Director Showcase Takeover – Michael Mann: Pushing The Envelope
Jack Deth is back this week with another detailed post about Michael Mann, check it out…
Greetings once again! Having introduced you to Michael Mann’s earliest efforts in film for television and the Big Screen. With his 1979 Emmy winning ABC Movie of the Week, The Jericho Mile. And noteworthy first and second efforts, Thief and The Keep. We arrive at a time when the director is allowed a bit more risk taking and freedom to stretch and flex his muscles and possibly extend his boundaries.
With the less than stellar reception of Mr. Mann’s The Keep behind him. And with time to recover, reorganize and draft a screenplay based on the very popular novel ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris. A project the De Lauentiis Studios had acquired after buying the novel’s rights. Entrusting Mr. Mann with a fairly decent sized budget that the director spent wisely. By going small, instead of big. Putting together a trusted cast of young, attractive cast and a few friends to create a minor classic.
A film that arrived completely out of left field. With not much fanfare. yet grew to impressive numbers through word of mouth. One of the very first and best contemporary forensics thrillers. Centered around a string of home invasions and grisly murders committed around Atlanta, GA, by a killer nicknamed ‘The Tooth Fairy’ by local law enforcement. The FBI is asked to step in and beleaguered Jack Crawford, gruffly played by Dennis Farina heads to Florida to talk with retired, nearly burnt out profiler, Will Graham. Fresh from his role as Secret Service Agent, Rick Chance in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Approaching his role with trepidation at first. Then full blown gusto after a visit to the latest crime scene and clues and a partial fingerprint are discovered. Followed by a brief sit down with Brian Cox’s slightly slimy Dr. Hannibal Lector at an Atlanta prison.
All the while being hounded from a distance by even more slimy tabloid Journalist Freddy Lounds. Who had rubbed Graham entirely the wrong way during a previous investigation. Steven Lang gives admirable creepy. standoffish life to his arrogant, slovenly character for his time on screen. After a brief altercation that bounces Lounds off a parked car’s windshield. Graham wants tighter surveillance on Lector. Which reveals a note written on toilet paper that’s sent to the very beginnings of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, VA. Where it is scientifically bent, buckled, folded, spindled and mutilated with X-rays, lasers, whiz bangs and cameras. To reveal the name ‘Avid Fan’ and a connection to The National Tattler. An Atlanta tabloid. Wrapped around some of the most tense and well executed first generation Geek porn on film. Headed by Bill Smitrovich.
A spoof in the form of an ad in the Tattler’s Personals is devised. Along with a Lounds assisted ploy to plant an article that the FBI believes the Tooth Fairy is gay. A reaction is not short in coming. With the ‘Tooth Fairy’ kidnapping, interrogating and finally setting fire to a wheel chair bound Lounds. Then pushing him down the curving ramp of The National Tattler‘s underground garage. Graham takes another visit to the crime scene and walks through the crime in the Tooth Fairy’s mind. A very creepily place, indeed. As Crawford and his crew go over the remains of Lounds.
In the interim, there is time for romance to blossom. Between gangly, tall, bald and fastidious photo lab technician, Francis Dollarhyde and a blind assistant, Reba McClane, sensuously played by Joan Allen. Who has adapted to her world and desires what any woman desires. Watching them together in their slow waltz of well mannered shared seduction is odd though memorably sweet. As another letter to Lector is uncovered and the search for the book that is the note’s Rosetta Stone is intensified and unearthed. Decoded, the note contains Graham’s address and instructions from Lecktor to kill the entire family!
The FBI’s version of Witness Protection falls around Graham, his wife, stoic Kim Greist and son, Kevin. Played with older than his years curiosity. Father and son try to bond while buying groceries for their new, fenced in and well protected digs. Father and son try to explain the best they can what brought about these events and if they can possibly smoothed out and rationalized. Before duty calls with the early warning of the killer’s full Moon and Graham is looking at the latest family’s video tapes of murdered Atlanta family. There’s lots of stops and rewinds as Graham starts putting clues and pieces together. The home movies must have been transferred from 16mm to video, so where?
Crawford enters, anxious to do something as Graham connects the last dots. A photo lab in St. Louis, Missouri! The two scramble to the roof and a waiting helicopter and flight to a nearby base with a waiting Lear Jet. While Reba and Dollarhyde bask in a post-coital glow. That brings The Tooth Fairy to the surface with a spark of jealousy and shooting an unknown suitor of Reba’s. Before pulling her back inside the house. I’ll stop right there to avoid Spoiler Territory.
Manhunter is the film where Mr. Mann starts to stretch out and expand his niche and comfort zone. Riding herd on a bunch of young, barely recognized talent possessing huge potential. Who grasps their characters with style and elan. While making it all look so blissfully easy. From William Pertersen’s burned out, scruffy Will Graham and Dennis Farina’s always well dressed, ‘Been there. Done That. On both sides of the block!’ Jack Crawford. To Steven Lang’s, dumpy, sloppy, arrogant Freddy Lounds and Brian Cox’s smooth, yet slimy Hannibal Lecktor. The principals pull the plow! Aided by a clutch of even lesser known, though just as determined aids, William Smitrovich. Who rocks during his brief scenes. Chris Eliot, turning in a brief dramatic role for a change. And finally, Tom Noonan. Who sets the bar extremely high for quiet, aloof, psychotic loners with WAY too much time on their hands.
The cinematography by Dante Spinotti is exceptional. Using sunlight, a variety of angles, sweeping curves, quiet solitude, shadow and darkness along a somewhat surreal trip. Spinotti’s deft touch in the scene focusing on Joan Allan’s tactile encounter with a sedated tiger is mesmerizing. As is the final showdown at the film’s end.
Creating a hallmark by a young director that has solidly stood the test of time and has grown in popularity. Despite a soundtrack that some dismiss out of hand. And a near verbatim and scene by scene remake about a decade and a half later. Brian Cox is still the superior Lecktor. Leaving the following three years for director Mann to con, cajole and put together many previous secondary players for the prior to Miranda, 1960s Chicago/Las Vegas series Crime Story. While also allowing Mr Mann to work on what would be a favorite and famous screenplay that began life as a 97 minute made for television movie for NBC in 1989,
Shot entirely on location amongst the City of Angel’s business and financial districts and arid, industrial Outlands and wastelands. L.A. Takedown. Centering on a very sophisticated, well armed, methodical gang of criminals. Whose forte is tightly timed, high reward, high end theft. Bearer Bond and Cash. Easily liquified and filling either Armored Cars, Bank Vaults or Safety Deposit Boxes.
To battle these ne’er do wells is an equally dedicated band of Los Angeles Robbery Detectives. Led by a close to the edge, Vietnam vet, Intel officer and near obsessive. Named Vincent Hannah.
Now that you ask. Yes, it does!
Mr. Mann’s screenplay that he held onto for fourteen years for the stars to align for his much heralded Heat started life as L.A. Shakedown. A more than decent little action and crime flick. Well cast with young talent who deliver more than what is asked for or required,
There are minor changes to characters and the censors seemed to offer a lot of leeway in regard to language, behavior and violence. Robert De Niro’s mastermind, Neil McCauley has been pre-dated by Alex McArthur’s Patrick McLaren. Who possesses the same professional bravura and is In charge of a crew with Vincent Gustaferro as Michael Cerrito. And non gambling addicted Peter Dobson as Chris Sheherlis. There’s even an over anxious, double crossing Waingro, well played by Xander Berkeley. And the last minute replacement for parolee Dennis Haysbert is Clarence Gilyard Jr.
While on the flip side of coin. Scott Plank, who looks one heck of a lot like William Pertersen in many scenes. Is just as driven and resigned and good as Pacino’s Hannah, Daniel Baldwin has been added as Bobby Schwarz. Michael Rooker predates Ted Levine as Bosko. Richard Chaves, still buff from Predator and War of the Worlds has Wes Studi’s role as Detective Lou Casals.
The top of the line tech and Internet are still a DARPA project and sidelined for wall boring drills and Thief like jumpers, Volt and Ohm meters to disable alarms and help open vault doors. While the crew notes travel times to stoplights and intersections close to the Freeway. The collection of data and the nuts and bolts of the golden time. Between the first mask being pulled on and weapon drawn to the police being notified and arriving works very well. Building suspense for the big heist and its subsequent showdown and shoot out.
I can definitely understand why director Mann held onto the original idea. Then giving it a test run within a much more limited time frame and the restraint of censors. Then using the concept as a test bed to discover what works and what doesn’t. Holding onto the knowledge garnered until the two leads in the cast he wanted to became available.
Does the film work as well as Heat? In many ways. Yes. With a ‘Less is More’ approach that highlights the details on both sides of the law. Creating a large chunk of what makes L.A. Shakedown work. From the pre bank heist coffee klatch with Hannah and McLaren. That, I think is better. With a simpler approach, than the later effort. To how well McLaren and his crew operate together with and without pressure. Though Hanna and his men clearly have McLaren outgunned with a tactical semi-auto 12 gauge slug shotgun built on a steroid enhanced M-16 frame. Against the bad guys’ H&K MP-5s.
Ronald Victor Garcia, veteran cinematographer of Mr. Mann’s Crime Story makes magic both indoors and out. Adding a touch of grime and the feel of smog wherever the camera points. Original music by Tim Truman is more orchestral and moves things along nicely. Set direction by Don Diers adds authenticity throughout. Especially with Hanna and his crew’s runway ramped bullpen. Low ceilinged banks and shadowed, narrow hotel corridors.
Leaving Mr. Mann wide open to play with an industrial grade compacter and hold the reins of the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. And caress its expansive story and breadth and compress it into an epic that weighs in just under two hours.
Director Mann pulls out all the stops to set a film in 1757. In the middle of America’s French and Indian Wars around the forests and mountains of upstate New York and westward towards Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. Where the British are more than infringing on the Huron and lesser, near forgotten Mohican Indians. Their land and way of life. When not interfering with the French and their desire to expand their sphere of influence in a new land. Also the location where an farm house is right where it shouldn’t be. In the middle of a hunk of valley disputed over and coveted by the Huron and the French.
The film opens with Mohican, Chingachgook, well played by first timer, Russell Means. His son Uncas, played by stoic Eric Schweig and adopted white son, Nathaniel. Heroically played by Daniel Day Lewis visiting the Cameron farm after a day of stalking deer. Thumb nail sketches of the characters are laid out while discussing plans for their immediate futures by candle and fireplace light. John Cameron is off to Albany to negotiate a better situation for being part of the British militia. While Nathaniel and his family seek out more game for the coming months. Though, he sure their paths will cross again.
They do. In Albany. Where Major Duncan Heyward, relatively fresh from Bristol and across the sea. And rather toadily played at first. Wanting to marry his boss’s daughter, by Russell Means. Is ordered by priggish General Webb to escort Colonel Edmund Munro’s two comely daughters, Cora. Prim, proper, though with a spine of steel and iron will. Impressively played by Madeline Stowe. And Alice. Wide eyed, naive and well played by newcomer, Jodhi May. To Fort William Henry and the Colonel’s loving arms. To aid and protect and reinforce the adventure is Magua. A Huron who despises the British, especially Colonel Munro. And is arrogantly and treacherously played by Wes Studi, Along with sixty infantrymen.
Before sunset the next day, the British are ambushed at a spot pre selected by Magua. Where the British Army learns rather quickly that their ability for each man to fire six shots in thirty seconds is of little use when the Indians return well aimed fire between volleys. Then melee attacks with clubs, knives and tomahawks for close quarters battle. Many Redcoats are killed as Nathaniel, Uncas and Chingachgook storm in and pick off several stragglers as Magua and his raiders recover and steal away.
It’s off to Fort William Henry. On foot. Only to find the fort under siege by the french. In scenes reminiscent of the nightly attacks on the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now. About two hundred years earlier. With French artillery lighting up the ink black night sky. Nathaniel, Uncas and Chingachgook lead Heyward, Cora and Alice around and back through an entrance to the fort. Where they meet Colonel Munro. Even more unbending and ramrod straight than he’d been as Section Sergeant James in Thames’ Danger UXB; Maurice Roeves is a true believer in an untenable situation. Facing the French, who have more, heavier and longer reaching guns and many more troops. The Colonel is pleased to see his daughters, but wishes they’d not come. As Nathaniel and company seek food and a few horns of powder
Leaving time for them to talk to John Cameron (Terry Kenny of HBO’s Oz) and tell him that his homestead had been attacked and burned to the ground. And a return match with Colonel Munro. Arguments ensue, with the militia wanting to return and protect their homes and families. And Munro countering that as militia, they come under the rule of the Crown. Brought to a stalemate when Munro threatens the militia with Sedition and Desertion if they leave. Crimes whose punishment is hanging. Plans are covertly made, anyway. Before another confrontation. Where Cora slaps down Heyward and Munro puts Nathaniel in the stockade to await the noose in the morning. The French have other plans of there own. With a massive bombardment, chaos and panic. That allows Cameron, Heyward, Cora and Alice to escape. With Nathaniel and his kin close behind.
I’ll leave it right here. So as to not Spoil the rest of the film.
Warner Brothers and Morgan Creek get high marks for giving Mr. Mann the wherewithal, support and assistance so smugly kept in check for The Keep. Advancing an admirable budget wisely spent on location scouting, set and production design. Wolf Kroeger and Robert Guerra worked very hard to create a film that looks and feels exactly of its time. With the forests, waterfalls and caves of the Blue Ridge Mountains around Asheville, North Carolina. Filling in for areas west of Albany, the Poconos and Ohio valleys. Backed up by an emotional period soundtrack that harkens back to The Chieftains. Very heady stuff, indeed!
Equally high marks for Dante Spinotti’s eye for the rustic, untouched beauty of nature throughout the day. More so at night. With Moonlight providing the only illumination at night. And candles and torches are strategically enlisted indoors. Allowing the audience to eaves droppers when Nathaniel and Cora are alone in the dark. Then dazzling the eye with exploding brightness as Fort William Henry is laid siege to.
The cast is solid throughout. Especially, near catatonic Alice once inside the fort. And Colonel Munro. Who offers a simple soliloquy as the French bombard. Eerily close to what the officer in charge at Dien Bien Phu may have realized as Major Vo Nguyen Giap used the same barrage, surround and inch forward tactics 200 years later. And once again, only to fail at Khe Sanh in 1968. Wes Srudi’s Magua excels as a master schemer and tactician, Secretly using his and the Huron’s alliance with the French to arrange events for his destruction of ‘Gray Hair’ Munro and his lineage.
Nor does director Mann stray too far from his love of the sinews of war, Cannons. Mortars. Flintlock Muskets, pistols, sabers and other handheld implements of destruction get their due and moments to shine. Kudos also, to Elsa Zamparelli for taking the time and well spent budget to get the details correct on many, many British uniforms. And to John L. Balderston’s deft screenplay. That encapsulates so well the efete strategic and tactical narrow mindedness of near exiled high ranking British officers far away from home.
Do not get me wrong. There is a love story involved. And a very strong one. Day Lewis’ Nathaniel doesn’t exactly sweep Ms.Stowe’s Cora off her feet with his toned good looks. For Cora is easily his match. But, more his savvy, well fought for and cautious outlook towards life. A different departure from most films that works remarkably well. Especially when backed up by Mother Nature and such breathtaking scenery!
Did you enjoy Jack’s break down? What are your thoughts on these films? Comment below…