Director Showcase – Michael Mann, The Early Years
This week in the Director Showcase, Jack Deth is back to look at the early years of Michael Mann
Greetings, once again! I am going to take this opportunity to dig into the early, bygone days of one Hollywood’s most recognized directors. Who made his mark transitioning from television to film and has kept busy in both mediums. Starting out as a writer for such series as Bronk, with Jack Palance. Starsky and Hutch and Joe Waumbaugh’s Police Story. Slowly working is way up the ladder to finally direct an episode of Police Woman, ‘The Buttercup Killer’ in 1997. Which sets the stage for where my tale truly begins. Without further ado. Allow me to introduce.
Director, Michael Mann: The Early Years.
Mister Mann’s talents first caught my eye in a tight, compact ABC Movie of the Week. An anthology based mixing bowl of ninety minute made for TV movies from the mid to late 1970s. Running the gamut of drama, mystery, suspense and Sci-Fi. Some were good. Most of them forgettable. yet some few stood out to be pilots foe series like, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Immortal and The Delphi Bureau. The film that caught my attention possessed a straightforward story line. Devoid of fills, conjecture, deeper meaning and other unneeded, unwanted distractions. A prison picture, of all things; but a truly memorable one!
The Jericho Mile (1979)
Whose story wraps around the day to day existence of lifer, Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy. Superbly brought to life by lithe, lean and well muscled Peter Strauss. Fresh from his roles as Rudy Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man and Joseph Kennedy Jr. in Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy. Strauss’ Murphy seeks release and escape by running a mile, more or less. Around the specific land marks (Trash Cans) inside the border of Folsom Prison’s fenced in exercise yard.
The film’s opening scene captures this wondrously to an instrumental soundtrack of Sympathy for The Devil. Panning the prison’s diverse population pumping iron. Making covert deals for contraband. Advancing agendas or just shooting the breeze as Murphy runs alongside his cell block neighbor. R.C. Stiles. A recent transfer to Folsom, finishing up the tail end of a five years sentence for armed robbery and well fleshed out by journeyman, Richard Lawson. Who can’t wait another three months for a conjugal visit from his wife and newborn daughter. Then makes a deal with the devil later on in order to make it happen.
At a glance, you can see that the bothers hang with brothers. Hispanics congregate with other Hispanics. While Caucasians are the most diverse group. Jumbled White Supremacists, stoner hippies, bikers, career blue collar criminals all keep amongst themselves until the whistle blows at the end of the exercise period.
Life inside isn’t much different. With Murphy striving to tire himself out so he can sleep the night. Then do it all over again the next day. When someone outside the convicts notices how fast Murphy can run and takes the message upstairs to the warden. Briefly and well played by Billie Green Bush. The warden and Murphy have a talk. A college track coach, Ed Lauter is brought in with a clutch of runners to test Murphy. And are shocked at what passes for a track. And how much better Murphy’s close to Olympic times would improve with a decent, modern track with lanes and better all around equipment.
The warden is all for it! More and better funding to be spent in ways unseen by those making the contributions. The coach is all smiles. Seeing something in Murphy worthy of his time and expertise. Yet, Murphy is leery. A convicted murderer just isn’t going to be paroled unless there are strings attached. Life continues and improves as the track is leveled, marked and made competitive. Murphy runs it and his time is better by seconds. While Stiles negotiates with buff, blonde Brian Dennehy to supply sugar from the prison kitchen for his gang’s still. But Dennehy’s ‘Doctor D’ has a better idea. Stiles wants a conjugal visit? Fine. Though he doesn’t tell Stiles that instead of his wife, he’ll meet and greet a mule bringing heroin inside.
Stiles is oblivious until the mule shows up and everything goes pear shaped. Stiles walks away. The mule runs and is caught by guards and Stiles is fatally shanked by Doctor D’s henchmen. I’ll leave the story right here, lest things be ruined by Spoilers.
What Stands Out In This Film?
A bold director telling a solid story. Saving large chunks of budget by filming on location at Folsom Prison and using even larger chunks of the prison populous as extras. While giving a large, hefty role to a proven newcomer in Robert Strauss during a time when ‘Social Consciousness’ were the buzz words of the day. Backing Strauss’ performance with an equally talented clutch of Young Turks. Dennehy, Bush, Lauter, Geoffrey Lewis and Roger E. Mosley are all eager to make their marks. And it shows! For those of you who may think that the Politics of Race is something new and to be held in awe or disdain.This film positively seethes with it. The dialogues amongst the different groups or gangs during exercise periods and in the kitchen and cafeteria is nothing but one group. Regardless of skin color or tattoos, trying to scheme in ways large and small, to get over and achieve supremacy . A very heady topic for a made for TV flick from thirty plus years ago.
All stirred together in a nearly forgotten project that accrued three Emmy Awards:
- Robert Strauss. For Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special.
- Arthur Schmidt. For Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or Special
- Michael Mann and Patrick J. Nolan. For Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series or Special.
- Plus a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directional Achievement in Specials TV/Actuality for Michael Mann.
With all of these awards. The fact that this film has not been re-mastered for Blu-Ray or DVD is unconscionable!
Though, on the upside. The Jericho Mile is available to watch on You Tube.
Which brings us to Mr. Mann’s new found largesse and ability to buy the rights of a novel, The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, by diamond thief, John Seybold. Writing under the pen-name, Frank Hohimer. With the rights and a screenplay, Mr. Mann pitches the idea to United Artists and acquires a decent budget that is spent well, though never extravagantly. To create one of the best, most well executed heist films of the 1980s.
A fearless first time, deep plunge into the deep Diving Well of Olympic Sized film making. Though I reviewed this film back in January of this year. Allow me to go over some of the background, major highlights and memorable moments in a film that is full of them.
The Guy: James Caan in all of his tightly coiled, clamped down, under pressure best. As Frank, a thief who learned his trade while being a convict inside Joliet Prison. Stretching a nickle & dime beef into many years on a manslaughter charge. Frank is recently released. Own a used car lot and a bar. Supplements his income by pulling off extremely well detailed heists late at night. Away from annoying crowds and specializing in cut stones. Frank’s scores catch the eye of the local Mob overseer. Sweet, grandfatherly, though sometimes sadistic, Leo.
The Man: Leo. Perfectly played by Robert Prosky. Who always has an eye out for local talent. He offers Frank a deal. Work for him under Mob protection and pull as many scores as you want. Which Franks interprets as ‘Work one more score and retire.’ Frank agrees warily. Then quickly has second thoughts when every cop and crooked judge in the Windy City has their hand out. The Girl: Jessie. Played to wizened adult perfection by Tuesday Weld in what looks, sounds and feels like a natural extension of her earlier role as Marge Converse in Karel Reisz’s Who’ll Stop the Rain three years earlier. Jessie has had a hard row to hoe as the ex-wife of a drug dealing husband, who left his brains in his other pants far south of the border. Jessie has worked hard for what she has achieved and just wants some white picket fence and family normalcy. Which could happen with Frank working for Leo.
The Crew: James Belushi turning in a notable dramatic role from which he never should have strayed. Giving life to Barry. Frank’s tech guy. Seeker, finder and watcher of bundled electrical wiring that aids burglar alarms, motion detectors and fire alarm systems. Who understands Frank better than most. Abides by his wisdom. Yet, is wary of Frank’s obstinance towards Leo.
The Job: A diamond vault in high rise in L.A. Whose door cannot be punched or peeled. So Frank has some twenty foot long Phosphorus Rods made up. The first tip is lit by an Acetylene torch and Frank walks the rod into the vault door to create a smaller one to walk though and plunder the stones.
The Rest of the Film: Works well until Frank is given his cut. Which is much, much less than he calculated. Let’s just say, things head South from there.
What Stands Out In This Film?
A solid cast delivering the goods and more in a gritty, well deserved gem. Mr. Mann plays with shadows and discovers that he is familiar in their myriad uses to evoke tension and fear. Given greater impact with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack that sometimes heightens the city’s humanity. Though more often, its blatant, rain slicked sleaze. The overall look and feel of its many locations only heighten the experience. From Frank’s countless cars, tailored suits and flawless diamond ring. To Barry’s gaudy Hawaiian shirt for the final briefing in stark, sun lit L.A. To the Armani attired Chicago Burglary cops and detectives. It’s all in the details. Either seen or heard. Supplied by Mr. Mann’s team of former cops and criminals. Often playing their opposite number on film. Though there to make sure it all looks, feels and sounds right.
With all of this acquired credibility. Hollywood decided to give Mr. Mann a large budget and access to the UK’s Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. Plus a good sized, rustic piece of an inland village in Wales to set the groundwork for an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s enormously popular supernatural thriller novel.
The Keep (1983)
Set in the salad days of 1942 World War II. When the Germans were still flush with the fall and requisite perks of Paris. And their latest venture into Russia with Operation Barbarossa still looked like it had a chance of succeeding before the Battle of Stalingrad would teach their brethren otherwise . Enters a platoon of German troops along the ass end of the Carpathian Alps to hold a strategic pass between the mountain ridges and keep it free of Tito’s partisans. Led by Jurgen Prochnow as Captain Klaus Woerman. An officer who first cut his teeth in the German R&D Lab that was the Spanish Civil War. Woerman has had his belly full of war and is pleased to be stationed East instead of West.
Taking in the rainy, fog and cloud shrouded, scattered village and its foreboding stone Keep with a grain of salt. While being escorted by the village priest, Father Mihael Fonescu. Well played by a bearded Robert Prosky. Who warns Woerman not to touch the countless nickel crosses adoring the Keep’s stone walls and keep his number of troops inside to an absolute minimum. While Woerman’s notices that the stunted castle or Citadel is built to keep things in, instead of out. His soldier begin digging out and pillaging those same crosses. Thinking them to be silver, instead.
Night comes with its full moon eeriness as a previously punished troop goes digging again. Freeing a large chunk of stone wall and slowly pulling it away. Curiosity and greed get the better of the troop. Who has his buddy tie a guide line around his waist as he goes Spelunking. Something has been awakened and released with the pulled away stone. That quickly immolates the two troops. Rouses Woerman from his sleep and far, far away brings Scott Glenn bolt upright.
There’s trouble in River City! The death of the soldiers bring an Einsatzgruppe. A gaggle of black uniformed SS troops with one specific mission. No matter how ridiculous or repulsive it seems, to the village. With a wild eyed, oddly coiffed True Believer, Gabriel Byrne in charge. His Major Kaempffer has no problem rounding up random villagers to be scooped up and shot in retribution for the dead. And to send a message to the non existent partisans. Kaempffer is briefed in by Woerman. Walking him through the events of the previous night. Then showing Kaempffer the smoldering reamains of the pillaging soldiers. And some words burned into the moved stone that weren’t there the day before.
Someone is needed to translate. That someone being a decrepit, haggard, wheelchair bound Ian McKellen. Channeling his inner John Huston as Dr. Theodore Cuza. Whose release and that of his daughter, Eva from a Death Camp is spearheaded by Kaempffer brings them back to the village they tried so hard to escape. Cuza knows that something evil is skulking about, but plays his cards close to his vest. Saying little as necessities are sought and negotiated. Then sending Eva, well underplayed by relative newcomer, Albetra Watson to the soldiers’ mess for food. Where she is assaulted on the way back. Cue the obligatory demise of two of Kaempffer’s SS creeps. And the return of Eva to Dr. Cuza in the arms of a tall, smoldering, deep voiced, intimidating stone Golem.
It seems the Golem. Who looks something like a mutated version of Marvel Comics Deathlok and DC Comics Metamorpho. Needs someone needs someone more mobile than he to do things beyond his/its reach. Then cures the good doctor of what ails him. Gone is the paralysis in both hands and Sir McKellen looks forty years younger and slowly acquires the use of both legs for future Skullduggery. In the interim, Eva is given a room in a house outside the Keep. Only to find it occupied by Fearless Golem Killer, Scott Glenn. Who is in deep preparation for The Final Showdown, but not averse to Eva’s sudden affections.
I’ll leave it here, lest we get into Spoiler Territory.
What Stands Out In This Film?
Mann creating a minor work of art that pretty well follows Wilson’s novel. Full of eerie dread and foreboding from its first moments. That bleeds Atmosphere with Tangerine Dream’s notable soundtrack. The Keep’s deep shadows, dull echoes and lack of proper lighting. Getting more than asked for or desired from its cast of seasoned veterans and those anxious to prove themselves. Easily delivering the mood of a forlorn dot on the cloud shrouded map where something greater than man lurks. Often invisible or in the form and shape of blue hued fog and smoke.That consumes souls with effects seen previously, though less gorily in bigger blockbusters buttressed by the clever handiwork of Industrial Light & Magic.
Which may have been the impetus. Along with Jurgen Prochnow’s monumental Das Boot. For the higher ups at Paramount to covertly cut or strong arm Mann into whittling three and a half hours of film down to 96 minutes.
All in all. A decent, worthwhile effort undermined by those way too eager to cut their losses before the final curtain.
Also, available to view on You Tube.