before re-watching Thief and the rest of Mann’s oeuvre, I closed my eyes and thought of the sights and sounds I inherently associate with his work. I did this for two reasons: 1.) I wanted to see what formal aspects of Mann’s filmography most resonate with me and 2.) I was curious if countless critical readings and Twitter conversations had caused me to latch onto inconsequential or false aspects of his work. The image that came to me--of a single man in an alleyway at night, bathed in neon, rain falling around him--makes its clear that we share the same unconscious association of Mann as a nocturnal filmmaker.

Though I essentially envisioned Thief--which speaks volumes about its influential style and the potency of its images--I think you’re absolutely right in your assertion that Mann is most comfortable, and at his most commanding, when filming at night. Though certainly a consummate stylist, his preoccupation with nighttime photography has as much to do with the thematic elements of his work as it does the visual. His films have always been concerned with violent men who not only operate at night, but function within the fissures and cracks of urban society. There are exceptions, such as The Last of the Mohicans and Ali, but in the opening minutes of Thief we’re given a view into Frank’s (James Caan) life as an expert safe cracker and cat burglar, a man whose very occupation requires a blanket of darkness to properly pursue. Mann followed Thief with cinematic tales of a deeply disturbed serial killer (Manhunter), a vicious hitman (Collateral), and undercover cops (Miami Vice), all of whom are men operating on the fringes of a violent society.
Mann’s work rarely features prominent female characters, but this has far less to do with marginalizing women than with a personal obsession with pulpy themes and noir archetypes set against the grime and grit of urban decay. Dangerous men embroiled in threatening, yet somewhat realistic, situations fascinates him--his camera elevates these lowlifes and thugs, cops and robbers to the level of spectacle, imbuing them with an aura of pulsing vitality previously unseen (at least to my eyes) in similar criminal milieus. Perhaps the most distinct and crucial aspect of Mann’s incredibly rich corpus is how he utilizes the body within the cinematic space. Within Mann’s cinema, physical bodies function as vigorous and precise tools.

In his book Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson describes the visual image as “essentially pornographic”, stating that, “films ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body”--meaning that films, first and foremost, portray physical experience though the senses and gestures. Various directors have explored the physical nature of cinema by structuring their films around the physical form. They employ and repurpose the body in numerous ways to convey emotions through tangible physicality. Claire Denis, director or Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum, states, “Capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me.” Denis’ bodies are ones of sensuous glances and erotically charged interactions, functioning as corporal barriers that can barely contain her characters’ desires. This is in sharp contrast to the work of distinctly physical comedians, such as the constantly contorting and twisting visage of Jerry Lewis or the flailing limbs of Jackie Chan. Both are evocative of men utterly at odds with their surroundings, thus displaying an innate comic sensibility. The bodies of Mann’s cinema are not composed of malleable flesh--they’re a muscular extension of the various tools and weapons his characters wield. The opening heist of Thief is primarily composed of close-ups on the magnetic drill Frank uses to breach the safe. As Frank cranks the drill’s lever, allowing the drill bit to puncture the safe’s exterior, his arm and the drill appear to fuse . Mann’s bodies are one and the same with the instruments they wield--it’s not the banged up metal of the drill that cracks the safe; Frank cracks the safe.

The body as a tool is merely one half of Mann’s fascination with bodies within the cinematic space: a central tenant of his work, especially as he moved into the digital and more experimental phase of his career--beginning with 2004’s Collateral--is how bodies move through, and ultimately commandeer, various cinematic spaces. After John Dillinger (Johnny Deep) and his accomplices’ storm up the staircases of a cavernous, marble bank in Public Enemies, Mann shoots them from above as they spread out to their coordinated positions like swarming ants. Then, as the robbery commences and the robbers begin shouting orders at the bank patrons and employees, they move with the utmost precision as Dillinger gracefully leaps over the teller desk. Suddenly Dillinger’s body eclipses nearly the entirety of the frame. With this swift, singular movement, filmed as a shot reverse shot, Dillinger not only asserts his dominance over the bank employees, but over the bank itself. He had appeared utterly miniscule within the bank moments before, but now his body suddenly overtakes the bank--as soon as this dynamic movement occurs there’s no question the robbery will be successful, the only question is how long it will take.

With the discotheque assassination in Collateral, and Miami Vice’s initial sting, nightclubs have also proved to be incredibly fertile locations for Mann to stage his now signature kinetic sequences of male bodies in motion. In Collateral, hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise), his reluctant chauffer Max (Jamie Foxx), police detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), the FBI, and gang members--who have been ordered by Vincent’s employer to kill him if he fails his mission--simultaneously reach the same target and intercept one another. Featuring lucid yet brazen handheld camera work, the throngs of gyrating revelers on the pulsing dance floor blur and smear the background of the frame. Alternating between his guns and fists, Vincent snaps sinew and breaks bone, asserting his dominance through his sheer physicality and decimating everyone in his way--most often in a brutal close-up. The various parties--including both the club goers and primary characters--blend together amidst the discordant chaos of the nightclub, but Vincent’s body remains the center of Mann’s frame.

It’s clear that Mann had already laid the groundwork for such scenes in Thief. After Frank breaches the skyscraper containing the diamond vault he intends to rob, he’s greeted by the vault’s opulent foyer. As the stationary camera observes the elegant wood tables, marble floors and walls, and a magnificent diamond chandelier, Frank walks to the dead center of the frame and radios to his cohorts, “We own it.” Then he lovingly rubs and caresses the vault itself, though Frank, in his grease-covered jeans and rumpled sweatshirt, could not look more out of place within this bastion of the wealthy. But a man who has spent the majority of his adult life in prison does not take half-steps, and due to his well-honed cracking skills and unbridled confidence, demonstrates he was able to quickly and confidently seize control of the entire space. In my opinion, no director is better at establishing a space and conveying the forceful masculinity that subsequently dominates it.  After being apprehended in Public Enemies, John Dillinger quips that he can make his way through a bank in a minute forty flat. In many ways this could be taken as a boast from Mann himself. Have you noticed this recurring thematic and visual motif, Jordan? Or am I simply infatuated with Mann’s propensity for visual panache?

Lastly, I wish to pose one more query to you concerning Mann’s narrative structure in both Thief and the rest of his work: While doing research for this piece I stumbled upon Ryland Walker Knight’s dispatch on Mann for Reverse Shot. Knight posits that Mann structures his films around various binary relationships. The more I thought about it the more I began to realize that Mann--to use a somewhat crude term--is the master of the bromance. Though Frank avoids emotional connections in order to preserve the “don’t give a fuck about living or dying” attitude that helped him survive prison, he clearly finds a kindred spirit in Barry (Jim Belushi) who is not only a crucial part of his crew, but also his best friend. Throughout his career, Mann has continued to focus on close corporal and emotional relationships between men: Will Graham and Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter, Lt. Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley in Heat, Vincent and Max in Collateral, John Dillinger and his crew in Public Enemies, and of course Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice. Have you noticed this ‘holy trinity’ of the male body – the body itself, the body in motion, and bodies in relation to one another--in Michael Mann’s work as well, Jordan? Or should I stick to Michael Bay for my buddy film fix?

-Nick

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Thief, Part Three: Crime Narratives and Wayward Males

January 23rd, 2014

Nick,

Before I address your post, I thought I’d take a moment to touch on a few more aspects of Mann’s early work. We’ve spent a great deal of time deconstructing the formal qualities of his films, but one of Mann’s greatest skills, especially in his initial period, is his storytelling prowess. In a new interview included on Criterion’s Blu-ray, Mann identifies Thief as a modernist film, but “modernist not because of its cinematics, but the narrative, the story,” admitting, “It’s designed to affect the way you think.” He adds that nowadays he doesn’t (or perhaps cannot) make films in this more instigative mode. He’s certainly adopted a more suggestive approach to narrative over the years (Miami Vice, in particular, is almost abstract in its plot disclosure), but there’s a pleasingly volatile, invigorating sense of forthrightness to Thief’s dialogue.

This internal dynamic aligns it with the prior decade’s proliferation of character-based crime dramas in both film and on television, an industry Mann spent years working in before making his debut feature. Thief’s primary American counterparts more accurately resemble such films as Robert Culp’s Hickey & Bogg’s (1972), Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Robert Altman’s California Split (1974), than, say, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) or Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple (1984). Two of those former films, in fact, could be classified as what you refer to as “buddy films,” and I think you’re right to identify the binary relationship as a focal point for Mann’s narratives. So rather than allow the romance between Frank and Jessie to truly drive the motivation of the former--despite his ostensible advances, offers, and claims to the contrary--Mann instead presents a pair of male partnerships to push his protagonist back into the line of fire. You mentioned Jim Belushi’s Barry, and his fate without a doubt propels Frank toward the film’s violent climax. But I think a more personal relationship influences Frank throughout the film, one originating from before the narrative we’re offered. This character, nicknamed Okla and played with a disarming serenity by Willie Nelson, is not only Frank’s mentor but also a father figure, a kinship that Robert Prosky’s Leo tries to usurp later in the film by offering to obtain a child for Frank and Jessie to adopt. It’s Okla’s off-screen imprisonment which ultimately inspires Frank’s actions, particularly in light of the future he chooses for himself and Jessie.

In other words, not the stuff of your typical Hollywood crime film, despite its utilization of archetypical and structural binaries. This thematically subversive effect is partly achieved, as we’ve mentioned, by Mann’s intense focus on the physicality of his actors and their movement amidst his cold, unforgiving landscapes. You mention Claire Denis’s preoccupation with bodies as barriers (and I’d go even one step further and call it skin as segregate). She’s certainly the foremost master at documenting incremental change in emotion and environment made physical through the textural components of the human form. However, there is a key difference between her approach and application of this almost procedural process of documentation and Mann’s more measured means: Denis is an obsessively sensual and intuitive filmmaker whereas Mann is more clinically detached and calculatingly composed. He also forgoes the spirituality of a filmmaker like Robert Bresson, for example, who was consumed with the movement of bodies within carefully constructed environments. Mann instead utilizes the formal properties of cinema to get at something more psychologically relevant and revealing in his characters’ motivations. This is one other reason I think Mann has stuck so close to masculine stories over the years. Men are an obsessive breed, prone to similar mistakes across myriad milieu, and our psychological makeup is tied intrinsically to violent and competitive activity.

I find it nonetheless interesting that the two aesthetic personalities we’ve so far referenced in comparison to Mann are both of French descent. Indeed, despite the titles mentioned earlier, I find Mann far more redolent of European lineage, at least stylistically, than American. In fact, if there’s one standout precursor to Mann’s formal and thematic conceits, it may be Jean-Pierre Melville, another French filmmaker, and one who made a career out of crime narratives centered on wayward males. Further, Mann was one of the first to look outside our borders to Germany and that country’s kosmische scene of the 1970s for musical inspiration for his early film work. It wasn’t long before Mann’s interest in krautrock and progressive electronic sounds turned to the actual employment of the band Tangerine Dream, the most intrinsically cinematic of all of Germany’s experimental acts, with their widescreen synth tapestries ably suggesting images of both ominous inertia and thrilling inevitability. The result was the simultaneously evocative and pulsating score for Thief (and subsequently, The Keep), as much a component of the film’s aesthetic design as anything we’ve previously identified, the band’s glistening sonic helixes the aural equivalent of Mann’s neon nightscapes. Thief is, of course, a beautiful film to behold, but much of the atmosphere and, specifically, the tension occasioned by Mann’s compositional constructs--on the commentary track included on the Blu-ray he mentions a proverbial lid atop the visible spectrum of the screen, conceptualized as the aforementioned blanket of night sky--is ultimately only engaged when paired with the music of Tangerine Dream.

One may even argue that the band’s score (and, to be fair, their scores for countless other films throughout the ‘80s) is, at least currently, the most influential aspect of the film. An entire movement of musicians in the late-2000s, artists of an age to have grown up on VHS copies of Mann’s work, took to co-opting the style of Tangerine Dream and similar instrumental electronic groups of the era. This, of course, culminated in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film highly influenced by the early work of Mann (as well as Thief’s forerunner, Walter Hill’s The Driver), and one with a soundtrack featuring artists (Chromatics, Kavinsky, Cliff Martinez) openly in thrall with Tangerine Dream and the group’s more pop-oriented ‘80s descendants. Which is all a long way of asking, Nick, where you most see Thief’s influence in today’s generation? And is it restricted simply to the aural and visual mediums? Meanwhile, having established a few of Mann’s unlikely stylistic compatriots, what do you think of some of his more modern contemporaries? Is it fair to either these genre filmmakers or Mann himself to label his recent digital forays as simply visual actualization of more vulgar obsessions?

-Jordan

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Thief, Part Four: A Marriage of Style and Substance

February 3rd, 2014

Jordan,

I, and many others, too often place sole focus on Michael Mann’s visual aesthetics and stylistic sensibilities, unfairly overlooking his precise narrative constructions. His sumptuous milieus are certainly worthy of praise, but to ignore his storytelling ability is to ignore a crucial aspect of his artistry. As you mention, his narratives have begun to take on a more abstract form, a trend that reached its zenith with the grainy, blown-out digital aesthetic, and nearly impenetrable narrative, of Miami Vice. However, the hyper realistic gunfights and erotically charged excursions to Cuba for mojitos still have the same control, and perhaps more importantly, volatile emotions that have been present in his oeuvre since Thief.

While on his first date with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), Frank decides to be as truthful with her as possible. He’s not only honest about his work as a thief, he also explains how he survived a lengthy prison sentence: by attaining a Zen-like state where “nothin’ means nothing.” He’s tried to put that same ethos into practice post-imprisonment, enjoying the finer things in life, such as gold watches, $800 suits, and a “perfect, D flawless three carat ring.” But what he truly craves--a wife and a family--remains relegated to a crumpled piece of paper composed of pictures and magazine clippings--essentially Frank’s prison-made dream board. Featuring prominently on this collage is Frank’s incarcerated mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) who represents the film’s emotional heart. Though he’s absent for most of Thief’s runtime, Okla hangs over Frank, and Thief itself, like a specter. While Frank attempts to convince himself that ostentatious cars and elegant clothes are enough to make him happy, a gaping void will always remain as long as Okla is in prison.

Once, when visiting him, Frank asks how he can help, and Okla bluntly responds, “Get me outta here.” Shot in the dull gray and drably blue-hued prison visiting room, the scene functions as a deeply sobering emotional gut-punch in a film concerned more with visual spectacle than quiet, emotionally devastating moments. The pain and utter defeat present in Okla’s cadence is contrasted by the white-hot rage that engulfs Frank later when he’s informed that Okla has died. Though he doesn’t utter a single word, his eyes seem to burn a hole through the doctor’s soul. The take only last a few moments, bit it feels like an eternity--as if an entire lifetime’s worth of anger and sadness is being unleashed. In Thief’s commentary track, Caan notes how this protracted, deathly silent stare-down was largely unscripted. The raw, unbridled emotion in this moment is as much a spectacle as the main vault heist. As you noted, Mann considers Thief a modernist film more because of its narrative than its aesthetics--but due in large part to Frank’s rugged yet palpably wounded psychology, the film has an emotional core that makes it more than just a "stylish" film.

Throughout his career, Mann has gravitated towards pulpy archetypes amidst neon-smeared cityscapes, but he has always centered his narratives on fully drawn protagonists rather than arch caricatures. In Thief’s now iconic climax, Frank becomes a one-man hit squad clearing rooms within Leo’s (Robert Proskey) home like a seasoned veteran, dispatching foes with near superhuman precision. This sequence demonstrates how we can view Frank’s body as a tool--dismantling the criminal organization that's trying to entrap him, just as the prison system did. Thief is just as concerned with Frank eradicating his oppressive mental confinements as it is with him killing the mob that hopes to bleed him dry. Realizing his dream is impossible, he quite literally incinerates what remains of his life, burning down his businesses and home, and killing Leo and his men. But as Frank walks off into the night, he is essentially a ghost. He’s freed himself from the burden of caring--achieving that state of mind where “nothin’ means nothing”--but it’s cost him everything: his business, Okla, Jessie, and Barry.

This tragedy is juxtaposed with a small bit of spiritual and mental freedom much earlier in the film. After the opening heist, Frank walks along the Chicago waterfront, the epochal skyline in the background, and sits down with an old fisherman. As they stare out at the shimmering water and clear, purple sky, the fisherman says, “That’s magic, that’s what that is, man.” The majority of Thief--and Mann’s corpus--consists of cops and criminals committing violent acts; it’s only during this introspective moment that Frank (unknowingly) almost grasps the sense of inner peace he desperately longs for.

But Frank and the fisherman’s introspective moment marveling at nature’s beauty is only the first of such scenes in Mann’s filmography. Similar moments surface throughout his work: Max gazing lovingly at his dream tropical getaway on a well-worn postcard in Collateral, John Dillinger staring out at the desolate farmland surrounding his safe house after a prison break in Public Enemies, and of course Crockett and Isabella speeding across the cobalt blue waters of the Atlantic ocean on their way to Cuba in Miami Vice. For Mann’s hardened protagonists, Frank in particular, these moments of tranquility are ephemeral--there is very little peace for a thief when there is always another score to plan. Mann weaves the entrancing beauty of this fishing scene into the movie's very milieu through the smeared, expressionistic hues of its cityscape, and the lush yet haunting score by Tangerine Dream. Through his sumptuous style, Mann is able to locate something close to the sublime.

This marriage of substance and style is what many of Thief’s (and Mann’s) imitators fail to achieve. Films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and videogames like Hotline Miami owe a stylistic debt to Thief’s sharp neon color palette, opulent synth score, and overwhelming sense of cool. And without James Cann as Frank, we wouldn’t have Ryan Gosling’s tortured heroes in Refn’s films, or in Gangster Squad or The Place Beyond the Pines.

Christopher Nolan often cites Mann as well, both narratively and visually, though his enormous budgets eclipse any Mann has worked with. On the narrative side, the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight recalls the iconic restaurant showdown between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Visually, Nolan appropriates the Chicago skyline in The Dark Knight to construct a Gotham firmly ground in reality. But Nolan’s use of the city is generic; Chicago is merely a backdrop for his set pieces. Watching the Batmobile barrel down a real city street certainly lends the film a degree of verisimilitude, but any major metropolis would have worked. In Thief, Chicago is far more than a location; it’s a lead character. Mann finds beauty and poetry among Chicago’s smoky, rain-soaked alleys and angular skyscrapers.

Thief, and the majority of Mann’s oeuvre, might concern itself with a criminal milieu, but attempting to define his work with a single, generic label, such as "crime films," is to fundamentally diminish Mann’s prowess for establishing stunning, impressionistic visuals amidst incredibly rich narratives. His penchant for assembling delicate syntheses of both substance and style is what sets Mann apart from his emulators. Though his recent films have simultaneously pushed his stylistic and procedural preoccupations to their breaking point, they still retain Thief’s evocative visuals and narrative precision, marking him as a truly singular artist. 

-Nick

[To Be (Cont'd)]

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