Michael Mann Retrospective

Michael Mann is something of an enigma among preeminent American directors. Between TV and cinema, he has had as much influence as any modern filmmaker, yet he’s hardly a household name beyond devoted movie fans. He is responsible for helping to bring a cinematic aesthetic to the world of television, and that same aesthetic has influenced countless modern directors. His influence on modern crime movies is hard to overstate. His skills as an action director are peerless in Hollywood, as are his character building and ability to produce thematic content out of relatively straightforward stories. Despite the outward similarity of many of his films, which often deal with criminals trying to pull “one last job” before retiring, Mann manages to make each film a unique and vital cinematic experience. With the DVD release of his newest film, January’s unfairly maligned Blackhat, I’ve decided to watch all his film’s (with the exception of 1983’s The Keep, which is unavailable on DVD as far as I know) and write about each of them in attempt to explain his place in modern cinema, and what makes his movies such valuable pieces of filmmaking.

Thief (1981)

Thief

Michael Mann’s first film, 1981’s Thief, is a remarkable debut film, and Mann’s cinematic sensibilities emerge almost fully formed. His fascination with crime and criminals is already evident here, as are his incredible attention to realism and detail, and his highly stylized directorial style.

The Thief in question is Frank, played by James Caan in one of his best performances, a freelancing safecracker who runs his own operations and owns both a car dealership and a bar as fronts for his criminal activities. After a major score, Frank is approached by a local crime boss who wants him to work on several high-level operations, and promises to make him a millionaire in only a matter of months. Frank agrees to do one job, on the condition he is free to walk away from the organization afterwards. Despite being hesitant to work with others on his jobs, Frank needs the money so he can leave the crime world behind and live with Jessie, a cashier that he intends to settle down with. Of course, this being a crime movie, things don’t go according to plan, as Frank’s connection with his new associates brings heat from the cops, and a dangerous dynamic with his new boss.

Thief presents a warped microcosm of the American dream. Frank, an ex-con who spent 11 years in prison for a petty crime and added time for defending himself from his fellow inmates, has been out for 4 years, and with skills he learned from his prison mentor, has made himself into an expert at what he does. Frank is struggling to realize his ideal life but, in a famous monologue to Jessie, he says “I can’t work fast enough to catch up. I can’t run fast enough to catch up. And the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act.” Robbed of his past, the only way he can realize his ideal future is make as much money as he can doing the only things he knows how to do before he gets arrested or killed. This is the first instance of one of Mann’s singular themes, Time. Frank has one singular skill, but not the network to properly take advantage of it without wasting the prime years of his life. When he agrees to work for someone with the money and logistics to realize his ambitions, he is trapped in a contract which he can’t get out of and which makes it all the more likely he’ll end up dead or in prison. Frank is lured by promises of “professionalism” and the paternalistic ideal offered by the mob boss. Yet these labels are purely smokescreens, just as they are in any legitimate business. All that matters to the people in this movie is the bottom line. Frank doesn’t love Jessie so much as he likes the “idea” of a family. The mob doesn’t have any intention of allowing him to get away as long as his skills can help them get their money, and Frank wouldn’t know how to live a simple life even if the opportunity was presented to him. The only genuine relationship in this movie is between Frank and Okla, an inmate who mentored him in prison and who taught him how to be a master thief. Yet, Okla dies in prison, depriving Frank of any anchor in reality, and letting his delusions get the better of him. In the end, Frank frees himself of the obligation of the Mob, but loses his money, his family, and his two businesses in the process.

Thief is one of the most stylistically remarkable debut films of any American filmmaker. Most directors take a few movies before they hit their comfort zone and discover themselves as moviemakers, yet here Mann’s style is defined right from the opening shot. Mann, more than almost any other filmmaker, is obsessed with all the details inherent in his stories. Multiple scenes here are dedicated to characters discussing complicated logistics pertaining to future jobs. When Frank robs a store in the opening scene, we see every step in the process and the climactic robbery is given the same attention. This trait of Mann’s recurs in all of his film’s, from Thief to this year’s cyber thriller Blackhat.

Thief is one of the best debut films of all-time, and announced the arrival of a major talent in Mann.

My Rating (5/5)

Critical Scores: Rotten Tomatoes (96%), IMDB (7.4), Metacritic (78)

Manhunter (1986)

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Mann’s next film after his critical nadir for 1983’s The Keep(not talked about here because it’s unavailable on DVD I believe), Mann bounced back with the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. Five years before Anthony Hopkins would win an Oscar for his portrayal of the character, Brian Cox had the first shot at its interpretation, albeit in a small, but vital role. Remade in 2003 as Red Dragon, Manhunter was a critical and box office disappointment at the time, but has grown in popularity and acclaim over time. A sizable amount of critics today prefer it over The Silence of Lambs, and although I probably don’t agree, Manhunter is definitely a first rate crime thriller.

Manhunter continues Mann’s fascination with the small, dividing line between criminals and the people who pursue them. Here, detective Will Graham is contrasted with two serial killers. One is Hannibal Lecter, who Graham caught in events before the movie. The second is Francis Dollarhyde, who Graham is tasked with finding. The film opens with Graham recovering from his apprehension of Lecter; an ordeal that caused him to have a mental breakdown in addition to the physical injuries he endured. Graham is the best there is at what he does (another recurring Mann motif), and what he does is catch serial killers by making himself think like they do. This allows him to discern the motives, and the method of his targets, but also pushes him dangerously close to the edge.

Manhunter also showcases Mann’s rare sympathy for people who have, for one reason or another, have become a career criminal. Although Dollarhyde is far and away the most purely monstrous of Mann’s antagonists, Manhunter still has dialogue such as “My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster”, spoken by Graham, who goes on to say “At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies… As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks…” Mann doesn’t judge his antagonists as many other filmmakers tend to do, and he generally shows himself sympathetic to the circumstances that create them, but at the same time he makes no excuses as to whether or not what they do should be punished.

Manhunter put Mann’s career back on track after the disaster of The Keep, and although it was a financial disappointment at the time, it set the stage for his 90’s filmography, which is one of the strongest runs any director ever had.

My Rating (4/5)

Critical Scores: Rotten Tomatoes (94%), IMDB (7.2), Metascore (78)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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The Last of the Mohicans is arguably the Mann film that least resembles the archetype of a “Mann” film. It’s not about a competent professional criminal pulling one last job, or the thin line separating the criminals from those pursuing them. On the surface it’s a frontier epic, with a sweeping sense of romance punctuated by moments of graphic violence inherent in the war-torn colonies at the time. This is Mann’s most unapologetically “Hollywood” film I think, not quite as rich or complex as many of his other films, but it also shows Mann at the peak of his visual powers. Underneath is a critique of the idea of “polite” warfare embodied by the French and British forces of the time. The theatricality and decorum of which, are contrasted with the brutal and improvisational tactics of the Indian forces and the main characters. Mann’s first cut of the film lasted over three hours long, forcing a delay while the film was cut down to a more manageable length. The result is that The Last of the Mohicans isn’t quite as elegantly constructed as many of Mann’s other films, and Mann himself has never been quite happy with it, but what remains is still one of the best action films of the 90’s.

Last of the Mohicans

Based off the classic novel by James Fenimore Cooper, The last of the Mohicans still presents a variation of the classic Mann archetype in characters who live on the fringes of society, and who are slowly being pushed out of it. In most of his movies, his characters are forced to be outsiders because they are criminals. In The Last of the Mohicans, it’s because the characters inhabit the wilderness itself. They’re “beholden to none. Not living by another’s leave” as Daniel Day Lewis’s character Hawkeye describes the American settlers. The bumbling attempts at imposing civility on the wilderness by British and French troops show how out of place they are.Yet, The Last of the Mohicans recognizes that in the end, colonial “civilization” of the wilderness is inevitable. In one of the great final scenes of all-time, one of the Indian characters remarks how he is now “the last of the mohicans”, and that ” the frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier. And men like you will go too, like the Mohicans. And new people will come, work, struggle. Some will make their life. But once, we were here.” Most of Mann’s characters are under threat from encroaching civilization, generally embodied by a motivated and elite police force, but here the threat is literalized by the coming American colonials and the aftermath of the French and Indian War.

The Last of the Mohicans has lasted as one of Mann’s most popular films and set the stage for his next, most acclaimed, film, 1995’s Heat.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Critical Scores: Rotten Tomatoes (94%), IMDB (7.8), Metascore (76)

Heat (1995)

Heat

Heat is the consummation of Mann’s themes and visual style. It remains his most acclaimed and influential work, and it ranks as one of the best American film’s of the 1990’s. Heat is the archetypal Mann film, pitting a relentless LAPD lieutenant (played by Al Pacino) against a brilliant career criminal (played by Robert De Niro).

The appearance of Pacino and De Niro playing opposite each other on-screen for the first time (they had both appeared in The Godfather Part 2, but not in the same timeline) was a big deal at the time, and the presence of both lends extra context to Heat’s Themes. Pacino has spent much of his career playing either a cop or a criminal, embodying Mann’s two sides of the same coin mentality. De Niro has also played his fair share of cops and criminals, but also has played many of the most iconic loners in cinema history; Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver first and foremost. Once again, Mann’s criminals find themselves pushed to the brink by a relentless push from law enforcement and the characters find themselves fighting time itself in addition to each other.

It all comes to a head in the celebrated centerpiece conversation between De Niro and Pacino, when the two cinematic legends share the screen for the first time. Beyond the fireworks of two of the greatest actors of all-time verbally sparing onscreen, this conversation encapsulates almost all the ideas Mann is interested in exploring on-screen.

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Pacino’s character (Vincent Hanna) and De Niro’s (Neil McCauley), over the course of the lengthy conversation, deliver lines such as:

Vincent Hanna: I don’t know how to do anything else.

Neil McCauley: Neither do I.

Vincent Hanna: I don’t much want to either.

Neil McCauley: Neither do I.”

as well as:

Neil McCauley: [about dreams] I have one where I’m drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I’ll die in my sleep.

Vincent Hanna: You know what that’s about?

Neil McCauley: Yeah. Having enough time.

Vincent Hanna: Enough time? To do what you wanna do?

Neil McCauley: That’s right.

Vincent Hanna: You doin’ it now?

Neil McCauley: No, not yet.”

And then in the one line that could almost encapsulate all of Mann’s filmography:

Vincent Hanna: It’s like you said. All I am is what I’m going after.”

Mann’s characters are trapped by what they know how to do; De Niro knows how to take scores, Pacino knows how to stop guys from taking them. Neither of them has ever learned how to do anything else, and now, they don’t have time to even try. Their attempts to form relationships with other people fail disastrously, Pacino because he’s married to his job, De Niro because he can’t risk getting close to people when he knows he might have to run from the police at any second.

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Enough has been written and discussed about Heat to fill a whole book, but it’s a phenomenal work, featuring some of the best scenes ever filmed. In addition to the famous Pacino/De Niro conversation, a centerpiece bank robbery has entered cinematic lore as one of the best on-screen shootouts ever filmed. The climactic scene, where Pacino chases De Niro through a field outside the Los Angeles airport, contains some of the best imagery of any Mann film.

In one of the worst snubs in their pretty substantial history of snubbing quality films, Heat was completely shut out at the 1995 Oscars, but it remains one of the best film’s, not only of that year, but of all-time.

My Rating (5/5)

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (86%), IMDB (8.3, #124 on Top 250), Metascore (76)

The Insider (1999)

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If Heat is artistically Mann’s most complete film, The Insider is the point where he was most accepted by mainstream critics as one of America’s best filmmakers. It remains his only film to actually receive major recognition at the Oscars (7 nominations, but somehow zero wins). For the first time, Mann made a movie based off of real events, telling the story of a whistleblower and his efforts to get his information about tobacco company corruption successfully aired on 60 Minutes.

Like The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider isn’t quite an archetypal Mann film, but there’s still a clear enough strain of his typical thematic content to warrant attention. Dr. Wigand (played by Russell Crowe) is the whistleblower in question; he’s just been fired from his position as head of research at a major cigarette company and is sniffed out by Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino in one of his last great performances), a 60 Minutes producer. Wigand has signed a confidentiality agreement with the company as part of his severance deal, but is convinced by Bergman that the information he knows regarding the companies shady design process should be made public. After recording an interview with 60 Minutes, Wigand’s character takes backseat to Bergman’s, who fights for years to get the segment played on the air unedited due to major financial interference from the Tobacco company.

The strains of Mann’s themes come into play in many ways. First and foremost comes another rendition of the shades of grey regarding criminality. Technically, Wigand is in the wrong for violating his confidentiality agreement and Bergman is complicit in dragging information out of him. However, few would argue though that going public with the information is morally the wrong thing to do. The Insider also continues Mann’s distrust of corporations or corporate structures that began in Thief (with James Caan’s integration and betrayal by a mob boss) through Heat and continued here.

The Insider is unique among Mann’s films in that it is very dialogue heavy, and although it contains the usual intoxicating imagery and bravura filmmaking, a lot of this movie is conversations, monologues, depositions, and speeches. It’s also unique in that it’s close to a morality tale in how it portrays Wigand and Bergman as almost conventional “good guys” against a purely evil enemy;undoubtedly why it’s his most successful movie at the Oscar up to this point. Although The Insider is certainly not naive in its portrayal of the two characters (both have significant flaws), rarely has Mann’s characters backed a more righteous for almost no personal gain in return.

The Insider was the end of Mann’s great 90’s run, and for many people it’s his last great movie. I believe that Mann has yet to make a bad movie, but it’s hard to watch the Insider and the movies that he made after and feel like he hasn’t changed as a filmmaker. Rarely does he work with such a large canvas anymore, and his movies have become increasingly abstract and experimental. I appreciate and admire his more recent work, but after the Insider, Mann’s work begins to change.

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My Rating: 4.5/5

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (96%), IMDB (7.9), Metascore (84)

Ali

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After one of the great directorial runs in modern American cinema, Mann took on an ambitious and complex biopic of one of the most controversial American figures of the 20th century: Muhammed Ali. The result is probably the most frustrating Mann film so far in this retrospective. Mann’s fingerprints are everywhere in the meticulous construction of the film’s look and aesthetic. He pulls career best performances out of his cast, and assembles some stunning sequences. Yet, as pointed out in several contemporary reviews for this film, Ali feels almost like a rough cut of a movie not ready to be released. Very little in this film really develops to completion; interesting plots/themes/and relationships are introduced and disappear almost at a whim.

Ali 3

My opinions on this movie are not as well formed as they are for many other of Mann’s films. I had not seen Ali (or Miami Vice) until I started this retrospective and on a second viewing might have a more interesting interpretation. My opinion right now is that Mann took on a very admirable approach regarding Ali. Unlike most biopics, Mann seeks to contextualize his subject in the time and place and which he lived and doesn’t do a straightforward rundown of the beat by beat narrative of Ali’s life. Ali begins where many other biopics might have ended; with his first heavyweight victory, and it ends long before his career is over. The majority of the film deals with his three year suspension for refusing to be drafted into the military for the Vietnam war.

Although I don’t think that Mann’s version, for whatever reason, was completely realized in this film, Ali is still one of the better biopics (one of my least favorite sub-genres) of the 2000’s. It contains career best performances from Will Smith (playing Muhammed Ali), and Jaime Foxx, and features Mann’s usual stellar cinematography.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (67%), IMDB (6.7), Metacritic (65)

Collateral

Collateral

For Collateral, Mann changed up the formula that had brought him so much success. Ever since The Last of the Mohicans, his films had been near 3 hour epics, dealing with complicated plots or sweeping historical actions. For Collateral, he deliberately wanted something different and made a movie that was simple, short, and awesome. The premise is simple, a hitman rents a taxi and makes him drive around the city all night as he pulls job after job. Of course, being a Mann film, Collateral is full of surprises and interesting thematic content. I think that it loses steam near the end, and the climax is disappointing, but for the first hour and a half, Collateral is among some of the best stuff Mann has made yet.

Collateral benefits from its two central performances; an Oscar nominated Jaime Foxx, and from Tom Cruise in a rare villain role (as well as one of the few films I’ve seen him die in, aside from Edge of Tomorrow which doesn’t count). Cruise is pretty sensational and is given a very interesting role as the sophisticated hitman who torments Foxx’s meek taxi driver and the two form an interesting relationship as the film goes on. The character of Vincent (played by Cruise) is another of Mann’s fascinating criminals. Even though he’s a sadistic, unfeeling character with a supremely nihilistic worldview, he ends up being a character that you(or at least me, but I might just be weird) end up rooting for. Part of this is because he embodies so many of the traits typically embodied by movie protagonists: proficient, suave, charismatic etc.. while Max (Foxx’s character) is weak, bumbling, and a bit of a slacker. The role reversal results in a kind of fascinating incoherence as the movie progresses; Vincent is the “bad guy” of the film, yet Max can only win in the end by becoming more and more like him. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that drives the movie forward.

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As I said, I think the ending of this film is a little disappointing, even if it makes sense thematically. That being said, Collateral is Mann’s last undeniable “classic” film according to the majority of critics. I’ll try to make the case for some of his newer work, but you don’t have to take my word for it on Collateral; everyone else like it just as much as I do.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (86%), IMDB (7.6), Metacritic (71)

Miami Vice

Miami Vice

Miami Vice is the first film in a perplexing run of Mann’s filmography. Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat, feature almost all of Mann’s archetypes recycled into new, yet familiar forms, and all three have been the subject of much critical indifference and even outright scorn. Miami Vice was derided on release but, because of the time since its release and the regards which Mann’s filmography is held in, has been reevaluated since. It might be his most interesting film to analyze but, because this viewing was my first, I find myself mostly at a lose to say exactly what it’s about. It’s certainly his most outwardly unconventional film yet (at least until this year’s Blackhat) and it’s probably a film that will grow on me over time.

As it stands, Miami Vice features some of the most strikingly original compositions I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film (take the shot below for instance, with its purple-tinted clouds and how its characters inhabit only one side of the frame). Jaime Foxx and Colin Farrell are both excellent in a film that features very little dialogue for the type of movie that it is. Still, classic Mann themes are espoused in lines such as “Leave now. Life is short. Time is luck,” and “Can’t do the time, don’t mess with crime”, repeating the motif of “time” as a form of currency used so often in his films.

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My Rating (3.5/5)

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (47%), IMDB (6/10), Metascore (65)

Public Enemies

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With Public Enemies, Mann transplants his archetypal characters to the depression era, when criminals were celebrities and pulled off job after job without consequences. Mann depicts an era in transition, as Law enforcement begins to modernize and use new, effective techniques and technology to keep criminals at bay.

Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, America’s most notorious criminal. Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the lead agent of the newly formed FBI who begins a massive manhunt. Unlike most Mann films, Public Enemies doesn’t devolve into a one on one matchup between cop and criminal; Dillinger is the clear main character in this film, but both are confronted with changing circumstances, and the film is concerned with how these characters react to them.

Public Enemies plays almost like an elegy, evoking The Last of the Mohicans and Heat as much as any of his other films. Dillinger combines the freedom of Hawkeye being “beholden to no man”and the complicated, criminal morality of Neil McCauley. Dillinger is the last of his kind; with the modernization of crime fighting techniques, criminals after him couldn’t afford to be so public and would no longer benefit from the same level of public affection. This change can already be seen in the course of the film, as Dillinger’s racketeers can’t afford to launder his money anymore because of how high his public profile is. The criminal’s of the future won’t be the one’s robbing the banks, they’ll be the ones who own them.

 

Public Enemies

 

Public Enemies is one of Mann’s most enigmatic films. On the surface, Dillinger’s story and person (he’s been described as a rock-star type celebrity by historians) seem more suited towards a manic filmmaker like Scorsese. Mann’s deliberate, and stately depiction doesn’t offer the same visceral thrill of a traditional gangster film, but might be all the more memorable for it. So many scenes in Public Enemies seem completely out of place, and are handled so differently, from how you would expect. One of the most memorable is a scene late in the film where Dillinger, in plain daylight and during working hours, walks into the police station where the manhunt for him is led, and the people who are working day and night on his case simply do not recognize him. It’s such a fascinating scene, played with such a melancholy sense of humor, that I can’t imagine another movie taking the same approach. Another such moment comes at the end, after Dillinger has been shot and killed by the FBI. All film long, Public Enemies is billed as Dillinger vs Melvin Purvis (The FBI agent in charge of his manhunt, played by Christian Bale). Yet when word of his death is sent to his girlfriend (played by Marion Cottilard), its not Purvis who delivers the message, but a minor lawman character. In another movie, where Purvis delivers the message, this scene would feel obligatory, but here it’s mysterious and meaningful. You’re not sure why Mann chose this approach, but it lends the end of Public Enemies an air of complexity that perfectly ends an already enigmatic film.

My Rating: 4/5

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (68%), IMDB (7/10), Metacritic (70)

Blackhat

Blackhat

Blackhat is Mann’s most critically denounced film, as well as his most commercially unsuccessful, and I’m still confused as to why that is. Blackhat is clearly an unconventional film, yet it’s hardly nonsensical. The best reason I can think of the for the critical derision is the lack of interesting “characters”, a definite point, but hardly a crippling one.

Blackhat finds Mann exploring the new era of crime, an era where muscle doesn’t mean as much as the ability to design, write, and implement code. Blackhat has gunfights, and fistfights as good, if not better, than any other crime film, but it’s unique in how deeply it approaches the new age of cybercrime. In one of the most unique opening scenes of recent blockbusters, Blackhat scales down physical space multiple times as you literally watch computer data travel from one place to another.

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Blackhat seems inordinately fixated on physical space. Apart from the stunning opening scenes, a marketplace in Hong Kong is shot to resemble a sort of electrical grid (sadly, I can’t find a still for it anywhere on google). The final shootout takes place at a parade(pictured below), where the main character (played by Chris Hemsworth) hunts down the bad guys by weaving in and out of lines of human code as it were. Scenes where objects and spaces are used like this run through all of Blackhat, and is one of the main reasons why its characters don’t really feel like characters. Blackhat doesn’t really care about its characters any more than having them interact with objects, spaces, and technology.

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Blackhat was a gigantic flop on it’s release in January, both because of how it was lambasted by critics, and because it opened opposite the massively popular American Sniper, another R-rated modern thriller that set box office records. For all the grief modern Hollywood gets for not being original, or for celebrating brawn over brains, the case of Blackhat vs American Sniper is more of an indictment on modern audiences than Modern Hollywood. Blackhat is a cerebral film, celebrated for its realistic depiction of modern crime and how its dealt with, was punished for its lack of overt sentimentality, its unconventionality, and for being hard to market. American Sniper on the other hand, was based on a bestselling book, trumpeted by talk shows around the country, and was painfully conventional and shamelessly over-emotional. Guess which one grossed 400 million dollars and got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Again and again, Mann’s films have been overlooked by critics, awards, and audiences. Only a few of his films have even sniffed box office glory or Oscar consideration, but again and again, Mann’s films have the last laugh. Years after their release, Mann’s films still get watched again and again, his flops get reevaluated and his classics receive more and more attention. If Mann isn’t already considered among the best American Directors of all-time, he has to be considered among the most interesting, and influential.

My rating: 3.5/5

Critical Ratings: Rotten Tomatoes (34%), IMDB (5.4), Metacritic (51)

 

 

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