Michael Mann as an Auteur [Essay]

Michael mann
Since his big-screen debut in 1981, Michael Mann has grown to be one of the most interesting writers/directors working in Hollywood. After cutting his teeth in the short film realm and directing a TV movie, Mann burst onto the scene with Thief [1981]. He has shown again and again over the course of his career that he has a wide range and great skill as a filmmaker while keeping a distinct style throughout. His style shines brightly throughout all his work, but it and its evolution are clearly shown in some of his best-reviewed works: Manhunter [1986]Heat [1995], and Collateral [2004]. In these films, Mann has shown that he is not only skilled in his profession but also that he is a maestro in this field and should be considered an auteur. Michael Mann has shown that he is an auteur through his visual style, his character tendencies, and his recurring themes and motifs.


Mann’s visual style is distinct and potent. He consistently uses similar visual methods and styles even after his much-publicized transition to digital filmmaking for Collateral.  He tends to use specific methods and framing to tell his stories and he does so to great effect. Framing and his use of symmetry are some of the most compelling areas of his visual expertise. He consistently uses symmetry to help tell the story and illustrate character relationships. A prime example of this is in the “second opening” of Manhunter. After a disturbing introductory sequence, the camera pans down to two characters sitting on a log on the beach. One the left is Will Graham, the lead of the film played by William Petersen. On the right is Jack Crawford, Will’s former boss at the FBI as portrayed by Dennis Farina. The shot is symmetrical with both men sitting at opposite ends of the log, although they face different directions. With this powerful shot, Mann shows the complex relationship that the two have. Graham has retired from the FBI and wants to live a peaceful life with the family he just started. Crawford wants him to come back to help catch the serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.” Their physical distance beautifully shows the emotional and professional distance they now share. They face opposite directions as their lives now move in opposite directions, with Crawford being a man passionate about his job and Graham wanting to leave it all behind. At the end of this sequence, he uses a similar shot with Crawford and Graham’s wife, again showing the distance between the two. They are great bookends to a very well-done, albeit low-key, opening scene.

Conversely, Mann also uses asymmetry to display character traits. In the sequence mentioned above, Mann intercuts between the two men just like any other dialogue scene, however with a slight twist. He frames it so the character in the foreground has his head out of frame helping to illustrate the mental disconnect between the two. He uses asymmetry again in Collateral in several intense shots of the hitman, Vincent, played by Tom Cruise. He is shown off-center and on the far side of the frame, helping to show the chaos and violence that Vincent is about to unleash.

Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004)
Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004)

He uses both symmetry and asymmetry further in both Collateral and Heat to show the similarities and contrasts of the lead characters. In the former, it is the hitman played by Tom Cruise and the cab driver played by Jamie Foxx. They are polar opposites as people, but they become adversaries over the course of the film and they are shown asymmetrically in mirrors and shots that mirror each other to show the differential. A similar technique is used in Heat. Asymmetrical shots that are nearly identical of the cop, played by Al Pacino, and the criminal, played by Robert De Niro, show how these two men are dissimilar in their goals but similar in their convictions.

Another technique Mann uses is making the locale a character of the film using his keen eye for location. In each of the three films, and in Collateral especially, the locations and architecture play a crucial part. Often times they serve as character metaphors and in others, they are a character of the film. Manhunter often uses architecture such as dull concrete or panels of glass to reflect a character emotionally. The glass sometimes uses reflections to further enhance the contrast between two characters and the concrete shows the dull detachment some characters have to the world around them. In Heat and even more so in Collateral, Mann turns the city of Los Angeles into a character. He often uses wide-angle shots to show the horizon and the cityscape in all of its glory, giving a sense of scale and grandeur to the locations he shoots. He also uses the locations to allow for more vibrant and visually appealing scenes, especially action scenes. The club shootout in Collateral and the post-robbery firefight of Heat are enriched by the setting. They feel claustrophobic and populated and alive, a testament to how well Mann knows Los Angeles and shows it on screen.

Mann uses light and shadow to great effect in his visual storytelling. In Manhunter, for example, he uses a plain white cell for Hannibal Lektor’s cell to draw the audience’s attention to him and make him even more intimidating. Mann also tends to obscure violence in shadows, giving a sense of danger or, more accurately, an absence of safety. Using visual methods such as these, Mann creates powerful genre films and, more importantly, well-illustrated characters.

Michael Mann has specific character tendencies that separate him as a director. If one looks at the three films mentioned, and others of Mann’s as well, one will discover a familiar setup in each: two individuals going up head-to-head. These men compete with each other to achieve opposite goals but often with the same determination and conviction.

Chronologically, Manhunter came first and the two men in this film are Will Graham and Francis Dollarhyde. Will Graham is a retired FBI agent pulled back into the business. He has a talent for getting into the minds of criminals and recreating their crimes in his head in order to catch them. Francis Dollarhyde is a complex criminal mind who is targeting families in order to achieve a form of enlightenment. These two men, who are after complete opposite goals, mirror each other. By getting into the minds of criminals, Graham struggles with self-control and controlling dangerous urges and feelings, just like the killer he is trying to stop.

In Heat, Vincent Hanna, the cop, and Neil McCauley, the bank robber, mirror each other. They are very much alike in their dedication to their craft, but they are also alike in much more emotional ways. Both are willing to die and put their lives on the line for what they are doing, and ironically enough, both could be considered criminals. Hanna is a police officer, but hardly a clean one. McCauley is a bank robber which speaks for itself. They work on opposite ends of the spectrum but are almost identical points on the said spectrum.

Finally, in Collateral, Max, the cab driver, and Vincent, the hitman, also mirror each other. In this case, Max’s occupation is not in direct contention with Vincent’s, but they become adversaries as the film progresses. The film suggests that they come from similar backgrounds and they are both products of their environments. Vincent is a murderer for hire, a man who kills and disrupts the social order. Max is a man who has had a rough life and Vincent reminds him of his shortcomings in life. He did not want to be a cab driver and ended up there because he feels society did him a disservice, maybe because of men like Vincent. His contempt grows and his determination to evade and eventually eliminate Vincent grows with it. Vincent, frustrated by the curveball that Max throws into his night, becomes increasingly more motivated to get rid of Max as he is disrupting the order of things, just as Vincent does to others.

From this mirrored character format, more trends emerge. One man is the criminal, a side of life Mann often likes to explore, the other is a man who has a strong sense of morality even though it is not always followed the whole way. The criminal side of the character duality is where it seems Mann has his fun. He tends to gravitate towards crime-driven films with charismatic criminals at the center. Dollarhyde, McCauley, and Vincent are all criminals in their own unique way, each exploring different aspects of the same violent, dangerous world. These men are unique, fully developed characters that do not exist as one-dimensional “bad guys.” Dollarhyde has a disturbing background and psyche that Mann translates from Thomas Harris’ book, “Red Dragon,” on which Manhunter is based. He has a tragic, sympathetic past that makes him much more than a mindless killer. McCauley is a charismatic criminal on the other hand. While being played by Robert De Niro certainly does not hurt in that department, he is shown as a complex, fully-formed character. He is given a lot of screentime in the nearly 3-hour film so the audience gets to know him as a person, not just as a criminal. He is often shown as a man just doing his job, punctuated by the scene in which McCauley and Hanna confront each other in a diner. In this scene, the men just talk. There is no violence or loud shouting match. They talk just as normal people would do in public and it shows that they are both real men doing their jobs. Vincent is the most difficult to sympathize with because his character is so shrouded in mystery. He is a cold, distant man and the audience is only given hints into his past, but these hints help to fill in the gaps of the enigma that Cruise portrays. Through clever little quips and subtle facial expressions, Vincent’s mysterious shell starts to peel off and the audience is able to infer things about him and the past. The things that are suggested with these hints are hardly pleasant making Vincent seem much more like a real person than the mindless killer he is seen as on the surface. Mann illustrates his protagonists just as well, but he does something a little different with them: he channels his strong thematic skills through them.

Mann’s recurring themes and motifs show that he is a director that should be classified as an “auteur.” Mann uses his protagonists to illustrate strong themes throughout each of the three films. The first of these themes is moral codes which he presents often through the antagonist as well as the protagonist. In Collateral, for example, Max does not seem to have a strong moral code at the beginning of the narrative. However, Vincent does have a moral code, one that some could struggle to categorize as “moral.” His moral code is cold and sinister just as his feelings towards society are. His morals are loose and informed by violence, but they are still morals. When the audience learns of Vincent’s code and its disturbing nature, Max’s starts to come to the surface not by being explicitly shown, but by contrasting against Vincent’s drastically different one. Max is a good man and this is enforced by comparing him to Vincent. Vincent Hanna, from Heat, is unlike the other Vincent in this department but is not strictly by the book. He is a dirty cop, but he makes it his mission to take down McCauley because it’s what his job requires. Will Graham of Manhunter may have the most complex morality as he is the only one who is able to fully step into the shoes of his criminal counterpart. He can not only empathize with them, he can almost mentally become them, making his dedication to his moral code that much harder. He struggles with his morality but stays resolute in his mission to apprehend Dollarhyde even though it’s not the life he wants to lead anymore.


Another theme prevalent in the films of Michael Mann is that of solitude. Many of the characters in his works are loners and men out on the fringes of society. Will Graham left his FBI career behind to start a family. He left his urban job and lives on the waterfront away from society. He has willingly become out of touch with society to seemingly separate himself from the harrowing events of his past. Vincent Hanna is the least out of touch as he is still very much in that urban, populated setting, but he tends to do things his own way and operate on his own. His relationship with McCauley was a one-on-one ordeal and the climatic showdown is just between the two of them at an airport. Max, too, is a man of solitude. He feels that society did him a disservice and he strives for something more in life. The audience is only shown his life as a cab driver and the film does not go out of its way to show that he has a life outside of his job. The cab is his life with all of his relationships being with the people he commutes from place to place.

All of these men are informed and developed through their time in urban areas. Hanna is a Los Angeles cop whose job is to protect the city. Max is a cab driver whose entire existence revolves around traveling around the city. Graham was an FBI agent who tries to escape the chaotic, crime-fueled, urban lifestyle but is thrust back in. All three of the men could be considered modern urban males in their respective time periods. They live and survive in the city where almost all of their lives take place, and when they try to escape like Graham tries to do, they are drawn back in.

Through the themes of urban males and solitude comes one of Mann’s most potent and noticeable visual motifs: the ocean. He consistently uses the ocean to symbolize solitude and loneliness. In Manhunter, the second opening of the film mentioned previously shows the loneliness and societal disconnect that Graham now feels. On its own, it’s a powerful image. Mann repeats this thematic sentiment to make the image even more meaningful. In Heat, he shows several characters sitting in front of an ocean horizon, again to symbolize loneliness and solitude. He does something similar in Collateral, but with a slight twist. This time, instead of an ocean backdrop, he as an image of an island in the ocean in Max’s car, a reminder of the better life he strives for. This, too, shows his isolation and the disconnect he feels from his surroundings. Another motif Mann uses is much less noticeable. He tends to have much of his films take place at night or in the dark. This may seem meaningless to the average audience member, but Mann uses color and shadow very specifically. He uses shadow a lot to show impending danger or violence and moral ambiguity so often present in his characters. By setting much of his films at night, Mann creates an even playing field for his characters. The night-time setting shows that the lines between the good guy and the bad guy will be blurred and that his characters are not always as they seem. Moral codes can be stretched and there is a lot of ambiguity with the morality of the actions of his characters. Michael Mann uses a lot of visual motifs throughout his decades as a film director, but these two are some of his most prevalent and powerful.

Michael Mann has shown that he is an auteur through his visual style, his character tendencies, and his recurring themes and motifs. Throughout his career, he has created many different films and many different genres, but each one is wholly a Michael Mann film. His signature style, or form as he would like to call it, is prevalent and noticeable in each. Whether he’s doing a biopic, a historical drama, or another crime epic, one can be sure to find several “Mannerisms” that make the film his own. He may not be the most well-known or best-reviewed director out there, but he is certainly an auteur and has continually proven so with each film he has released.