Thief is a remarkably world-weary feature debut. Michael Mann was only 38 when he directed it in 1981, yet he was already an old pro, with several shorts, TV episodes (Police Woman), and one TV production (1979’s The Jericho Mile) under his belt. In it, professional safecracker Frank (James Caan) goes through Bogart’s fatigued-outlaw routine, yearning to settle down and pursue his collage-postcard-as-idyll dream. Leaving the underworld runs “against the way things go down,” according to the gangland capo (Robert Prosky), so the protagonist’s impending fate is imprinted in every line of Mann’s nocturnal compositions. The thief, like many of the director’s existential athletes, is doomed. So is, for that matter, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in Public Enemies. History dictates it. Yet why is a retelling of the real-life outlaw’s trajectory, shot by Mann at 66, so much freer and less deterministic—so much younger—than his first film? The answer came in the middle of my third viewing of Public Enemies: Since Thief, Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist, as my colleagues Girish Shambu and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky have astutely noted.
A contrast. In an early sequence in Thief, the camera lingers on Frank at work, drilling into a safe with the concentration of a diamond cutter. Mann’s technique—lighting, composition, color, sound—is immaculate, with images as solid as granite. Compare their sturdiness to the almost liquid quality of the sequence toward the end of Public Enemies in which Dillinger impulsively saunters into a Chicago police station. Mann shapes the character’s walk across the room like an almost ethereal forward drift with visual-aural elements (a ray of sunlight falling upon a face, the strains of a Billie Holiday song, the click-clack of an offscreen typewriter) weaving in and out of his (and our) consciousness. In both sequences the protagonist is utterly immersed into the moment, contemplating his status as an outsider (literally in the new film, as Dillinger finds himself face to face with his own mug shot).
That’s not to say that the images in Thief are static, or that the movements in Public Enemies aren’t meticulously mapped out. In fact, it should be stressed that the seemingly uncomposed digital-video technique Mann has come to prefer is the result of the most rigorous planning and execution, if only to keep him from being grouped with members of the Handheld Brigade like Paul Greengrass and J.J. Abrams. (One can’t imagine Mann, an artist often out of his time—suspended between the ‘70s caméra-stylo of Scorsese, Malick and De Palma and the ‘80s cinéma-du-look of Ridley and Tony Scott—scrambling to keep up with the Joneses.) And it’s not a matter of one approach being “bad” while another is “good.” But it’s clear that the Mann of today has little interest in duplicating the plastic perfection of Thief. Perfection isn’t necessary in cinema; once it is achieved, it can (and, I would argue, should) be discarded. Over the years, Mann has increasingly moved beyond the faultless surfaces of his characters, vehicles and landscapes for their inner, emotive pulses. Now, Dillinger has his fatal rendezvous outside the movie theater and you can just about feel the bullets. Again, sensation.
This feeling for the tactile, fleeting moment, common to French filmmakers (Téchiné, Denis, Assayas) but unthinkable in an American “action movie,” is already present as early as parts of Thief. Mann’s camera detaches itself from a police car in the freeway and, while gliding over to a bus driving ahead, momentarily loses itself in awe of the lights and forms of Chicago at night. The moment is too brief to take on a life of its own apart from the plot, yet it has the effect of Herzog on a drifting barge recording the flora and fauna by the riverbank.
A similarly immersive effect takes over during Frank’s heist. Form takes over, as in a trance. But whose trance is it, Frank’s or the camera’s?
Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys. The beauty of his latest films lies in the way there’s no distance between his camera’s proclivities for stylistic abstraction and the protagonists’ own reveries. The director isn’t just photographing them, but dreaming along with them.