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Mann's Work: Night Drive

You couldn't ask for anything better — wind, cold that makes you put your collar up and shove your hands in your pockets, a threat of rain. Terrible weather to be out in, but great weather to leave Michael Mann's Thief to, to walk back to the car and drive away from Hyde Park under the same Chicago neons and nighttime greens as the film. You leave the cinema, and enter the movie. That beautiful sensation of night-driving, that sense of recognition when you pass every location familiar from the film, that weird longing to sit down with a cup of coffee and speak frankly in public, like a Mann character. You can't quite remember the music, but you recognize it in the city reflected in the river. The street lights here really do form these V shapes because Chicago's so flat and the avenues are so long. People call the colors of the film stylized, but they're the real colors of the night in this city — if not how they really photograph, then how they feel.

Doc Films is the oldest student-run film society in the country, old enough to have been founded by the student Socialist Party back when those sorts of things were acceptable. This infinitely modest space, a good-sized, well-equipped theater that pretends it's a screening room, is tucked away in gothic Ida Noyes Hall, outfitted in the blandest mid-century style. They roll out a plain piano for the silents and sell you tickets from a folding table. Almost 80 years old, still dependable for adventure or adventurousness, just a bunch of young people who get together and vote and then put on a film program, five series a week plus second-run fare on the weekends. They called this one "Mann with a Movie Camera." Ten films — nine in the retrospective, plus one more in the weekend series — one a week, every Monday. That's not very much at all. But it's something very important: a Michael Mann retrospective, covering almost all of his features. No other organization in this country is doing anything that matters as much.

Thief is the first. The lobby is somewhat full with a crowd consisting of people who came here for the movie and those that came to buy their season pass and thought they'd stay for the show on account of the bad weather. In line, a talkative middle-aged man divulges that he hasn't seen the film since '81 and only came by to see if it was as good as he remembered. We stand outside, reading newspapers, checking text messages, while the staff tests a reel of the print; we can hear the score booming through the door. Screening regulars recognize each other and nod, like thieves. It's an old print of the theatrical version. That famous shot of the lake, familiar to anyone who's seen the film on DVD, the water looking like a gasoline spill, is nowhere to be found; it exists only in the video version.

I contend that Thief is a great movie, great anywhere and in any version, but there's nothing like seeing it in this city. Maybe this overwhelming sensation causes a sort of tunnel vision. There are aspects you overlook that, maybe if you saw the film somewhere else — away from any city, maybe in some hotel room — would become more obvious. There is, for one, the dialogue; Mann is a dramatist, and always has been. And the acting, with limping James Caan and resigned Tuesday Weld both at their best. Or Willie Nelson's eyes, big as a baby's, and the innocence of his smile. There is that effect, a combination of telephoto lenses and short focal lengths, through which the depth of field becomes so shallow that the city lights behind the actors become a painted, abstract backdrop; men talk and all we see are faces and shoulders against a surface of glistening colors. Fernando F. Croce has written here already about this film; all of his observations are correct. But there are more observations to make; every element of Thief shines so brilliantly that it sometimes eclipses all of the others. You could write essays about the editing, the casting (a weird sort of neo-realism where the police are played by ex-cons and the crooks are played by real-life cops) or that control of tone through which Mann is able to make what would, in your average crime picture, be a considered a happy ending seem so overwhelmingly bleak.

There is in 2009 a feeling impossible in 1981: that if Thief wasn't the first film of the 21st century, it could've at least been the last of the 20th. Starting a Michael Mann retrospective chronologically, one starts at the end of everything: the Mann of Thief through Last of the Mohicans is terminal. From there, he travels forward, to the beginning, and he reaches it in Miami Vice. Question: how did the European explorers find the New World? Answer: by reaching the edge of the map.

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Mann's Work is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Michael Mann, running from September 28th to November 30th at Chicago's Doc Films.

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