The opening moments of Thief suggest one of the strongest introductions to an American filmmaker’s career in cinema history: a stunning sequence with a synth-heavy score by Tangerine Dream, and a complex canvas of wet black shadows and bright hot sparks. Its energy and verve have been imitated many times in the following decades by other American filmmakers and in recent memory only the first ten minutes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive seems to come close to replicating its effect.
Thief is part of a greater era of neo-noir thrillers which were released in the late-70s and 80s in Hollywood, and represents, in many estimations, Mann’s best attributes as a filmmaker, and explores the constant theme in his work of the psychology of crime. The basic plotline of a thief or robber out to score “one last job” and leave his life of crime behind forever is a tale as old as time, but Mann weaves a spider’s web of dark and deep mythos in his movie that makes its narrative and world feel like there’s something buried deep underneath it.
A jewel thief named Frank (James Caan) meets with a mysterious man named Leo (Robert Polsky) who says he has a wide network of connections and wants Frank’s efforts for a heist. He eventually convinces Frank to take on one last job, but with strings attached. This pivotal scene takes place in a backdrop of the city skyline and the black bay water glistening in the background and an unnamed sniper out on the rooftop. Leo’s confidence in securing this contract and the openness and ambiguity of the sequence’s frames hints at a feeling that Leo is a man who secretly owns the city Frank lives in, and that the web of crime that stretches out from Leo goes so far and so deep into every dark corner and alley that he exists and operates on a different plane of power than the rest of us.
Mann builds a quiet, brooding, and angry feeling throughout the movie. This is perfectly encapsulated through Caan’s performance, at once both contemplative and short-fuse. Unlike many of Mann’s more popular works like Heat or Miami Vice, the low and unrefined tenor of Thief and its characters gives a sense of pulpy and provocative earthiness that substitutes sleek bombastic gunfights for creeping deception. The dull but noticeable tremors of the movie’s fury even in its quietest moments work seamlessly with the beginning and end of the film, both of which feature sequences of incredible consequence but occur in near complete silence.
Likewise, Manhunter, a film five years later that is less angry but more provocative than Thief, is even more dedicated to the elements of the neo-noir. It features the core 80’s mix of explicit sexuality and violence that came to define the subgenre’s popularity. Much like Body Double, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, or Body Heat, three films of the same era that occupy the same genre-space, Manhunter focuses on explicit elements of the body in relation to its central characters to elicit a greater sense of psychological and physical piercing. In the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), we only see the back of his head and his hand outstretched upwards. With Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), we see the first image of him as his mouth exposed from the rest of his face, which is covered in a stocking. His interactions with a woman he fancies is cut with shots of limbs, torsos, and mouths, parts of the body Dollarhyde is quite fond of violating in his gruesome murders.
Mann made his bones on neo-noir and its elements can be found in the best of his works, including my personal favorite film of his — Collateral (2005). Neo-noir cinema was a thematic extension of the 1970s paranoia-laden political thrillers of Alan J. Pakula and the singular American cultural touchstones of Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman. By the 80s, things got hairy and cinema got meaner; it was the perfect mix of elements to birth films like Thief and Manhunter. While the 70s gave a more prestigious culture and political look at how crime plagues society and the soul, Mann, along with contemporaries David Lynch and Brian DePalma, cut open the sensationally distasteful underbelly of it all, where depravity of all sorts resided. This usually resulted in very frank and shocking depictions of sexuality and violence, both colliding in ways that earned notorious reputations.
The violence and sexuality of 80s pulp neo-noir films is a rare relic now, where the genre has slowly slipped out of relevance among mainstream audiences who have been conditioned to accept and expect less and less and sexuality in general has been fazed out of mainstream cinema. Many of these provocative elements were there for stimulation, sure, but they also functioned as elements of the proverbial rabbit hole that the central characters find themselves tumbling down. There were worlds beneath the normal human surface of these films that existed in alternate dimensions, highlighted by the radical lighting and camerawork of the filmmakers.
What makes Mann’s brooding noirs much more interesting to me than his more popular entertaining hits like Heat or Miami Vice or The Last Mohicans is that it allows for intimate details in psychology and composition to come to the forefront. Psychology in crime is a major theme that cuts through the action in Thief and Manhunter by deftly illustrating how criminals think and moralize differently than everyone else. In Thief, this manifests in the combative ideologies of Frank and Leo as lone and enterprising criminals, respectively — the contractor versus an owner looking to exploit labor. Frank finds himself below and being looked down upon figures of authority, both of the law and of criminal organizations. In a very sinister sequence the camera points directly up at a blinding light behind Leo — almost as if there’s a halo around his head and he is God — who monologues a threatening decree to Frank. It’s a perfect example of Mann’s clever lighting schemes coinciding with his menacing characters.
A little more directly in Manhunter, we see Will Graham (William Petersen) struggle to get inside the mind of both Lecter and Dollarhyde in order to solve crimes, which takes an emotional and psychological toll on him. Like the paranoia films of the late 70s, the neo-noirs of the late 80s also implemented turmoil of the mind as a means of expressing disillusionment with the crumbling institutions of power in America. But the latter genre of films offered a faint light to the former’s bleak hopelessness, and with Mann, endings were generally cathartic while maintaining a lasting contemplation of the events before them. Everything that happens in Manhunter is so deliberately unsettling that despite Graham’s final scene showing him hugging his wife looking out at the cool blue ocean, we still wonder if he’ll ever be fully right again.
Michael Mann’s indelible influence on action-thriller directors like Tony Gilroy, Anton Corbijn, and of course most notably Christopher Nolan, belies his surprisingly modest output — 11 movies in 40 years. And despite his reputation for high-octane action, his early works like Thief and Manhunter, which may not have influenced entire oeuvres, but did have a strong place in an 80’s style of American thriller that continues to grow in popularity and reverence today, are arguably his most impressive and accomplished. The layers of complexity within their presentations as titillating and incendiary tales of death and passion is the kind of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking that seems totally lost to a bygone era. They offer a side of Michael Mann that is both tender and also bitter about life, brilliantly colored and yet dark and sinister as the night.