[Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a new monthly feature, The Conversations, in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard will discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I'd suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann's body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the "based on a true story" social drama (The Insider).
His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He's more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He's more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.
He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He's a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.
Jason Bellamy: I think that's true. Then again, I wonder if style constitutes the ends of Mann's concerns or if instead his style obsession is merely the means by which he reaches his desired ends. Of greater importance to Mann, I believe, is mood. His films are notoriously macho, frequently erupting in high-caliber violence and chronicling the lives of men who, accurately or not, feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. And yet while it's true that Mann's films fit within recognizable generic forms and feature plots that can be summed up in a tagline, it's even more accurate to say that mood and atmosphere are what Mann's films are really "about"—at least when they are successful—and those themes tend to be more elusive and complex. The audience that "doesn't get" Mann is the audience that doesn't connect beyond the basic mechanics of the plot. (To borrow a line from White Men Can't Jump, the detached Mann audience listens to his films but can't hear them.) Meanwhile, the audience that connects sometimes treats a Mann film like a religious experience, finding heft in almost every word, gesture or composition. There's no right or wrong here. In fact, what's interesting about Mann's films is the way they can entertain both the devoutly connected and the only peripherally interested. The former revels in the tantric foreplay—the moody action between orgasms of physical action. The latter fidgets impatiently for most of the picture but concludes, "At least there's fucking!"—gunfights, usually, instead of actual intercourse.
That said, there are times when Mann becomes so focused on the elements of style that will achieve his desired mood that he gets trapped in his own toolbox—times when the ultimate effect of his technique is to draw attention to the technique itself. Then again, maybe we, the audience, have become so accustomed to Mann's bag of tricks that we've stopped giving his illusions a chance to succeed on their own. When a filmmaker is bold enough to establish a distinctive style, those trademarks have a habit of taking center stage. Fans call them signature techniques and detractors call them tiresome habits. Both audiences run the risk of looking at a film so microscopically that the big picture is lost.
We're here now to discuss Mann's nine signature feature films, from 1981's Thief to this year's Public Enemies. (Reader note: Prior to Manhunter, Mann made The Keep in 1983, but due to persistent rumors that Paramount took the picture away from Mann in the editing room, not to mention the film's unavailability on DVD, we're not considering that effort part of his signature series. Readers with thoughts about The Keep are encouraged to share them in the comments section.) So let's start with some discussion of Mann's most recent film. Let me ask you this: Among Mann's work, is Public Enemies a memorable or otherwise notable "big picture"?
EH: Well, I don't know if it's a "big" picture, but it's definitely a good one (and a relatively substantial one in comparison to its predecessor Miami Vice, which we'll get into later). I think the two Mann audiences you describe above provide an apt summation of the different approaches to his work. The obvious reason that such a personal stylist has been able to thrive in Hollywood for so long is that his work appeals to those who don't give a damn about style but just love the action sequences (and there's no denying that Mann knows how to craft especially exciting action). In his best work, though, the action doesn't obscure the fact that these films are working on multiple levels at once, that there's more going on than just a great thriller plot. With Public Enemies, certainly, I walked out of the theater thinking I'd had a "religious experience," that I'd seen something really impressive; I was quite deeply moved. So it says something that Mann got me so emotionally invested in the story of a notorious robber and killer. Without resorting to much of the usual "oh he had a hard life" clichés, the film makes the bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) a sympathetic figure. At the same time, I was troubled by the way Mann mythologizes Dillinger as such a tragic, romantic hero. The film is all about the distinctly American mythology of the gangster, the romanticization of these outlaw figures.
Moreover, Mann's film is very specifically about the last of the romantic outlaws, the last of the great popular criminals before crime retreated behind a façade of respectability and corporate structure, as represented in the film by Frank Nitti (Bill Camp). It's kind of the same thing Mann did in Heat: He places these bad guys at the center of his film as his hero characters, and he sets them off against characters who are even worse, who can play the unambiguous villains. In Heat, he took some of the moral imperative off of Robert De Niro's noble crook Neil by including the character of Waingro (Kevin Gage), a totally psychopathic serial killer. In Public Enemies, Nitti and the lunatic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) serve much the same function, making Depp's Dillinger seem, in contrast, like a Robin Hood-style people's outlaw. Dillinger, not FBI man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is the hero of the film. The real evil here is the first blossoming of organized crime, retreating from the front pages into the back rooms, and the increasing power of J. Edgar Hoover's (Billy Crudup) FBI, which at times works weirdly hand-in-hand with the crime syndicates against Dillinger's gang.
This is all interesting stuff, there's no doubt about it, and I also can't discount my reaction to the film's sumptuous style and emotional arcs. It's an affecting, nostalgic elegy for a lost era. But it's an elegy also for a particular kind of criminal, and Mann really feeds into this idea of the romantic gangster that's run through so much of the American cinema's history. The Hays Code is long gone, but Mann is still following the template of so many '40s gangster films, building up the criminal before the inevitable tragic denouement, a reminder that crime doesn't pay. The film implies that Dillinger is a superior type of criminal because he's an iconoclast, striking out on his own, rather than embracing the new economic/political model for crime. That's a strikingly American idea, American in the sense of Wild West individualism. Mann has never flinched away from the darker side of his characters (both this film and Heat include sequences in which the bank robbers use hostages as shields against gunfire) but he is simultaneously fascinated by the criminal, exalting him as an icon. There's a scene where Dillinger bursts into the place where his prospective new girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) works, punches out a customer and then demands that she come with him. We're supposed to think, I gather, that Dillinger is a badass, and also that this is a romantic gesture from him; we're supposed to believe, on scant evidence, that his relationship with Billie is more than just bullying and buying her fur coats.
Obviously, I have conflicted feelings about Public Enemies. It's a fairly rich and complex film, and in some ways I'm not doing it justice by focusing on Mann's glorification of the gangster archetype. There's a lot going on here, and some of it also runs counter to the tendencies I've been talking about. So what do you think, is Public Enemies a religious experience, an ode to the outlaw criminal, a little of both, or something else altogether?
JB: I needn't hesitate to say that Public Enemies isn't a religious experience (at least, not for me) or to agree with you that it is an ode to the outlaw (that the outlaw is a criminal is largely incidental, I think, despite Mann's romanticism for the gangster). But beyond that I find the movie difficult to nail down. It's one of the best pictures of the year thus far, certainly, but that's saying almost nothing. Perhaps a better task would be to rate it among Mann's filmography, and in that regard I can place it no higher than fourth. (Of course, that would put it in the upper echelon of Mann films, which is nothing to sneeze at.) I bring this up because one of the things I have been wrestling with in recent weeks is the issue of whether Public Enemies suffers or benefits from Mann's previous body of work. I'm sure most Mann fans would be quick to agree with me that Public Enemies is no Heat, for example, but then most movies aren't; Heat is in rarefied air. On the other hand, while Heat makes it easy to take Public Enemies for granted, Heat's complexity and heft also encourage the Mann-aware audience to recognize a deeper sensibility in Public Enemies than I'm really sure is there to be found.
On that note: Regardless of how masterful (or not) this movie is, its greatest mistake is that it saves its best and richest for last. The final 35-or-so minutes, beginning with the reunion of Dillinger and Billie after her clever escape from FBI surveillance, are tremendous—highlighted by that awesome Biograph sequence that is likely to rival any 10 minutes in American cinema this year. The trouble is, well over 100 minutes go by before we sit down with Dillinger at the Biograph and watch him watching Manhattan Melodrama, which for me is the key to finally unlocking a character who until then is harder to crack than a bank vault. Likewise, Billie's most vulnerable moments are toward the end of the picture, and perhaps the same can be said of Purvis, too.