FEATURE ARTICLE – Michael Mann: Auteur

By Marty Mulrooney

The director that I have chosen as the basis of my auteur thesis in this article is American director Michael Mann, who is also a screenwriter and producer. He made several made-for-television films, before his debut film Thief in 1981. This launched a film career spanning over 20 years to the present day, with his last film being Miami Vice, released in 2006. Miami Vice is itself a re-invention of a cult television show of the same name that Mann produced from 1984 to 1990, amounting to 110 shows altogether.


The topic of the auteur is now much more dominant than it has ever been, with the word sometimes being overused. But does it apply to Michael Mann?  With such a wide spanning career, there has certainly become a correlation between all of his works that indicate Mann as an auteur director. There are many themes that are prevalent, and a style that is unmistakably known as pure ‘Michael Mann.’ This thesis will cover a broad selection of his films to show that these consistencies are present and strong throughout his main body of work, and make an argument for him as an auteur director.

Thief (1981) is a product of 80’s filmmaking in every respect. Neon prevails everywhere, the music, cars and clothes are now severely retro with hindsight, yet all of this amounts to not only a product of the times it was created in, but showcase cinematic techniques that have been present in the director’s work ever since.


The reason the film still stands up today is because all of the stylistics are still held together by a strong plot and character development, and this has continued throughout his career. Mann often deals with criminal undertones in his films, yet the actual action and violence is relatively low.  This, his feature film debut, set the precedent for the works that would follow: a film pushed forward not by action, but by character development and insight. The style on screen merely compliments the substance.

Indeed, this substance spreads insofar as that the attention to detail is meticulous. Thief deals with a professional safe-cracker, and actually goes to great lengths to ensure authenticity in what tools are shown for this illegal profession, and the way they are used. When James Cann as Frank breaks into a safe, he is actually doing it for real. Similarly, experts were used to retell real case scenarios, which could then be realistically adapted to be used here. This again set a precedent for the future: Mann is renowned for being meticulous in every aspect of his work, even down to detailed notes on a character’s childhood that will never even be referenced in the film. Actors will often have to become the character as much as possible, for example with extensive weapons training, from Andy McNab in particular in Heat (1995), in preparation for an extensive gunfight in the middle of a busy city-street.


Certainly, because the male characters in Mann films are fully fleshed out, they allow themselves to be aligned with an audience, even if the women are admittedly put on the back burner. Mann takes characters the majority of viewers will never meet a real life equivalent of, such as the heavyweight champion of the world (Ali, 2001), or a professional hitman (Collateral, 2004), and gives them individual quirks or empathetic traits so that an audience can relate to them on a human level regardless of personal experience with what they are seeing on screen.


Vincent the hitman in Collateral says nothing about his life in the entire film, yet certain dialogue and script choices subtly hint enough to raise him above a two dimensional bad-guy, and provide clues to his past. When Max the cabdriver says he doesn’t want to buy flowers for his mother, Vincent goes stone-cold serious, buying them himself, and uttering the words: “she carried you in her womb for 9 months.” Without saying it outright, Mann could be hinting at a number of things, such as Vincent’s own mother dying during childbirth. Vincent also shows a passion for jazz music, humanising him as many Mann anti-heroes are humanised, and slowly as the night goes on and more people die, subtle changes in facial expression show that he is still only human, and has at least a shred of compassion due to his actions. Subtle hints such as these often make up the character development in Michael Mann films. He makes a viewer figure things out for themselves, rather than using Hollywood conventions to spell everything out instead.

This is the same in all of Mann’s films. He also very deliberately blurs the lines between men’s moralities, instead giving all main characters, good or bad, an even playing field. In Heat when Pacino’s law-enforcer meets with Deniro’s expert-thief face to face, it is done over coffee in the most non-aggressive environment imaginable: a public restaurant. For a time, they could almost just be two regular men meeting to socialise. Neither is demonised or idolised, and they both have positive and negative aspects to their characters. The cop has family issues due to being too addicted to his job, and the criminal is too detached from his emotions to enjoy anything he earns.


This ties into one of the main themes I will be discussing: professionalism. Mann’s films regularly deal with the bond between men and their profession, be it legal or illegal. This also in turn leads to dealing with the pressures of trying to balance this with a semblance of normalcy, such as a successful relationship with a woman, and the tolls this takes on other aspects of their lives. This prevails via a sense of loneliness and isolation, especially in Thief, Manhunter, and Heat. Heat in particular revisits this concept, and builds on it, from what was established in Thief. Where that film dealt with only a criminal side of the law, Heat looked at both sides in a completely un-Hollywood fashion: the line between the supposed good (Hannah, Al Pacino) and bad (McCauley, Robert DeNiro) was blurred until they were all just men doing a job, and being all the more detached and lonely because of it. On the other hand, whilst for example Ali deals with a different type of scenario, the world of boxing, and The Insider (1999) deals with corruption in the tobacco industry, the formula in all Mann films is still present: a professional man facing obstacles that affect their personal lives, such as their families, and moral choices that have to be made. Overall, women take a backseat role in Mann’s films, generally being, rather than completely undeveloped, instead just less focused on. Mann’s world is a man’s world, and women in his work are often just another asset on the line for the male characters to emotionally jeopardise, due to their inner demons and questionable actions.

The next main theme is Mann’s visual style. As previously mentioned, his debut film Thief owed a lot to the 80’s in the way it was presented. However, even later films in Mann’s collection still heavily borrow from this time. The suit worn by Vincent in Collateral is a dated light grey, certainly belonging in the past rather than the present. The Miami Vice film in 2006 still held onto its television roots, with again the suits, haircuts and styles of Miami in the 80’s creating a blend of modernity and nostalgia when thrown into a present day upgrade. Mann’s films take place in a stylistic universe all of their own, where Mann’s cinematic routes from decades ago can still survive and be readapted to the present, to look fresh and new. The world reflects the mood of the characters, often shown in an almost dreamlike manner, empty streets in a concrete jungle. With every film Mann has made, the constant viewing of the city is as much a character as any lead actor; with the way it is filmed giving an almost rhythmic pulse of life and death, bright lights and dark alleys. This mixture of light and dark further parallels the inner turmoil and imperfections of Mann’s protagonists. Los Angeles is revisited several times in his filmmaking due to its effectiveness in this regard.


Mann’s use of colour has been a stylistic continuity throughout his career.  Almost like an artist Mann chooses certain hues and shades of colour to enhance the emotions created visually on screen. The best example of this would most likely be within Hannibal’s cell in Manhunter (1986). All of the padded walls in the cell are a bright, sterile white. This adds even more to the threatening feel of being face to face with somebody who has eaten people alive. The lack of colour apart from on Hannibal himself draws the viewers gaze, and makes it hard to shift the eyes focus elsewhere. (A predicament FBI agent Will Graham would undoubtedly share with the viewer). Elsewhere, all of the films share a washed out colour palette. This creates a sense of reality; because the colours appear more normalised than a regular production. This in turn makes the stories told more hard hitting, because non of them are fantastical, instead firmly rooted in the real world. (Or at least Mann’s version of reality.) Realistic colour mixed with realistic scenarios means that when somebody gets shot or similar, the action actually holds weight. This may explain why there is relatively little action in the running time of a Mann film when compared to dialogue and exposition content, and also why he has fully embraced High Definition shooting methods when other directors want to stay within the arguably unreal qualities of film.

Visually, another stylistic staple of his films is the use of light and shadow, often signifying safety or danger. Generally in his films, the more light there is on screen, the less likely violence will occur. James Cann steps out into the night from the light of a house to go on a killing spree at the end of Thief, Hanna and McCauley face off at the end of Heat at LAX airport, with flight landing lights being ignited and extinguished, and Vincent in Collateral only goes after his last victim after cutting the building’s power, casting it into darkness.


A lot of the music from the 80’s was heavily electrical, effectively matching the urban environments that were used in Mann’s earlier films such as Thief and Manhunter. Inevitably, since then mainstream music has generally moved on and evolved. However, Mann still manages to evoke similar musical styles through the use of especially composed music, and also artists such as Moby who utilise synthetic sounds in their work. (Such as the song God on the Face of the Water, in the end credits of Heat.) He also embraces music that matches a certain mood regardless of when it was made, and will express modernity where necessary with it. Music for Mann differs in relation to whether it is didactic or not. Music that would not normally be used is still placed if it sufficiently matches an environment and emphasises a certain mood. This happens twice in his two of his most recent films, Collateral and Miami Vice, both of which feature club scenes and modern dance music. In a way, Mann is allowing the past to blend with the present, and updating retro-ness so it can once again be considered “cool”.

In conclusion, it can be seen from a broad look at Mann’s work that there are many thematic and stylistic consistencies between his different films. As a male director, he is often focused on the professionalism of many different types of men, their relationships and how they cope with the lives they live. He has certainly got a distinctive visual style, with his use of colour and camera-work to include the environment as a character as well as the actors. The music and styles of the 80’s have moved on in popular culture, but Mann holds onto them anyway to try and update them and present them in a way they will be accepted and considered cool again in his films, nearly always succeeding. Undoubtedly, if an auteur is a director who has a consistent style and recognisable film “fingerprint” underlying all of their work, Michael Mann could not be questioned as one; it is evident in every single thing he has worked on throughout his career that he has an artistic uniqueness all of his own.

Michael Manns new film Public Enemies is due for release on the 1st of July in the USA, and the 3rd of July in the UK.


Be sure to check out Alternative Magazine Online’s newly published review of Public Enemies here.

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