REVIEW – Thief (1981)

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!

The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.

The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!

Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.

Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.

 

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REVIEW – Manhunter (1986)

THE ZONE has my review of Michael Mann’s recently re-issued psychological thriller Manhunter.

To put it simply, I adore this film. I adore the moody electronic score, I adore Dante Spinotti’s ridiculously colourful cinematography and I adore the way that Michael Mann lines up his shots. However, what I particularly love about this film is the way that it treats the character of Hannibal Lecter as a painstakingly-repressed dark side rather than a scenery-chewing panto dame:

 When Graham visits Lecktor in the hospital, we are told it is because he is hoping to rekindle the creative fires that allow him to project himself into the mind of a killer. However, rather than simply visiting Lecktor in the hospital, Graham reaches out to the disgraced psychiatrist in the hope that his superior understanding of human nature might shed some new light on the case. This act of deference to Lecktor’s superior expertise is deeply troubling when considered alongside Mann’s cinematic blurring of the line between psychologist and psychopath. Indeed, by having Graham turn to Lecktor as part of his own creative process, Mann seems to be suggesting the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two men. In fact, one could interpret the scene as a sort of vision quest in which the creatively frustrated Graham turns to his painstakingly repressed dark side in order to unblock the empathic powers that will allow him to solve the case.

Mann’s take on Lecter is particularly fascinating as this film was adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981) before Harris even wrote The Silence of the Lambs. In other words, this is a vision of Red Dragon that is completely untainted by the decision to reinvent Lecter as some kind of brain-eating antihero. Released on an absolutely flawless Bluray that makes it look like a brand new film, this re-issue offers an excellent opportunity to rediscover one of the best and most under-rated psychological thrillers of all time.

Public Enemies (2009) and Digital Projection

I will begin with a brief review : Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) is a completely unexceptional crime thriller.  Its characters are extremely simplistic, its engagement with historical or social context is minimal, its writing is functional, its performances are adequate (with the exception of Stephen Graham as Baby-Face Nelson) and its pacing slightly saggy but ultimately reasonable.  Much like Mann’s Heat (1995), it is a film best remembered for one beautifully staged shoot-out.  However, despite having nothing to say and failing for all of the thematic reasons that Richard Kovitch mentions in his review, the film does do one thing well : It provides a fantastic justification for the roll-out of digital projection.

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