There is a scene in Michael Mann’s Thief where James Caan’s professional cat burglar takes up the standing offer from a crime syndicate to work packaged scores (ie, jobs that have already been set-up and are mostly ready to execute) in exchange for big dollars. Frank doesn’t like the idea as his is a fully independent operation. “I am Joe the Boss of my body,” he tells Leo, head of the organization. But Frank needs money and he needs it fast so he takes on the first gig that will net him close to a million in cash.
I think about that scene a lot when I think of The Keep, Mann’s big studio follow-up to Thief. Based off the the very popular book, itself the first in the Adversary cycle of novels by novelist/doctor Paul F. Wilson published between 1981 and 1992, The Keep seems like a job taken rather than a job wanted. A tale of a mysterious keep in the Carpathian Mountains where Nazi soldiers have awakened an unspeakable evil while doing Nazi shit to the edifice and the contents within, there seems to be little within the narrative itself that really interests Michael Mann and, to be sure, he never made another movie quite like it.
But Michael Mann does find thematic value in the notion of matter versus anti-matter which is at the center of The Keep. Like his protagonists in Miami Vice, Manhunter, and Heat, there are stark opposites on the dividing line of good and evil but regardless of the size of the chasm between the two, they simply cannot live without each other. In The Keep, the occupying force, first led by benevolent Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) then by the butcher Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne sporting the proudest of the proud boy haircuts) inadvertently releases Molssar, a powerful force of ultimate evil and destruction that takes terrifying human form with each soul and body it annihilates. This awakens Glaken (Scott Glenn) a curious, timeless being of ultimate good and healing (in somewhat androgynous human form) who, triggered the moment Molssar’s tomb is opened, begins to move from Greece toward the Romanian keep and a final battle royale with Molssar.
Like most other Mann projects, there exists levels and degrees of each character’s goodness and badness and sometimes these get blurred or become interchangeable. A subplot involving Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellan) a Jewish professor who is called in to assist in figuring out what’s killing all of the Nazi soldiers around the keep, is seduced into selfishly harnessing the destructive power of Molssar for good and there is likewise an attempt to contrast between characters on the same team as reflected in the relationship between Prochnow and Byrne (which, in the case of Nazis, will ALWAYS boil down to a distinction without much of a difference). Present also is the Mann-favorite theme of doomed love that occurs between Eva Cuza (Alberta Watson) and Glaken but the decision to bring the latter into the story when there are only thirty or so minutes remaining in the whole film make it an easy one to miss or really care about on any kind of serious level. That said, the film’s sole sex scene, whiplash-inducing it may be, is so ravishingly shot by cinematographer Alex Thompson that the mind boggles at the idea that, given different circumstances, Michael Mann could have run a side hustle making high-end erotic cinema.
There is a very strong temptation to consider The Keep Michael Mann’s equivalent to The Magnificent Ambersons. In both cases, a visionary director adapts a best-selling work and fashions it to his taste only to see the studio destroy it in post-production. But Orson Welles didn’t have contempt for Booth Tarkington’s novel as Mann did for Wilson’s (reportedly, he didn’t like the book at all) and, unlike Ambersons, The Keep has bigger issues than its ending (though the ending is an issue and a half in The Keep). The film is choppy and festooned with tell-tale signs of post-production stitching such as abrupt ADR laid over wide shots and it sports a sound mix that goes from indifferent to incompetent. Additionally the heavy studio axe taken to the contract-violating three hour cut Mann delivered rendered the film baffling; an oddly paced fever dream with a confused narrative structure encased in a beautiful, smoke-filled phantasmagoria. Also working against Mann was the rather unexpected death of the film’s visual effects supervisor, Wally Veevers, who left this earth with a great many ideas still locked in his head JUST as post-production was gearing up. This was quite an unwelcome bit of bad fortune for a film that had already gone over-budget and over-schedule and whose director, only at the helm of his sophomore theatrical feature, continually gamboled from one unfocused visual idea to another.
And, to be sure, there was a great deal of excitement at Paramount when this went into production. Big-budget supernatural horror films were only fitfully profitable but they were in vogue again and Paramount wasn’t going to miss their chance to get a piece of that pie. In fact, they were so jazzed that a tie-in board game was commissioned and created by Mayfair Games. Today, that game will cost you a small fortune if you stumble across one that is intact but, at the time, they mostly sat on the shelves of game and hobby shops and collected dust due to the fact that the film as released found absolutely no audience.
But for something that STILL feels like an unfinished rough cut, there are many things going for The Keep, and there are enough of them to justify both the film’s rabid cult-following and the academic attention given to it. Chiefly, Tangerine Dream’s score is truly fantastic and it’s perhaps even better than the one in Thief. And The Keep is REALLY where the rubber meets the road in terms of Mann’s near-trademarked, perfect marriage of strong visual ideas with their passionately charged, aural counterparts, often working overtime to create an overwhelming sense of beauty and tragedy. Scenes of great dramatic gravity that Mean Something™️ are underscored with deadly earnest tonal passages that guide the viewer’s emotions in a way that are simultaneously manipulative and inspired, predating the broadly orchestrated dramatic lifts in Miami Vice and Manhunter and would continue to remain a staple of Mann’s work. Likewise, moments of pure cinematic masturbation that are constructed out of little more than backlighting, slow-motion, and fog machines are cut and scored in such a way that an unmistakable gorgeousness is conjured up, absolutely trumping the pointlessness of the artistic choices made.
After there came an impasse between artist and studio, The Keep was dumped into theaters with almost zero fanfare and, these days, Michael Mann mostly disowns it. The rights to the music have been difficult to tie down which has created a legal stalemate regarding the film’s ability to be distributed in the United States and there hasn’t been a domestic release of the film in over thirty years. After its headache-inducing production and the even more hellish post-production, a disgusted and broken Michael Mann turned his back on features for a hot minute to regroup in the world of television, the medium that had previously been so good to him. For he yearned to bring his cinematic vision to the more controllable world of small screen entertainment; a television series with the high production values of a Hollywood film where he could impress his progressively moody visual palate onto his obsessive themes regarding good and evil.
In 1984, he would find the perfect vehicle for all of those things. And when Michael Mann was bound for Miami, nothing in American pop culture would ever be the same again.