Showing posts with label michael mann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label michael mann. Show all posts

Sep 14, 2020


In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The UntouchablesRoad To Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er...the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen.  It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.

Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as it’s more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.

Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” 

Ben Johnson offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger's location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)

Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)

The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.

Aug 27, 2019


At this rate, Hannibal Lecter has achieved pop culture status, and when a horror figure reaches those heights, that’s pretty big. By now, he’s the James Bond of horror, having been played three times in three very different takes on the character, but all of them appropriate for the mood of the film — or television series — utilizing him. (I’m not commenting on anything having to do with Hannibal Rising, the very film about which you’ve forgotten. In my mind, it doesn’t even exist.)

The Silence of the Lambs is looked upon as the definitive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel series while also introducing the definitive depiction of Hannibal Lecter, as essayed by Anthony Hopkins. Both are correct. Though my love and respect for Manhunterhas increased over the years, and though I’m sort of in love with Mads Mikkelsen’s version of Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy is the most deserved. And there are many reasons to proclaim its superiority over the remaining explorations, due in no small part to its willingness to embrace the dark subject matter of the source novel (something Manhunter shied away from), its across-the-board tremendous performances, and its immortal design. I say immortal because The Silence of the Lambs looks like it could have been shot yesterday, rather than thirty years ago. Where Ridley Scott's Hannibal moved the titular character front and center into a sillier and more visceral experience — a reflection of the source novel — and 2003’s Red Dragon seemed like a move more obligatory than artistic (and a bit too familiar), The Silence of the Lambs was a filmic pioneer in that it plunged into the world of real, actual crime investigations with an emphasis on forensics and postmortem techniques. The source novel for Manhunter, Red Dragon, had its fair share of this as well, but Michael Mann shed much of it from his screenplay, choosing to focus more on the psychological implications suffered by Will Graham (William Peterson) from his uncanny ability to deeply engage with the mind of the serial killer he was hunting. The Silence of the Lambs, both novel and film, resurrects this emphasis on federal investigation, almost feeling like a do-over of the previous novel and film. It is, after all, about someone working on behalf of the FBI to interview a known serial killer in hopes of catching another serial killer. Because of this, it feels more scientific, and hence, more intellectual. And the relationship between FBI Agent Trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), offers a very different vibe. If ever there were a film about serial killers and cannibals and mutilation and psychosexual perversions that could also, just faintly, just minutely, be sexy, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Speaking of sexy, by design, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t attractive. It’s dour, dark, and bleak — not a single sequence shows the sun, nor takes place in any kind of bright and welcoming environment. And once the film is approaching the final act, dealing with Buffalo Bill’s dungeon and house of horrors, the amount of scum and ugliness is at its fever pitch. Color is almost nonexistent. Everything is brown and gray and beige and neutral, although Demme finds ways to play around with colors to a purposely nauseating effect, most notably in the pre-interview sequence where Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) is walking Starling to Lecter’s cell and showing her photos of the nurse Lecter had viciously attacked, all of which is bathed in a sickening red hospital light.

Hopkins and Foster walked away with best actor and best actress statuettes at that year’s Academy Awards, and I’m over the moon that a genre picture was recognized by the typically anti-genre organization in any capacity, but having said that, Ted Levine gives the film’s best performance, period, and that he didn’t come home with his own statue is a shame (although he would have been in direct competition with Hopkins, which would been interesting). Levine’s contributions to The Silence of the Lambs’ enduring legacy is often swept aside in favor of Hopkin’s flamboyant and lovably sadistic Hannibal Lecter, but it’s Levine’s bravery and unhinged performance as Buffalo Bill that gives the film its real sense of danger. Your monster movie (and this is a monster movie) is only as scary as its monster, and in this regard, The Silence of the Lambs is brutally scary. “I ate his liver with some fava beans” might be a popular quote, but, “It puts the lotion in the basket” is the line that’s far more quoted (for some reason).

It’s been two years since director Jonathan Demme passed away, but it still feels like such a recent loss for the horror genre and the filmmaking world at large. (We’ve lost way too many horror directors over the last 5 years – I’m personally still reeling over the losses of Wes Craven and George Romero.) It’s been especially sad seeing Demme appear in the supplements included on the Criterion Collection release where he looks young and healthy, knowing that the director of one of the most respected genre pictures of all time is gone. 

Both this and Night of the Living Dead are two of the most mainstream releases that Criterion have released in a while, and it’s kind of fitting that both were released at the same time — as if in a way to honor both directors who are no longer with us, and who will both be sorely, sorely missed.

Aug 25, 2019


I have kind of an odd history with Manhunter.

It was 2001, and the first post-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter film was being released to huge anticipation and fanfare. (Ridley Scott's Hannibal was released a mere nine years after The Silence of the Lambs, yet it felt like an eternity had passed in between; meanwhile, eighteen years have passed since Hannibal was released in theaters, but it feels like it just came out, doesn't it? Tell me, how old do you feel?)

In "honor" of Hannibal's impending release, Anchor Bay Entertainment released Manhunter on an anniversary VHS. "Hannibal Lecter's legacy of evil begins here" the cover art boasted. I was curious about the film, never having heard of it, let alone seen it. And I was warned against it. "It's so bad," I was told. The film was boring. Poorly made. "Some weird, no-name guy" was playing Hannibal Lecter.

Refusing to fold to such pressure, I brought it home anyway to give it a whirl. And my first viewing of Manhunter could best be described as conflicting. Chronologically, I don't recall if I had yet to read through the Hannibal Lecter novel series, though I since have, so it wasn't a matter of compulsively comparing the events of the film to the events of the book. It was more than I had no choice but to take the film at face value, doing my best to reconcile that The Silence of the Lambs had seemed to prove the final word on the subject of Hannibal Lecter. Fair or not, The Silence of the Lambs had already cemented the idea of who Hannibal Lecter was: how he sounded, looked, spoke, and in what way he figured into the conflict. Manhunter, based on the first novel of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Red Dragon, had no choice but to pale in comparison. After all, the same aesthetic--an FBI agent relying on the intellect of a captive serial killer for help in catching another killer at large--had already been established. Not only that, but Lambs hewed closer to the horror genre, with its gory and graphic depictions of exhumation, crime scene photography, along with its wild, awe-inspiring, and taboo-shattering performance from Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill. It was difficult to appreciate Manhunter from the outset because, following the discouragement in seeing the film, I only managed to see its flaws. But, like most things, perception can change over time. And as I became more and more attuned with who Michael Mann was, and how a Michael Mann film felt, it led me into a reintroduction to his take on the Hannibal Lecter legacy, and this time around, I found a lot more to appreciate.

Manhunter is the Hannibal Lecter story reimagined as a police procedural. Efforts were made to maintain Lecter's (sorry, Lecktor's) cunning and intimidation, but to also dial down the grislier aspects from the character of the novel. (He's never once referred to as "Hannibal the Cannibal.") More interested in crafting a psychological thriller than the overtly horrific 2005 version of Red Dragon and the television series Hannibal, Michael Mann honed in on the effects of "the gift" that Will Graham possesses--and on how easily a person with that kind of gift can begin to lose a sense of who he is. But in doing this, his character came off as hardened, rather than the fragile and quite vulnerable version recently essayed by Hugh Dancy on the short-lived NBC series. (The less said about Edward Norton's "Nah, I'm good" take on the role, the better.) Because of this, Peterson's iteration of Will Graham was difficult to embrace at first, and at times, it still is. He seems less like a person trying to enjoy retirement in a Floridian pastel paradise with his wife and son, and more like someone insisting on this paradise and this family in an effort to enforce his own sense of normality. Right off the bat he seems unable to fully connect, emotionally, with his wife or his son, and whether this was purposeful on Mann's part or a disconnect between Peterson and the role is unclear. What is clear, however, that as appreciation grows over time for a film at first misunderstood, Peterson's Will Graham--hardened or not from his years of criminal profiling--is a fascinating portrayal of a man on the edge, obsessed with doing what he knows is right, to the point where he risks his life, as well as those of his family.

Of all the novels in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Red Dragon is most suited toward Michael Mann's sensibilities. Seemingly not that interested in the horror genre (The Keep notwithstanding), Red Dragon makes the easiest case for Mann to sidestep the horrific in favor of the psychological. It's in keeping with the kind of stories he likes to tell: the cop against the thief; the righteous against the corrupt; whatever Miami Vice was. And that's the most satisfying thing about Manhunter--it's vintage Michael Mann. Disparate conflicts aside, Manhunter wouldn't feel out of place in a double bill with his James Caan heist film Thief. From his leaning on cool blue hues to his use of ethereal (and, yeah, kind of dated) musical soundscapes, it's Michael Mann who makes Manhunter such a great film (with respect to novelist Thomas Harris, of course).

Hack extraordinaire Brett Ratner did his best to replicate Manhunter's class and appeal with his "official" adaptation of Red Dragon by doing what he does best--stealing good ideas from better filmmakers. Hiring Manhunter's director of photography (Dante Spinotti), and The Silence of the Lambs' screenwriter and production designer (Ted Tally and Kristi Zea, respectively), all Ratner managed to do was make a very okay film with an amazing ensemble cast, all of whom are utterly wasted. Naturally it made money and was considered quite the success--neither thing Manhunter had been able to boast upon its 1986 release.

There's been a slow Manhunter resurgence over the years, likely due in part to the boom in home video collecting beginning in the early '90s, which allowed new audiences to discover the redheaded stepchild of a rather prominent horror franchise. Many ardent supporters go as far to say that it's superior to The Silence of the Lambs in every way. While that last part isn't true (man-love for Mads Mikkelsen aside, Anthony Hopkins' first take on Hannibal Lecter will always be definitive), that doesn't make Manhunter less worthy of a re-reintroduction to high-def collectors. Fans of psychological thrillers will find a lot to analyze and pupils of Michael Mann will enjoy seeing an early effort containing signs of things to come.

Manhunter isn't the definitive film from the Hannibal Lecter universe, but it's nearly there. As long as The Silence of the Lambs exists, Manhunter will always be second in command, but that's just fine considering the enormous legacy Lambs has gone on to establish and rightfully earn. 

With the cancellation a few years ago of the cult television series Hannibal, which proved that established characters could shake free of their constraints and be re-imagined for new audiences, perhaps a few more folks have opened their minds to the possibility that the Hannibal Lecter legacy doesn't stop and start with The Silence of the Lambs, however oddly Hannibal Lecktor may want to spell his name.