Thrills, kills and skills: A Fortnight of Michael Mann films

A retrospective of Michael Mann films was recently shown in Santiago to celebrate the American feature film director´s works.

The first films of the cycle, "Thief" (1981) and "Manhunter" (1986), were directed in neo-noir tradition, combining dark, rain-soaked settings with neon glamour to create suspenseful visuals that complement complex, disorientating plots.

Thief by Michael Mann
Thief by Michael Mann

In "Thief," James Caan plays Frank, a diamond thief who works for himself and longs to give up his life of crime to live as a normal citizen. A childish paper collage which he keeps folded in his pocket acts as a reminder throughout the film of his personal American dream, ironically pursued using an illegal yet highly lucrative enterprise.

His superficially perfect lifestyle is undercut by a scene in which he barters with crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky) for a black-market baby and another in which he blows up his family home. Mann’s alienated protagonist finds himself unable to escape a vicious cycle of hope and betrayal as he ruthlessly seeks self-abandonment to a Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Chicago’s rainy underworld.

Manhunter by Michael Mann
Manhunter by Michael Mann

Similarly, Mann’s crime thriller, "Manhunter," based on the Thomas Harris novel "Red Dragon," explores the alienation of protagonist Will Graham (William Peterson), a retired policeman who is convinced to go back to work to help track down a serial killer dubbed the ‘Tooth Fairy’ (Tom Noonan). The central conflict of the film is Will’s mental torment as a result of his ability to enter the mindset of a killer since capturing Hanibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). The action of killer and protagonist run parallel while unexpected angular shots and mirrors allow the viewer to experience a disturbing sense of voyeurism that simulates the protagonist’s insight into the mind of the killer.

Mann moves away from his noir framework in “Last of the Mohicans” (1992) on the French and Indian War of 1757. Technically accurate brutal battle scenes contrast with the epic romance of colonial America’s rugged landscapes.

Public Enemies by Michael Mann
Public Enemies by Michael Mann

In “Heat” (1995) and “The Insider” (1999) Mann returns to rich, complex crime dramas with Al Pacino starring in both. In “Ali” (2001), a biographical drama about the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) and “Collateral” (2004) a crime thriller starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, Mann uses digital shots to heighten visual depth and detail.

“Miami Vice” (2006) is an adaptation of Mann’s 1980's police series of the same name with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell starring as the two Miami Police detectives. In “Public Enemies” (2009), Mann returns to true noir tradition with an adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s eponymous 1930's book written during the depression.

Mann’s stylistic noir sophistication and capacity for technical accuracy supplies his work with an impressive realism. The Michael Mann film cycle showcased a director whose main focus is on the savage human brutality at the core of fast-pace urban life.

For information on current and upcoming film cycles at the Universidad Católica's Centro de Extensión, please visit:

Michael Mann Film Cycle
Centro de Extensión Universidad Católica de Chile
Alameda 390
Phone: 02 345 6500
Metro: Universidad Católica

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