THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)

I’ve never read anything by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of the book from which The Last of the Mohicans was adapted. But if Mark Twain is to be believed a decent critic of letters, I’m not missing much. Or, to be precise and on the contrary, I’m missing a lot because, as a friend once opined, “I wish he were James Feniless Cooper.” So it seems that the consensus is that if Cooper was anything, it wasn’t economical. And neither, really, is filmmaker Michael Mann (though it’s not necessarily a bad thing with him). A man who toils in ostensible action films, Mann’s work slowly percolates before hitting a full roil as he allows minute details to create the fuller flavor when the action finally hits.

So it’s sort of a surprise that Mann’s adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans is such a tight and nimble affair that yet still feels robust and epic. But in all transparency, Mann’s film isn’t a finely combed reworking of the original source material, but is a copy of a copy; less adapted from the novel itself but from the 1936 adaptation by John L. Balderston, Daniel Moore, Paul Perez, and Philip Dunne which was the basis of the George Seitz-directed version of The Last of the Mohicans starring Randolph Scott.

Set in 1757 during the third year of the French and Indian war, The Last of the Mohicans spins the yarn of Cora (Madeline Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro, daughters of British Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves) who are attacked by their Mohawk-née-Huron guide, Magua (Russell Means) on a march to a military fort and are subsequently intercepted and led to safety by a frontier family unit made up of the white born/native raised Nathanial ‘Hawkeye’ Bumppo (Daniel Day-Lewis); his Mohican father, Chingachgook (Russell Means); and brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig). Throw in some frontier romance that looks like the cover of a million and one bodice-rippers that would litter the rack of a Safeway in years long extinguished, a gloriously unsubtle and full-blooded score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography making damn sure that every shot looks like a gorgeously textured painting, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a rousing adventure film that cleverly folds pulp into purpose.

If all of this sounds a little rustic for the glossy kind of urban plotting favored by Michael Mann, it’s not. For The Last of the Mohicans plays very well to Mann’s strengths and shows what makes him such a special filmmaker. Here the examination of a crime scene is replaced with the almost preternatural knowledge of just who and what slaughtered a defenseless frontier cabin. Nobody cases a score but Magua plots diligently and carefully to satiate his obsession with slaughtering the entire Munro family. Nobody has a history of existential baggage causing their personal lives to be high-tension quagmires of personal failure but there is an inevitable march to the same kind of doom and loneliness that befell Thief’s Frank and Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and caused the endings to their tales to contain bitter, Pyrrhic victories.

Aside from expanding the widescreen visual language that had eluded Mann the previous seven years during his sojourn in television, The Last of the Mohicans is perhaps the most foundational embodiment of the Mann hero. Nathanial Bumppo is a man without a heritage, a white man raised in a native family in a land that is wild and tangled beyond its small British foothold. Not only does this expand to Magua, likewise disconnected from his roots after being taken a slave by the Mohawk people, this also expands to Mann’s reflection of the America as contemporarily dressed westerns in which the protagonists reside in the absolute middle between law and lawlessness, even when they themselves are cops and/or criminals. Mann’s heroes are just the progeny of the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; fiercely independent and untamed criminals with a modicum of personal honor battling against authority figures right on the dividing line of the two. This is why Nathanial’s declaration of “I do not call myself subject to much at all” sounds suspiciously like Frank’s “I am Joe the Boss of my own body.”

As is his wont to do, Mann’s insistence on giving Magua a third dimension and not rendering him a cartoon villain without proper motivation makes the character a little less than the symbolic Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter who served as a literal reflection of the protagonist. Here, the antagonist is placed into much more devastating territory, painted as someone understandably twisted by a hate in regards to a tragedy with which the audience can empathize. After all, didn’t we cheer Clint Eastwood’s titular character in The Outlaw Josey Wales back in 1976 for doing pretty much the same thing? And let the record state that I don’t exactly not root for Magua to kill Colonel Monroe and eat his heart, I’m just a little bearish on him killing the kids.

Mann puts his actors through the absolute ringer as they traverse uphill and down dale in some pretty rough terrain, earning themselves every layer of dishevelment that occurs to their wardrobes along the way. And while the whole cast is amazing, special mention has to be given to Daniel Day-Lewis for giving straight men the meaning of what it is to look like a whole snack. Despite its technical prowess, flawless pacing, and containing some of the most beautiful cinematography this side of Barry Lyndon or The Duellists the secret sauce of The Last of the Mohicans is likely its casting. Every now and again, I see a tweet make the rounds that states “My sexual orientation is the cast of 1999’s The Mummy,” replete with four stills of its principles. Well, I’ll see your Mummy and raise you a Last of the Mohicans because I know of no other film that oozes base sexuality and affects its viewers quite like this one without doing much of anything at all (though, quite honestly, neither does The Mummy). For about 55 minutes into the film, Mann stages one of the most erotically charged moments of his career that is astonishing in its ability to raise the temperature to a ridiculous degree without showing a single thing outside a passionate kiss. And it serves as a reminder that, though not generally thought of as a composer of romantic moments, Michael Mann certainly knows how to create almost painfully gorgeous sequences of physical sensuality. When Madeline Stowe coos “The whole world is on fire,” one is tempted to mutter “Yeah it is. Go ahead and let it burn.”

Put another way, a family dinner with my much more conservative parents and sister turned into a literal thirst trap as my mom, a woman who thinks long hair looks positively awful on men, couldn’t help but bemoan the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis cut his hair after production on The Last of the Mohicans wrapped and my sister, generally demur in such moments, offered up “Now… see… I liked his brother in that.”

A little something for everyone, America.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: L.A. TAKEDOWN (1989)

In 1979, Michael Mann completed a 180 page screenplay that chronicled the exploits of a driven police detective and his criminal opposite. The screenplay was inspired by Mann’s conversations with Chicago detective and writer Chuck Adamson who, indeed, had matched wits with a high-line professional thief named Neil McCauley and, in the end, ended up killing him in a standoff. While Mann was able to break this screenplay apart over the years and place bits and moments of it into his various theatrical and television enterprises, his first chance to get as close as he could to doing the whole enchilada presented itself in the form of a television series Mann wanted to develop that centered around the robbery homicide department of the L.A.P.D. The 180 page script was cut in half, the tempo quickened to stroke level, and the two-hour pilot, eventually renamed L.A. Takedown, was produced.

In 2021, there are two ways to look at L.A. Takedown. The first would be to watch it in a retrospective manner where it will do nothing but look like a weak sauce, junior high stage performance of Heat, Mann’s now-classic theatrical retelling of the same material from 1995. While L.A. Takedown moves at the zippy pace of a television movie and I’m honestly astonished just how much of Heat Michael Mann was able to boil down into a 96 minute running time, absolutely nothing about it can touch Heat in terms of story, character, or mood which flattens this down into something just a little more heated than a stone cold table-read.

Another way to look at it is a logical step in the evolution of Michael Mann, one of the few filmmakers whose television work is as important as his feature work. In 1989, L.A. Takedown was Mann’s shot at getting his baby to the screen and as intact as humanly possible. We weren’t going to see reworked moments like Mike Torello coming home to his wife with another man in the early episodes of Crime Story; Manhunter’s Hannibal Lecktor and Will Graham looking at each other from across an expanse to evoke a certain kind of mirroring of the soul; or, as in Thief, Frank bitching to Leo about the transponders in the bumper and the wheel well. With L.A. Takedown, we were going to see all of Michael Mann’s heart and soul in the context in which it was originally envisioned.

For the uninitiated, L.A. Takedown is a story about whip-smart and laser-focused LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank) who runs a crew of cops out of the robbery homicide department. On the other side of the moral coin is Patrick McLaren (Alex McArthur), cool-as-ice professional thief who, like Hanna, surrounds himself with a team of trusted professionals to pull of complex and high risk robberies. When the hold-up of an armored car leads to a multiple homicide, Hanna’s ears perk up and he is on the case while his marriage begins to slowly disintegrate under the pressure of his vocation.

Shot in nineteen days, L.A. Takedown has all the hallmarks of something that was created on the fly and thrown together as quickly as possible. And, while watching it, one can’t help but feel that this must have been a little more than heartbreaking for Michael Mann. Rewriting and resetting so many of Heat’s moody, noirish night pieces in the bright white California sun is as visually upsetting as if someone remade every Val Lewton movie and set them on Miami Beach at high noon. And even without the benefit of seeing the upgrade that would come in 1995, the leads in L.A. Takedown can’t help but feel like Heat if it were performed by the Max Fischer Players. Scott Plank and Alex McArthur are fine-ish but, setting aside the level of craft inherent in them versus DeNiro and Pacino, I’m not so convinced there’s enough there there in Plank’s performance to carry the television series that didn’t materialize from this. Where Pacino is a haggard and heavy-lidded live wire, Plank comes off like a grumpy and harried dad who’s mostly put out because he has to drive his fifteen year old to the mall.

And what L.A. Takedown excises robs it of its overall power. One of the main joys of Heat is realizing that is a love story about two men who don’t realize their in the best relationship of their lives with each other. In L.A. Takedown, there is no cross flattery between Hanna and McLaren. The mutual respect is there as evidenced by the third-string version of Heat’s classic diner scene. But the deep, solitary longing of two guys who cannot live normal lives is muted as it chooses to contrast McLaren and Hanna’s respective relationships with their significant others which, due to the nature of this being a pitch for a television series, had to have a happier ending of reconciliation which betrays a core commandment in the Mann universe and is the very thing that caused Manhunter to just miss masterpiece status.

But L.A. Takedown is not without its merits. I feel that, taken in the spirit of its original intent, it’s an important piece of the Mann puzzle and, on a technical level, Mann’s utilization of ethereal, synth-driven soundtracks is effective. His obsession with procedural detail is always fascinating and welcome and, regardless on whether or not the delivery is flat, let it be known that Michael Kenneth Mann can write a line of dialogue or two.

While this was meant to be a series that explored Hanna’s department, this was not yet a show that the networks wanted and Mann found himself again at a crossroads. While he would continue to work on a couple of more projects for television in the capacity of writer and executive producer (Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Drug Wars II: The Cocaine Cartel), Mann was feeling the squeeze of television once more. Having blown his ultimate load on what amounted to a disappointing and failed television pilot, Michael Mann began to look toward America’s past to explore those themes that were close to his heart that might help regain some theatrical traction.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: CRIME STORY (1986-1988)

In 1986, Michael Mann was having a hell of a year. The second season of Miami Vice had proven to be immensely popular, he stewarded Band of the Hand into the theaters as an executive producer, did the same for Manhunter as writer and director, and, finally, brought Crime Story to the airwaves, making him for one brief moment of time, the king of television.

Had Crime Story been half as successful as Miami Vice, there is little doubt that Michael Mann’s name and the show itself would have eclipsed Miami Vice in terms of the conversation as to what it contributed to pop culture. Where Miami Vice‘s influence was immediate and changed the entire look of America for a hot minute, Crime Story would have undoubtedly been on multiple critics’ lists regarding the greatest network television shows of all time for its sophisticated storytelling, stellar period soundtrack, and its impeccably gorgeous production design. Alas, what can only be deduced as network interference spoiled the soup and caused Crime Story to remain only as the foundation of a brilliant show that went horribly wrong, the seeds of which nonetheless scattered far and wide and brought forth amazing fruit.

Inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s astonishing Berlin Alexanderplatz, itself a multi-part German television series shown theatrically in New York City in 1980, Crime Story was to be a less episodic television series than Miami Vice and, instead, one that told, in serialized format, one continuous narrative of the obsessive cat-and-mouse game between Chicago Detective Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and arch-criminal Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) that would span five seasons and cover the years 1963 through 1980. What Mann ended up with was more like Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, the Fassbinder series that was initially scheduled to run in eight episodes but was canceled after only five, ending the series on, for Fassbinder, an uncharacteristically happy note JUST before it got to take its planned darker turn. Crime Story’s aborted ending after just two seasons doesn’t do that, exactly; but, if you cock your head and squint just right, the end of the show does makes a certain amount of sense and create a small amount of satisfaction if looked through the prism of the universe of Michael Mann.

But before we get to the ending, we have to talk about the beginning and, man, what a glorious inception Crime Story had. Jumping off with an explosive, two-hour feature pilot, directed by Abel Ferrara, Crime Story chronicles the rise of Ray Luca, small-time Chicago criminal. Moving up through the ranks with the help of boss Phil Bartoli (Jon Polito), numbers runner Max Goldman (Andrew Dice Clay), cat burglar Frank Holman (Ted Levine), dim witted henchman Pauli Taglia (John Santucci), and crime lord Manny Weisbord (Joseph Wiseman), Luca is chased from one end of Chicago to Las Vegas and, ultimately, the end of the earth by Lieutenant Michael Torello and his gang of coppers; Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), Walter Clemons (Paul Butler), and young blood Joey Indelli (Bill Campbell). Working both sides of the fence at different points in the show is Stephen Lang’s David Abrams, mob boss son on a crusade against injustice and crime.

Crime Story was created by Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger and, indeed, is based off of true crime events that were massaged and fictionalized. A soft bridge between the cinematic, operatic opulence of The Godfather and the gritty, granular details of Goodfellas and Casino, Crime Story’s biggest progeny is likely The Sopranos which had the benefit of coming after Scorsese’s at-bat and was able to launch off the familiar popularity of Goodfellas in the same way that Happy Days was able to cloak itself in American Graffiti clothes. But, in 1986, Crime Story was well ahead of the curve by attempting what Mann described as a 20 hour movie that snaked its way through the annals American history via the exploits of its two leads.

So, yes, that is, indeed, the outline of the plot of Casino you’re seeing (except with Andrew Dice Clay in the Robert De Niro part) deep into season one yet nine years before the Scorsese film hit the theaters. In fact, you’re likely to see a plot element or casting decision or three that will likely remind you of things you’ve seen before and, yes, you’re probably right in deducing that they’re familiar. For Crime Story was the Velvet Underground of television shows; nobody watched it but those that did created their own piece of organized crime entertainment that became wildly popular. This is likely due that the raw material assembled for Crime Story, interviews Reininger conducted with actual mob figures, made up so much of the material that was used in the mob genre in the wake of Goodfellas and Wise Guy, the 1986 Nicholas Pileggi book from which Goodfellas was adapted.

Unfortunately, after the show made a ballsy and epic shift from Chicago to Las Vegas halfway through its first season, something seemed to go terribly wrong in the second season. The show’s pace seemed to quicken and format seemed to become more conventional. What was a single-threaded chase for Ray Luca became stagnated in the Las Vegas desert while the antagonist and his exploits were pushed to the background and rinky-dink, Mickey Mouse investigations found their way onto Torello’s desk. This mimicked the way Miami Vice did business but Crime Story could ill-afford to monkey with its special formula and when chasing Ray Luca becomes secondary for a saggy spell, the show becomes far less compelling and at its worst, it feels like a routine cop show in a fun period getup. Perhaps this was a way to help bring new viewers on board at random which would be next to impossible as the show was envisioned. Hell, in the 44 episodes that make up Crime Story, there are at least three clip shows designed to square-up the audience that HAD been paying attention. And, given the way networks and television shows work, I can’t say that I entirely blame NBC. But it was a devil’s gambit; a bid for an audience that didn’t show up which ended up costing the show its greater reputation.

The other issue with making Crime Story less of a two-hander about Torello v. Luca and more one about Torello and His Flying Sack of Maniacs is that the latter approach is rote and most definitely NOT Michael Mann territory. For whatever lofty heights the first season reached, Crime Story winds up being the lesser between itself and Miami Vice mostly because either one of two things have to occur in Mann’s work; either you have the cop chasing the criminal who is just the mirror image of himself -or- the cop and the criminal are almost so intertwined that they’re basically the same person. This may seem like a distinction without much of a difference but this is also how Miami Vice could stay true to itself in almost every episode and not get out of the scope of Mann’s overall thesis. Without Ray Luca’s constant yang to Torello’s Yin, Crime Story becomes inert and uninspired although I will admit that “Blast From the Past,” the second season episode in which Torello hunts for the kidnappers of his ex-wife’s current husband, remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire show due to its uncommon emotional depth.

There does seem to be a point in which all of the historical tchotchke that riddles the central story of Crime Story eventually became too heavy for Mann and the networks which is why the last three episodes of the second season seem to jettison their historical skin and literally look like a three part Miami Vice arc in which Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in a high level of jeopardy in an unfriendly and unstable South American country. But say whatever you will about those episodes in which the show begins to (almost jarringly) expand into territory Mann would later touch with his stewardship of 1990’s Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, itself a prototype for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it regains the core vision of the series where obsessed men strip themselves down to their most base and animalistic to hunt and destroy each other which, honestly, is what really drives Michael Mann’s best work. In fact, if you took away all of the period detail in Crime Story, you’d basically have the soul of his next feature, the 1989 made-for-television film, L.A. Takedown, which would find more important life six years later when Mann remade it as Heat. This is also why Crime Story’s second season’s cliffhanger ending, seen as tragically disappointing because of the show’s cancellation, is one that could also be easily seen as the most logical ending of all of Mann’s works. For if Torello’s season one threat to Luca of “I’m going to take you down right” is to be taken literally, there is really no other way for things to end outside them killing each other. So its probably best for everyone involved that they all perish when that plane hits the water lest Dennis Farina survive end up like poor Al Pacino or James Caan at the endings of Heat and Thief, respectively; a broken soul left to wander the earth alone, pouring over his miserable past with nothing especially to look forward to.

It’s something of a disappointment that Crime Story never became what it was inspired to be. Dennis Farina gives a tremendous, physical performance which looks like he hurt a few stuntmen and day players and it is a complete joy to watch him throw people through candy glass and slam their heads a little too forcefully into the props even when the show goes off the rails. Anthony Denison should have been a bigger star away from television and got done completely dirty when the second season ate his character away into being just a tiny bit more than supporting cast member. Andrew Dice Clay is surprisingly at ease and amazing which makes me wish that the show would have helped him pursue bigger and better acting roles which was a better vocation for him than what he became. And, man, Joseph Wiseman really gets to sink his teeth into a role that apparently contractually allowed him to eat every shred of scenery he wanted to when he was on screen. In the annals of Wiseman’s villainy, I’m generally more gripped and terrified when he’s lecturing someone in Crime Story than when he’s talking world domination with James Bond as the titular character in Dr. No.

And it’s probably not for nothing that contributing to the show’s inability to rise above a mere cult curiosity is the way it’s been treated since its broadcast. Due to Universal’s balking at picking up the show due to its tremendous price tag when they were already paying over $1 million per episode of Miami Vice, Crime Story was taken in by the television department over at New World Pictures, one-time Roger Corman outfit that had decided to go straight in the mid-80’s. To say that Universal was a better custodian of its intellectual property than New World is a vast underselling of the situation because Miami Vice has done nothing but lived on in syndicated reruns with little or no problem in terms of physical media or otherwise in allowing the consumers to watch the full, unedited show with as brilliant a picture as humanly possible. Not so with Crime Story. First released onto VHS in the subpar SLP mode (always a then-sign of trash quality), the show never fared any better when it made the jump to DVD. Now collected into one nine-disc DVD set by Image Entertainment, Crime Story is a disgraceful presentation of compressed, dark, and muddy images with sloppy and obvious soundalike cues sprinkled about where musical clearances were not obtained. To add insult to injury, the second season is presented without preservation to the original broadcast order necessitating one to consult IMDB to ensure they’re on the right track. This is a show that simply screams to be restored and if it were given better treatment, the show’s obvious shortcomings in the second season wouldn’t land as particularly hard as they do. For no matter how stupid Miami Vice got in its fourth season, Mill Creek made Crockett and Tubbs pursuing a tank of bull semen look absolutely and achingly beautiful. And if you think you’re going to get around these things by watching whatever app reflects as having this as a streaming option, you won’t as they’re using the same transfers.

Crime Story remains one hell of a show, regardless of its ignoble end. One could watch nothing more than the first season and think that Michael Mann had delivered one of the greatest things in all of network television. Alas, the second season came with a price tag that brought it down to earth. As the 1980’s were coming to a close Mann was finding the world of television to be just as frustrating as what he had experienced with The Keep and Manhunter. But he still had a couple of other small-screen projects standing between him and his big-screen reboot and they’d be ones in which he’d further shape his thematic ideas of good guys and bad guys living amid cultural, urban, and emotional wastelands.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: MANHUNTER (1986)

Once waist-deep in the world of Miami Vice, executive producer Michael Mann became obsessed with the dichotomy between both the law and lawlessness and good and evil. In that series, these themes were explored through the lens of the undercover cop who has to blend both the personal and professional into one, often creating moral quandaries and existential crises of the soul. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Mann found perhaps the starkest example of these themes as it blended the law enforcement official with a serial killer. Moving beyond dope peddlers and cat burglars, this was a story that would really put the protagonist through the paces.

Due to the financial drubbing felt by producer Dino De Laurentiis’s Year of the Dragon, released in 1985, Red Dragon was retitled Manhunter to avoid the same fate. It didn’t much work as Manhunter, a title that almost nobody on the planet liked, barely made a blip at the box office, grossing less than nine million dollars and having to settle on slowly finding a cult audience on HBO and home video. By the time Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs was released to almost universal acclaim in 1991, Manhunter and its pioneering cinematic representation of serial killer Hannibal Lecter (spelled Lecktor in Mann’s film) had been mostly forgotten, leaving cinephiles who dared to articulate a preference for Mann’s highly stylized thriller over Demme’s film castigated and hectored as snobbish contrarians. But legion was and is the gang of folks who find Manhunter’s moody, yet cool and uncluttered visual palate and detail-oriented procedural a more sensory intoxicating cocktail than Demme’s admittedly brilliant hair-raiser.

In terms of a broad plot outline, the differences between Manhunter and Lambs are negligible; FBI Agent Jack Crawford recruits a brilliant investigator to track down a serial killer which causes the investigator to enlist the help of incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter to assist in stopping him before he kills again! The major difference between Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs is in its protagonist. I can’t imagine greenhorn cadet Clarice Starling being as compelling a figure in the world of Michael Mann as haunted FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen), the man who earned a Pyrrhic victory by capturing brilliant serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) but only after absorbing a punishing amount of psychological damage in the process. With this character, Mann gets to have it both ways as Graham continually walks a fine line not just between cop and criminal but literally between saint and monster. As is the case with Clarice Starling’s monologue about the doomed livestock in Lambs, Manhunter underlines Graham’s humanity with a turtle hatchery he’s constructing at the beginning of the film with his son, Kevin (David Seaman). Will Graham is doing his best to save what he can from the awful, predatory forces of nature. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford (a terrific Dennis Farina) and Molly Graham (an even more terrific Kim Greist) sit on the balcony of the Graham’s beachfront home where she grouses to him about the dangers of bringing the retired and broken Graham into the investigation, all the while being framed against one of Mann’s painterly vistas that drive home the perpetual theme of emotional distance that affects almost all of his characters like a virus. Unlike Lambs, however, the investigative prowess of the protagonist is, in fact, part of his actual deviancy as telegraphed early in the film as Graham’s investigation of a crime scene utilizes the same point of view footage from the pre-credit sequence which chronicles the home invasion by the horrifying Francis Dollarhyde (dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”; Tom Noonan, giving the performance of his career) as he prepares to slaughter the family inside.

As the embodiment of the mythic Mann hero who is conflicted the second he breathes air outside the womb, William Petersen gives a performance that has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first of its kind. Coming off of a highly energetic turn in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. the previous year, Petersen commits to a performance where he makes a series of choices that have been criticized over the years as being flat or unconvincing. It’s a performance that is not exactly either one of those things but it is unconventional and has to be viewed from a very specific angle to be fully admired. Sometimes his emotive bursts are a few degrees too hot for the scenes in which they occur but there are a number of very tricky and difficult things Petersen successfully pulls off that are more important to the character as a whole than a couple of awkward line readings. There is a severe fragility eating at the center of Petersen’s Graham that occurs in scenes with his family where he chillingly employs a mid-distance stare and a lukewarm delivery that never seems like it’s coming from a real person. But, holy god, watch him in an early scene in the hotel room where he dutifully checks in with his sleeping wife on the phone only to have his eyes light up like a Christmas tree when he hangs up and moves over to the portable TV and VCR unit where he can indulge himself in watching the victims’ home movies in order to recapture the mindset of a murderer. Looking like a seventeen year old who is now watching his parents’ porn after assessing that the coast is clear, Will Graham fits in with the many Mann protagonists who treat their lovers and significant others as mothers from whom they need permission to go outside and play and only come alive when totally plugged into their work.

Unlike any other of Mann’s works, sex is treated less as a pleasurable action between two adults but as a brief respite from ongoing pain in the lives of its principal characters. Graham’s character spends his last night with wife at their home making love with her but he’s already on another track that will lead to rack and ruin; something she knows, recognizes, but is also cognizant to the fact that she is powerless to stop it. Dollarhyde, by comparison, eventually makes a genuine physical connection with a blind co-worker (a fabulous Joan Allen) but instead of bringing him any peace, their night together only brings more pathology. And in further tying the two together, the film’s structure is very purposeful as, right around the film’s halfway mark, Manhunter becomes less about Graham and more about Dollarhyde. This specific kind of duality is further driven home by visually framing Lecktor and Graham in such a way that both characters are functionally looking at themselves in a mirror, predating Detective Vincent Hannah’s coffee date with Neil McCauley in Heat by a number of years.

Manhunter was also Mann’s one theatrical film that looks MOST like a traditional Mann production of the time. Thief might be the masterpiece that subtly influenced short-subject filmmaking but Manhunter was the most modernist Mann film. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is bold and the compositions strong with the exact same kind of anti-earth tone mission that was employed in the first couple seasons of Miami Vice. Additionally, thanks to the production design by Mel Bourne and art direction by Jack Blackman, almost nobody lives in a house that looks like it was built by a sane architect nor decorated by a legitimately bonded interior designer. Mixing the post-modern structures of Miami Vice and the geometrical furnishings and tchotchke from Crime Story, Mann creates a world that is both of its time and retrograde; where glass block is as prevalent as brick and almost every FBI office is spotless and looks like its been cleaned by someone on a coke binge.

Though current home video releases of Thief have been graced with an additional scene not seen in its theatrical release, Manhunter was Mann’s first film to go back to the editing room on multiple occasions and there are no less than three different cuts of it floating around out there and one might say that Mann has used home video as an excuse to tinker with 90% of his work. While Mann gets it right the first time on the majority of his films, a case could be made for the director’s cut of Manhunter (available on Scream Factory’s Blu ray which also includes the theatrical cut). While we lose the elevator shot in Graham’s hotel which feels like taking a knife to my mother’s throat, and the running of the opening credits over the initial Crawford/Graham conversation makes it feel like you’re about to watch a television movie, the director’s cut leans more heavily on the concern for Graham’s mental well-being and also makes the focus on the family much starker. If one thinks of the film’s happy ending as a detriment (as I do), it’s a crying shame that Mann didn’t shoot something a little more dour and closer to his heart as an alternate, even if the odds of getting it past the producers was likely going to be a no-go. For the penultimate scene in the director’s cut would work even more beautifully if, instead of an awkward reunification of the Graham family as is the case no matter what cut you go with, Will was left with nothing but his memories and an empty beach. Graham’s unnecessary and creepy presence at the home of what would have been Dollarhyde’s next victims would hint at a happy ending but, really, Graham could have only really gotten to know their identities if he were as disturbed and calculating as Francis Dollarhyde, casting the film’s finale as something that more closely resembled William Friedkin’s Cruising.

But even if it wasn’t a capitulation to the studio, Mann’s disallowance of Graham to be alone on the beach at the end, especially with the terrible Red 7 “Heartbeat” song draped over it, feels like a false note. In the true universe of Michael Mann, Graham would wander in the white sands amid a bunch of turtles he’d saved but only at the expense of losing everything and everyone else in his life, including himself. And, like Graham, Mann had found a way to get the darkest examination of his obsessions onto the big screen but with no small amount of budgetary difficulty and with little to show for it in return.

With Manhunter behind him, Mann would slink back into the world of television where he would hone and woodshop new visual and thematic ideas in episodes of Crime Story and, portentously, 1989’s made-for-TV L.A. Takedown. Despite his enormous contribution to popular culture, the first phase of Mann’s career was ending on an inauspicious note; a big filmmaker retreating back into a small medium where he was likely to get trapped for the remainder of his career. But the 1990’s were on the horizon and a sea change was forming. Michael Mann was about to get his day.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: BAND OF THE HAND (D. PAUL MICHAEL GLASER – 1986)

The exact formula for 1986’s Band of the Hand is this: The Dirty Dozen minus seven, divided by approximately half in age, strain through Miami Vice, and a tablespoon of sugar stirred in for taste. A corny, violent, foul mouthed, junior varsity Mod Squad with an odd sense of pacing and a structure that feels suspiciously like two episodes of a TV show that never happened but maybe should have, Band of the Hand is both aggressively stupid and thoroughly lovable from the first frame to its last. If I believed in the notion of guilty pleasures, I’d label it as such. But since I harbor zero guilt nor shame in my taste or what brings me joy, Band of the Hand stands as a delicious piece of gorgeous, brainless cheese that was worth the six American dollars I spent on the no-frills and pristine Blu ray from the fine folks at the non-flashy yet solid Mill Creek, the Southwest Airlines of boutique physical media labels.

The story is simple: a group of malcontented, underage criminals from all over greater Miami are locked into a paddy wagon and dumped into the middle of the Florida Everglades where Miccosukee Indian Joe Tegra (Stephen Lang… yes, you read that right) teaches them how to survive in the wilderness so they can go back to the urban jungle of Miami and take the streets back from crime lord, coke distributor, and black magic enthusiast Nestor (James Remar… yes, you read that right).

Split right down the middle as if structured as a two-act play, the first half of the film is all set-up and introduction with a generous amount of padding when moving through the Lord of the Flies portion of the film. First we meet our anti-heroes in an excitingly cut montage over which the title track of the film, written and performed by Bob Dylan with backup by The Heartbreakers (yes… you read that right), is laid with such confidence and gusto that it’s likely to never don on the viewer just how incredibly bizarre all of it is. First in the slam are Reuben (Michael Carmine) and Moss (Leon Robinson), the respective heads of rival street gangs, the Cuban Homeboys and the African-American 27th Avenue Players. Next we meet ultra-slick Carlos (Danny Quinn) who is stung by undercover vice cops while trying to middleman a deal for Nestor (and I swear to all that’s holy that I was shocked that someone didn’t scream “Freeze! Miami vice!” when they flashed their badges). The group is rounded out by J.L. (John Cameron Mitchell), a mute demolitions expert who murders his abusive stepfather in the film’s opening moments, and Dorsey (Al Shannon), an illiterate ne’er do well who has an uncanny skill for escaping from from juvenile lock ups. Quite predictably, but no less entertainingly, these rough and incorrigible youths will be taught a thing or seven by the stoic Joe Tegra including how to build a comfortable sleeping area out of branches and leaves and also how to trap and kill a wild boar. You know… as one has to do when fighting drug lords in Miami.

Once conditioned, the group moves their action back into the city where they take over a derelict building in which Haitian squatters are seeking refuge from the drug dealers that are crawling all over the streets outside (marshaled by a slick drug dealer named Cream, played to the nines by Laurence, then Larry, Fishburne). And like the half before it, this portion is padded out with some really time-specific D.A.R.E.-adjacent do-gooding like the sequence where Moss and Reuben rook their gangs Tom Sawyer-style into painting their building (and, naturally, these otherwise deadly gangs with ancient beefs against each other do this task in absolute harmony). But everything takes a deadly turn which sets up a particularly violent third-act that climaxes in the Band of the Hand, as they begin to call themselves, concocting a scheme to kill Nestor’s drug operation at the source.

Also rolling around in the narrative are a couple of side joints involving Carlos’s girlfriend (Lauren Holly) who Nestor keeps as his own after Carlos is disappeared into the juvenile system and Joe’s battle with keeping his reform program alive. A scene involving the man in charge of funding for Joe’s program (Bill Smitrovich) promises more to Joe’s story but winds up being a half-assed dramatic punctuation mark which catapults Joe into a state of complete frustration where he adopts a total ‘fuck the system, I ain’t backin’ down no more’ attitude.

This is the feature film debut by actor/director Paul Michael Glaser who had previously directed a couple of notable Miami Vice episodes for executive producer Michael Mann, filling the same production role here. But even if the film isn’t directed by Mann, none of this would be remotely possible if not for him. It’s hard to imagine this movie looking or feeling like this without Michael Mann injecting the production with his very unique look and style; it’s as much a “Michael Mann film” as Cat People is a “Val Lewton movie.” Additionally, the idea of vigilantism at the core of the film in which the bad guys become good by comparison (a little Magnum Force here), is prime Michael Mann territory.

Given that it’s not a movie that anyone over thirteen should take very seriously, there are things about it that the audience has to put up with which extends beyond the frontiers of the acceptable, even for 1986. Each time a spat between Reuben and Moss breaks out, they cock sideways and slam their torsos into each other to the point where I wasn’t convinced they didn’t think gold coins would fall out of their nipples if the force was great enough. And it’s a cinch that the entire world will hear your audible eyeroll when J.L. breaks his silence because HE’S HAD ENOUGH OF THEM FUCKIN’ AROUND AND THEY NEED TO WORK TOGETHER, GODDAMNIT!!!! LET’S DO IT FOR THE BAND OF THE HAND!!!

But, God help me, I love the film’s go-for-broke and vulgar style and the filmmakers get extra props for plopping this 70’s vigilante movie into the 80’s without the slightest bit of care how dated its premise was. Additionally, all the performances are fun (dig Miami Vice regular Martin Ferrero as a hardware proprietor) and the film is packed with great tunes by Shriekback and the Reds, contributing to a much better soundtrack than it deserves.

In the annals of 80’s pop culture, there were precious few things that didn’t get some kind of splash influence by Miami Vice. Given its production team and cast, most of whom at least contributed one day’s work on Vice, Band of the Hand might be the one piece of entertainment that feels like it organically grew out of the show and, to be honest, it serves as a better back-door pilot than the one that actually occurred in the waning days of Vice’s fifth season. And if you can’t get down with James Remar playing a Latino drug lord, Stephen Lang playing a swamp Indian, and a whole lot of things getting blowed up real good in-between, stay away from Crain Manor because, first chance I get, I’m pairing this beauty with Miami Connection or any random Andy Sidaris film for the people in my life who like to pile into my living room and know how to party correctly.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: MIAMI VICE (1984 – 1989)

“You ever forget who you are?” Saundra Santiago’s Detective Gina Calabrese asks Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) as they stand on the deck of his boat and take a brief respite from their jobs as undercover vice cops in an early episode in the first season of Miami Vice.

“Darlin’,” Crockett replies with a wide grin that made millions of Americans fall in love with him, “sometimes I remember who I am.”

By the end of the series, all of his wise guy charm will be burned to the ground as a hollowed out and gutted Sonny Crockett will slowly come to terms with himself and what he’s been through over the course of the past five seasons and 111 episodes. “Things I’ve done, things I can’t remember. I can’t believe that was me,” Crockett will eventually muse to his partner, Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). “Jesus, Rico. What kind of a person am I?” His smile muted and with his tres chic ripped jeans and stylishly shaggy, $500 Beverly Hills haircut causing him to look more like a self-destructive stepdad who has missed his last three AA meetings than a People Magazine cover boy, the denouement of Sonny Crockett is one befitting a pastel festooned and neon-filigreed Greek tragedy. And, regardless of the many hands that stewarded the show from its origins to its finale in 1989, Miami Vice is 100% the crystallized vision of executive producer Michael Mann.

In its most embryonic form, Miami Vice was an idea for a television show that grew from a seed that was a scrap of paper with the words “MTV Cops” written on it by NBC head Brandon Tartikoff. By the time it passed through the hands of Anthony Yerkovich, producer and writer of the popular crime procedural Hill Street Blues, he had filled in the idea with the notion of vice cops and their bottomless supply of impounded goods that they could then use in their sting operations. But when it worked its way to Michael Mann, he found in it the perfect vehicle in which he could blend his then-radical power-chord coupling of music and image, then saturating the world of music videos, with his fascination regarding the fine line and symbiotic relationship between heroes and villains. For not even fifteen minutes into “Brother’s Keeper,” Miami Vice’s pilot episode, the thesis of almost every Michael Mann enterprise that will come after has been spoken by Caroline (Belinda Montgomery), Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife. “You’re all players, Sonny,” she says to him. “You get high on the action.” For all of the ephemeral details that surrounded it and the many pop culture flourishes that it inspired, Miami Vice is the cornerstone of all of Mann’s works; a fable about professional men who cannot hold their personal lives together because they’re too busy chasing themselves around the block.

When it first aired in September of 1984, there was simply nothing on network television that was remotely like Miami Vice. But unlike other television shows that made a splash, not a one rearranged the entire landscape like Miami Vice did when audiences began to eat it up during its first season’s summer reruns. From the way television shows looked and were produced to the emphasis on post-modern architecture to, finally, men’s fashion, Miami Vice made an impact in such a way that one could argue for a pre-MV and post-MV line in the sand when discussing pop culture in the 1980’s.

But Miami Vice isn’t exactly the 80’s fluff that nostalgia-porn hounds try and make it out to be. Jabronis could and will costume themselves in linen jackets and pastel colored shirts to the end of all eternity but the show’s dated touchstones can never erase the sheer sadness that acts as the undercurrent in Miami Vice. Of the original five characters in the vice division at the end of the show’s pilot episode, only two remain at the close of the series, the other members either suspended, dead, or having participated in voluntary attrition. Likewise, contrary to the white-hot look the production stills of the duo conveyed to mass audiences via slick posters sold in the local mall’s Spencer’s Gifts, Crockett and Tubbs aren’t flashy players with cool clothes who lounge on the hood of Sonny’s Ferrari Daytona (or his Ferrari Testarossa, depending on the season) while parked on the banks of a Miami waterway, chasing hot women and solving crimes on the side. Mostly everything on their backs and in their possession are loaners from impound, their romances and relationships are all doomed, and for all of their diligent and valiant efforts as low-paid public servants (as the heavy in every fifth or sixth episode is fond of reminding them), they are rewarded with absolutely nothing; the series ending with both of their lives in virtual shambles.

Of course, Miami Vice wouldn’t have been the monster hit that it was if the show’s deeper and more existential nature not been dressed up with the kind of irresistible mix of pop music and slick visual style that worked like dopamine on television audiences for a good couple of years. The first two seasons, encapsulating the time in which Michael Mann was most involved as the series’s showrunner (and scored his sole writing credit on the show with season one’s “Golden Triangle, Part II” episode), have the best balance between party and pathos and are likely the seasons that are most etched into the collective minds of those who might have caught an episode or three, but mostly soaked up Miami Vice as it permeated everything else. And, while ensuring the cosmetic side of the show was its ace in the hole, it gave the series a sly ability to reveal so much about the rot of the 80’s while simultaneously celebrating it. It’s all incredibly sexy to look at but underneath all of it is a show that reflects bottomless excess as the criminals in their vast, empty mansions reveal the vacancy of the soul and the slicked down edges reveal an artificiality of the spirit. Likewise, the show doesn’t skimp on taking viewers to the less glamorous parts of Miami and the redneck-festooned, outer limits of the state, reminding viewers that Florida is 10% Miami club scene and 90% Oklahoma with a beach view.

While Mann would later plant the seeds for the more tightly-plotted kind of serialized television we’d come to expect in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with 1986’s Crime Story, Miami Vice adheres to a looser narrative arc which feels both comfortable and realistic. Ensuring that there was always a way for new viewers to feel at ease with the show no matter when they dropped in, Miami Vice was less rigorous in its continuity than a nighttime soap like Dallas and, instead, it would frequently loop softly back on itself and move forward in believable, incremental time bursts by weaving perpetual side characters such as Charlie Barnett’s Noogie Lamont and (especially) Martin Ferrero’s Izzy Moreno in and out when needed but also by bringing characters back from previous seasons and episodes to deliver closure to their stories.

Being a network show not anchored to a serialized format and one that was bound to myriad forces beyond its control, Miami Vice sometimes fell victim to the fickleness of the broadcast order causing the narrative illusion to sometimes falter as beards (and Daytonas) disappeared and reappeared. Additionally, though it’s not quite as bad an offender as VEGA$ (and this may very well be a matter of personal taste given that it was completely normal for shows of its day), Miami Vice occasionally had higher-end guest talent popping up in multiple roles throughout the series (looking at you, Martin Ferrero and Stanley Tucci).

But, perhaps worse than VEGA$, the sheer amount of stunt casting in the show (particularly season two) is embarrassing, indicative of a property so immensely popular that it was becoming self aware and learning all the wrong lessons. For every musical artist who could act (Glenn Frey or Phil Collins) there were ten others who couldn’t (nine of them being Frank Zappa) and the random appearances of non-MTV musical artists such as Peter Allen and Leonard Cohen (who’s actually pretty great in his episode) shake out as downright bizarre. And given that the show was basically 111 one-hour movies, you can be certain that there were some recycled storylines peppered throughout with the occasional irredeemably awful episode thrown in just to ensure you were paying attention. And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s a horse race between “Missing Hours” and “The Big Thaw,” fourth season entries that feature, respectively, a plane-shifting James Brown and the cryogenically frozen remains of a reggae artist, as to which is the episode most up its own ass.

But the most egregious issue facing Miami Vice was the network’s decision to slash four episodes from season five during its original broadcast run to move the finale up, cancel the series, and free up its Friday night time-slot, which shortchanged a bit of the show’s narrative drive. While a fun, if inconsequential, back-door pilot was buried by this decision, two of the series most emotionally rewarding stories involving Dennis Farina’s crime boss, Al Lombard, and Pam Grier’s NYC detective (and Tubbs’s love interest), Valerie Gordon, were either relegated to being shuffled into the non-syndicated 1989 summer rerun schedule or, in the case of Grier’s episode, not being shown until 1990 after the episode was sold as part of a syndication package to the USA cable network. Anyone curious in revisiting the series would be well served to remember that, whatever order the episodes appear on whatever streaming service or physical media release, “Freefall” is the episode that closes out the series and that those “lost episodes” are only marked as such because of a business decision by NBC and were indeed originally produced and intended to be broadcast before the finale (and, as a side note, if the streaming package doesn’t include “Evan”, one of the greatest episodes from season one, protest loudly).

And for a show widely remembered as surface pap, Miami Vice took sympathetic, serious, and direct looks at AIDS, homosexuality, rape, the homeless, child molestation, and generally saved its anti-drug ire for dealers and cartels, refusing to sanctimoniously point fingers at casual users or addicts. For a show cemented down in Reagan’s America, it was unashamed when it cast a critical eye to the United States’s shady relationships with South American dictators, itself the dark heart of the final episode of the series. And while it mainly focused on the exploits of Crockett and Tubbs, Miami Vice did stretch out a bit with the characters of Detectives Calabrese and Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), giving both room to develop and breathe in episodes with layers of psychologically complicated issues at play. Additionally it also allowed second-banana characters Larry Zito (John Diehl) and Stan Switek (Michael Talbott) to go beyond their initial boundaries as the sometimes-bumbling duo who provided the laughs and ultimately toward something much darker and more tragic in the third season. And unlike other shows at the time, episodes would avoid traditional closure by eschewing a pre-end credit tag in favor of episodes that would run out the clock and employ effective freeze frames to keep the audience in its grip, contemplative of the (usually) downer ending with which they’d just been hit.

On a technical level, Miami Vice was probably the most impressive show of its time and it remains a masterful piece of network television. The character arcs are satisfying and its stylistic choices have proven to have longer legs than the fashions it inspired. Jan Hammer’s music sounds like the perfect cross of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream and hasn’t dated one day and the kind of pop songs employed in the show now have enough mileage on them to be considered oldies, giving their utilization a new kind of life. In its day, the usage of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (used beautifully in the fourth season episode “Rock and a Hard Place”) had an immediate emotional relevance. Closing in on forty years later, it lands a whole other kind of way. Likewise, the utilization Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is so masterful in blending the music with the image that when it occurs in the fifth season’s “Redemption of Blood” episode, it provides the series with one of the most emotionally disarming moments. Most surprising was that it was never beyond Miami Vice to make ironic use of pop music, its most notable and perverse example occurring during the “Rites of Passage” episode from season one as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is laid over a cross cut juxtaposition of Tubbs and Valerie’s lovemaking and a tragic, lethal dose of heroin being forcibly delivered.

Ultimately, though, Miami Vice could only work with the right chemistry between the cast members. Don Johnson wasn’t the first choice to play Sonny Crockett but he was the right choice. It was a fairly portentous move to cast Johnson as he is able to deftly move the attention from his megawatt smile and, as the series unfurls towards its closing seasons, incrementally closer toward the sadness in his eyes. Additionally, as he becomes more comfortable with the role, Johnson begins to pitch so naturally that, in the closing episodes of season four and beginning episodes of season five, the differences in that of Sonny Crockett and Sonny Burnett, Crockett’s deep undercover persona, are all built out of minor subtleties. It’s one hell of a performance. Philip Michael Thomas is an even more inspired piece of casting as he brings a much more authoritatively hip and relaxed feel to the show and he never lets his New York vibe slip into the background, no matter how long he stays in Miami. Although he’s saddled in earlier episodes as the “dialect guy” where he’s forever going undercover as a Jamaican, his character goes through as many dark turns as Crockett’s and, by show’s end, Thomas’s impressive range has been given an appropriate showcase. And likewise, Diehl, Santiago, Brown, and Talbott are all fantastic in their roles and each of them get moments where they do a great bit of impressive heavy lifting.

At the center of the show, though, is the taciturn stoicism of Edward James Olmos’s Lt. Martin Castillo. A character who spends 90% of his time keeping his words to a minimum while staring a hole through whoever is pissing him off, it’s kind of staggering just how fleshed-out Castillo is by the time the series ends. For within the series is an actual Castillo arc that is both incredibly moving but also serves as a reminder that, along with those episodes that focus on the other characters on the show, Miami Vice was big enough to encompass stories for all of the members of the team and each and every single one is an encapsulation of downbeat pragmatism.

But the guiding light of the show had to be the vision and thematic elements planted in the first two seasons by Michael Mann. As the show grew outward and influenced the culture, it took on a life of its own. But the stylistic flourishes that continued to bounce off the show, even during Dick Wolf’s reign during seasons three and four, were just the clearing of the heavy exhaust fumes Mann had put in the air in 1986. Stepping away from the show to put both Band of the Hand, of which he was executive producer, and Manhunter, which he wrote and directed, into theaters while prepping Crime Story, a new television series starring Dennis Farina that debuted in September of that year, made 1986 a busy and pivotal year for the filmmaker. And though none of those projects had quite the same impact of Miami Vice, they all played a part in making Michael Mann’s name something recognizable; a kind of visual and aural brand of moody entertainment whether on the big screen or the small.

In the world of Michael Mann, the balance between compelling, operatic drama and high-camp self parody is as tenuous as the balance between the cops and criminals in his works. In Miami Vice, this balance was perfected in a way impervious to those who would go through the show with an ironic detachment. And those who would purposefully do that would sadly miss what is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest contribution to his own cinematic legend.

“You know, you and I aren’t that different,” crime boss Al Lombard says to Crockett near the end of the first season of Miami Vice.

“All I am is what I’m going after,” Lieutenant Vincent Hannah will confess to his wife as his third marriage swirls down the drain in Michael Mann’s Heat almost exactly ten years later.

Will Graham, call your office.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: THE KEEP (1983)

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.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: THIEF (1981)

“I have run out of time,” Frank softly says to Jessie, almost begging her to listen to him. He wants her to know that his time on this earth has been abnormally disrupted due to incarceration and that his life as a professional criminal has rendered a regular, natural existence impossible. In Jessie, the lady who works the register at one of his favorite breakfast haunts, Frank correctly senses another outcast; a wounded and marginalized soul who is letting the better part of her years slip away from her. He desperately wants her to be a part of his life and does everything in his power to convince her to agree to do so. Tearfully, she eventually does.

Leading up to that conversation in a late night diner, it’s crystal clear that Frank has had quite a day. After pulling off a meticulously executed, all-night diamond heist, he has to deal with some criminals that have stolen the money he was supposed to have received for the aforementioned robbery, he’s learned that his father-figure and mentor, Okla, is rapidly dying from heart disease, and, to top it all off, he’s over two hours late for a dinner date with Jessie due to his having to go through some clandestine, bullshit meet with members of a crime syndicate just so he can recoup his dough from the robbery the previous evening. This is his life, but it’s sure not the life he wants.

One of the most disarming things about Thief, Michael Mann’s theatrical film debut from 1981, is how much it focuses on Frank’s desire to chuck his life as a criminal and to settle into suburban anonymity. As portrayed by James Caan, Frank is decidedly not addicted to the juice of living like a criminal nor does he need the action to direct his life. Unlike Harry Dean Stanton’s Jerry in Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, co-scripted (uncredited) by Mann, or later Mann characters such as Heat’s Neil McCauley, a “regular type life” with “barbecue and ballgames” sounds just fine and dandy to Frank. In fact, Frank is so desperate for convention that he carries around a sad, wallet-sized collage of his dream life replete with pictures of children, a luxury car, Okla, and an inexact depiction of someone who will fill the role of wife and life partner. It’s no more exciting than what regular people take for granted but it means the absolute world to Frank.

In order make his modest dream life happen quickly, Frank makes a devil’s bargain with crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), agreeing to a limited number of complex, pre-set, and high-yield robberies with the handshake agreement that he will be able to refuse any further work after each completed job. Naturally this will fall apart in spectacular fashion as crooked cops and even more dishonorable criminals complicate and jeopardize Frank’s vision for his future.

For a movie that made such limited noise at the box office, Thief’s influence on the crime thriller, in both look and content, is all but incalculable. As to the former, one would think that Michael Mann singlehandedly invented the visually intoxicating mix of wet streets and neon signs in the same way someone bumbled into mixing peanut butter and chocolate and made the Reece’s organization a bottomless fortune. As to the latter, the attention to detail that soon became the norm is directly influenced by Thief’s impeccably shot and edited sequences that highlight the fascinating, granular elements that make up the lives and work of professional criminals. Certainly films such as Jules Dassin’s Rififi and any number of Jean-Pierre Melville titles predated Thief’s love for the Swiss watch-precision in criminal activity. But Mann’s significant choice of laying the hypnotic and percolating minimalism of Tangerine Dream’s prog rock score over his near-wordless action montages pretty much created the blueprint for the look of almost ALL visual media that followed. When critics spoke about the slick, heavily-stylized “MTV look” that crept into theatrical films and commercials in the early 80’s (including Mann’s next theatrical endeavor, The Keep), they were talking about a style the ground zero of which was found in Thief. William Friedkin may have pioneered the idea in 1977 with Sorcerer (also boasting a score by Tangerine Dream) but Mann perfected it in 1981.

The lyricism found in Mann’s dialogue is also in full flower in Thief which melds quite beautifully with the stark, unmistakable realism of the life of the convict both in and out of prison, as chronicled by Frank in his diner monologue to Jessie which eerily recalls the day-to-day life of Murphy in Michael Mann’s previous film, The Jericho Mile. When Frank tells Jessie about an assault on his life and the aftermath that followed while he was serving time, he sounds as if he’s reciting a poem he was asked to write to describe the hell that exists within the prison walls. This is likewise the case when a bereft Frank verbally melts down and makes a full spectacle of himself in an adoption agency after he and Jessie are turned down as prospective parents due to Frank’s status as an ex-con. Never before has the utter hopelessness and anguished inhumanity that is the part and parcel of the life of a criminal been delivered with such control and beauty as it is in Thief.

Unlike Michael Mann projects that would come later, Thief, isn’t as interested in exploring the slippery nature between cop and criminal as it aims to be more classic in its mold while being more progressive in its approach. Thief, for lack of a better term, is a neo-noir where the chiaroscuro is given heavy assistance by magnesium but it is not an existential mediation on the tenuous line between good and evil. That said, in doing some rather interesting things in its casting, it does serve as a bit of thematic foreshadowing as real-life thief John Santucci, who served as a technical adviser and whose actual industrial burglar tools are used in the film, portrays the sleazy Sgt. Urizzi and real-life cop Dennis Farina, close to hanging up his badge for a respectable career in show business, shows up as Carl, Ataglia’s lethal bodyguard. The crossed lines of cop and criminal are all in the casting here but they will soon be at the heart of the rest of Mann’s oeuvre.

Aside from its technical and structural brilliance, Thief will always register as a bonafide masterpiece due to the impossibly high level of passion in the performances. It has been said countless times over but it will never not bear repeating that Thief is James Caan’s greatest hour. Equal parts tough, thoughtful, tragic, and triumphant, Caan slow-walks himself through the role of a lifetime, enunciating every syllable and wearing every nuanced emotion on his face while also turning in a remarkably physical performance (cat burglary looks like a lot of work, folks). As a woman whose past connection to the criminal element has limited her own options in life, Tuesday Weld’s Jessie radiates a wholly believable warmth and an inner-toughness which has been constructed to shield her from certain disappointment and render her invulnerable to easy influence. Jim Belushi is terrific in a rare dramatic role as Barry, Frank’s wiretapping and surveillance whiz, and Willie Nelson transcends mere stunt casting as the zen and terminal Okla, Frank’s jailhouse mentor. Among all of the supporting cast, though, Robert Prosky is the one who deserves special mention. A latecomer to acting (he was 41 when he was cast in his first part in a television movie in 1971), Thief was Prosky’s first big role and he owns every second of it. One second professional to the core and the other the most poisonous villain this side of Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, Prosky brings a perfect balance to the role that forces him to oscillate between grand benevolence and guttural betrayal. Prosky’s delivery of an absolutely odious monologue in the last third of the movie deserves some kind of special award for being as captivating, thrilling, and rewatchable as it is horrifying, execrable, and repellant.

When speaking about the contemporary crime thriller, Michael Mann’s name brings as much heft to the genre as Hitchcock’s name did with the suspense film and Thief worked overtime to make that happen. And due to Michael Mann’s unshakable fidelity to the detail of the work of his characters and his impeccably operatic examination of their melancholic lives, he would soon find his options opening up exponentially when he redirected his focus from the lonesome, existential life of the career criminal and towards the cops that made their living chasing them. But with Thief, Mann found that perfect vehicle that allowed him to fuse his visual and thematic sensibilities into one flawless package while setting a stylistic pole position for the rest of Hollywood.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: THE JERICHO MILE (1979)

Tracing his incremental steps that ultimately led to theatrical features, it makes sense that Michael Mann would create his first feature film for network television. Coming off two paying gigs that made 1978 a pivotal year for the filmmaker (namely his uncredited work on Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time and his credited creation of the television series VEGA$ by way of the Mann-scripted pilot), he was a natural fit to write The Jericho Mile, a movie-of-the-week for ABC. Hired directly by actor Peter Strauss, Mann’s script impressed Strauss so much that he convinced the network to allow Mann to direct. After bouncing around Hollywood for a while and writing scripts for television (not to mention having the creation of a whole show on his resume), Mann was definitely due. And Strauss, insanely popular throughout the seventies due to his appearance in Rich Man, Poor Man, had the kind of stroke to make it happen.

The Jericho Mile was prime material for Mann. A healthy blend of the prison film and the sports drama, the film follows lifer inmate Rain Murphy (Strauss) as he uses long distance running as a means of coping with the confines of prison and his inability to steer the direction of his life. As his prison counselor notices the incredible speed in which Murphy can clear a mile, a succession of events occur in which Murphy is given the opportunity to compete for a spot on the Olympic team while he also navigates the tricky and sometimes lethal political structure within the prison.

It is the latter where The Jericho Mile truly excels, at times feeling entirely authentic as the convicts with speaking roles mesh alongside the professional actors. Additionally, a great deal of value is generated by shooting within the walls of California’s Folsom Prison. The metal works, the kitchen, laundry room, the yard, and the squat, desolate cells go a great distance in selling the film’s credibility and reflecting a world that is cramped and oppressive. This last element is also helped immeasurably by its boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, standard for television broadcasts of the day, which now makes the film look especially claustrophobic and tight.

The film should also be commended for what it doesn’t do. While it can’t help but traffic in some of the hoariest tropes of the prison film (which may or may not be its fault since there are only a limited number of things that can occur in prison), it doesn’t stoop to underlining the explicit inhumanity that occurs in confinement. Instead of shocking viewers with lurid details (which was actually pretty much par for the course in the day), the film wisely keeps within the boundaries of taste and shows how prisoners are generally in an impossible double-bind with both the state and the prison population, the structure of the latter being as complicated, unfair, and unforgiving as the bureaucratic red tape and regulations that routinely crush the spirits of the incarcerated. Additionally, the film doesn’t introduce a doomed relationship into Murphy’s life and, instead, keeps his one encounter with the opposite gender to be that of a brief glance between himself and an executive assistant at the U.S. Olympic board, reminding him of his status as someone with zero future with her or with anyone else but himself and what’s in his head.

To this end, The Jericho Mile has a wise, knowing angle on the life of the career criminal and prisoner. Whether or not this is due to Mann’s familiarity with the Edward Bunker material that became the screenplay for Straight Time is uncertain, but it’s likely. The transcendent poeticism meshing with the gritty details feels very much like Bunker’s outward expression of the criminal life as a certain kind of art form but the level of stoic control in Murphy’s character is all Mann. Murphy is Max Dembo if Dembo was remanded back to the state pen and took up long distance running, speaking with a clear, direct cadence with very few consonants, most reminiscent of James Caan’s Frank in Thief. This is why The Jericho Mile also stands as an almost reference point for the vast majority of Mann’s other criminal protagonists that would come later. Certainly both Frank and Neil McCauley’s talk about prison and doing time harkens back to the life we see unfold in The Jericho Mile where the only time we leave the prison walls to get a sense of real freedom is when Murphy is allowed to run around the parameter of them while in training. The reasoning behind the reluctance for later Mann characters to want to go back into a hell on earth is made strikingly clear in this film and, once he’s out, Mann rarely ever takes his cameras, or his characters, back in.

Being a television movie, the film sometimes falls into traps that reveals its limited hand. Where it doesn’t feel as sanded down in terms of the language or the prison violence (though it is on both counts), Mann’s preoccupation with lacing his drama with broad, emotion-driven moments is met with the medium’s small scale causing passages that might play a little more successfully on larger-than-life movie theater screens. This is most evident with the hotted-up performance by Brian Dennehy as Dr. D, the leader of the neo-Nazi faction of the prison, and with Richard Lawson’s performance as the doomed inmate, Stiles. For both, the screen size seems an ill fit to their grander, almost stage-bound turns. Mann often lets his actors descend into a sort of archness (specifically Tom Cruise’s Vincent in Collateral and literally everyone in his theatrical adaptation of Miami Vice) where the characters play to both the dunderheads AND the back row, but those performances need to be accompanied by a bigness and a freedom that a made-for-television movie produced in 1979 is just not going to be able to allow.

Also less successful, though not fatally, is the film’s sports angle. Again, there can really be no suspense as to how any of this is going to work out so the actual moments of Murphy running, training, and racing are less interesting than the passages that explore the reasons for his running. Unfortunately, the hook of the film is in its plotted narrative so the main thrust of the movie is, in fact, that of a rote sports film. Mann’s attempt to turn Murphy into a hopeful symbol both by and for the inmates may anticipate his approach to the material he would later take with Ali but here it feels a little undercooked. Despite Strauss’s emotional reaction to it, the moment where the prisoners line up to give him food for his training feels like a lachrymose, reverse-Cool Hand Luke, hitting the chords it wants to but not hitting them like it should.

For the most part, The Jericho Mile is an absolute triumph and, in fact, made a pretty big splash with audiences and critics at the time. Peter Strauss is utterly fantastic and won an Emmy for his role while Mann and co-writer Patrick Nolan picked up Emmys for their script. But most importantly, it gave Michael Mann his first stab at assembling a feature while also allowing him to work in the milieu that would inform his characters and their collective worldview throughout the rest of his career.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: VEGA$ (1978-1981)

While Miami Vice was the small-screen project that first raised serious awareness of Michael Mann to the millions of television viewers who likely missed Thief and The Keep when they enjoyed their brief theatrical runs, his first big break occurred as the credited creator of Vega$, the ABC television series that ran a respectable three seasons between 1978 and 1981. Co-executive produced by Aaron Spelling, Vega$ chronicles the exploits of Dan Tanna (Robert Urich), Las Vegas private investigator who solves cases brought in by walk-in clients while also working on retainer for Philip “Slick” Roth (Tony Curtis), fictional owner of a battery of casinos including the the then-very real Desert Inn (and, in the earliest episodes, the similarly then-very real Maxim).

Vega$ exists in a netherworld between Michael Mann’s penchant for realistic detail and Aaron Spelling’s jet-puffed, blow-dried nothingness that was baked into most of television ventures, which also means it’s also a show that is mostly at odds with itself. One can imagine some great material coming from the central idea of a Vegas private eye who is on retainer for a Sheldon Adelson-type who mixes with the seedy world that lives under the glitz and glamor of the Vegas strip. Yes, this is definitely a Michael Mann movie for 2021 or beyond. But for 1978, hookers have perfectly feathered hair and roller rink lip gloss, drug deals happen in broad daylight in the parking lot of the Desert Inn, and sex trafficking is conducted by Cesar Romero with Moses Gunn as his backup. This is definitely Aaron Spelling territory.

To extract any value out ofVega$, it’s important to look at its complete arc as a television program; one that had to burn precious clock time fumbling around with its formula before finally hitting its stride at the moment it was too late. In the beginning, Vega$ was just a destination show. It would be something that looked like a downmarket Hawaii Five-0, a programmer that would build a viewership mostly due to the curiosity and excitement generated by its exotic, titular location, then in its final throes as an “adults only” hot spot. For those folks who wanted to go to Las Vegas but didn’t have the money, the time, didn’t want to drag their whole-ass families to the nightmarish Circus Circus only to be around a bunch of similarly miserable parents and their screaming brats, or just didn’t want to be around anyone other than who was in their living room, Vega$ took audiences up and down the Vegas Strip and into the casinos as they were in 1978-1981 at no charge except for what was reflected in the audience’s electric bill.

In its early episodes throughout the first season, Dan Tanna conducts a schedule that never seems to include meals, sleep, or, surprisingly, romantic relationships of any kind. Almost perpetually on the go, Tanna is oftentimes pulling into his crashpad (the Desert Inn’s theatrical warehouse) just long enough for Beatrice (Phyllis Davis) or Angie (Judy Landers), his female assistants and sometime-Vegas showgirls, to cram a sandwich (that he won’t finish) into his mouth and give him some new information, causing him to jump directly back into his car and hightail it to another destination. Sometimes, he’ll enlist the services of his connection at the LVPD, Sgt. Bella Archer (Naomi Stevens), ex-wise guy flunky Binzer (Bart Braverman), or his old Vietnam buddies, Harlan Twoleaf (Will Sampson) and Mitch Costigan (Chick Vennera). Oftentimes, Tanna will be forced to mix with hokey guest stars who are doing little outside playing themselves (and, in a couple of cases, quite literally playing themselves). The mix of multiple characters, silly plot diversions, and lackluster stories makes the whole of the first season both uneven and under baked, only distinguished by its commitment to its locale.

The second season, now crediting producers both in L.A. and Las Vegas, stabilizes the show a bit by cementing its episodic structure and streamlining its cast. Angie disappears without a whisper, Beatrice becomes Tanna’s only Girl Friday, and Binzer emerges as his lovable, and primary, second banana. Greg Morris’s Lt. David Nelson materializes as Tanna’s sole connection inside the police department as Sgt. Archer vanishes without comment. Harlan Twoleaf reappears in a couple of episodes before exiting and Philip Roth, too, eventually takes a powder. Appearing in one episode of the second season and a couple of episodes in season three, Roth becomes a globetrotting jet-setter who is always out of town but keeps in constant communication with Tanna and company. In settling the cast and getting into a regular rhythm in the second season, the show is forced to adopt another sheen of artificiality as it replaces Tanna’s pull car with phony-looking back projection, allowing for more freedom for the night sequences. Season two also doesn’t know what to do with Binzer half the time but generally keeps him locked down as the bumbling comic relief, most embarrassingly in an episode where he wears roller skates throughout to address the then red-hot energy crisis.

Strikingly, Vega$ begins to find its way in its third season when the dramatic stakes seem to be higher and the subject matter gets a little more lurid. Where it wasn’t atypical for season one Dan Tanna to be running bullshit errands like finding a missing lion or untangling a scam Red Buttons is running on the slots (both found in the overstuffed and creepy Mann-scripted pilot episode), season three Dan Tanna gets hit with double heartbreak after discovering his girlfriend is a top-shelf call girl only to see her killed for her efforts when she tries to quit the business. In fact, some of the material in season three becomes JUST gritty enough to where, if he were so inclined, Michael Mann could construct a contemporary feature out the recycled plots of two and a half episodes. Porn rings, male prostitution, and Dan Tanna being forced to get hooked on heroin á la French Connection II, shows that some of the third season was serious stuff. In one of the series very best episodes, the megawattage of Wayne Newton is juxtaposed with a pitiful, obsessed impersonator (a fantastic Richard Lynch) who works the dives on the fringes of town, creating a thoughtful and sad portrait of the highs and lows of Las Vegas. That it also functions as one of the weirder entires in the series as Newton had already guested in season two as a washed up race-car driver (involved in a plot that was stone cold stolen from the first French Connection) thereby creating a universe with two Wayne Newtons is also one of the charms of the show. After all, I’m pretty sure Dick Bakalyan plays three different characters throughout five episodes.

The third season also hints at opening up its cast and mixing things up a little. Captain Smith (David Sheiner) rolls up in three episodes in the third season and we get introduced to Victor Buono’s milk-swilling man of leisure, the highly connected Diamond Jim, who lends his services to Tanna in four episodes. Likewise, Louis Jourdan (in a powdered fright wig) gets his very own character arc over the course of two entries. The guest appearances mostly feel less of a variety show nature and more like more real day-players putting in a real day’s work. All of these elements, plus ephemeral details like Dan buying Binzer a new car that actually continues to make appearances in further episodes, blend to suggest that season three was priming the show to really settle into something that might become great before it was cancelled.

Did the show’s darker tone contribute to its demise? Perhaps. Magnum P.I. had taken over the “destination” market a year before and it was a much more digestible blend of exotic locales, light plotting, and colorful characters. By the time it was cancelled, Vega$ felt like the last hurrah of the 70’s. It’s probably no coincidence that Charlie’s Angels, another Aaron Spelling project, was cancelled the same year as Vega$. If you wanted harder nosed cop dramas, Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey debuted the same year Vega$ was dropped. If you wanted some light private eye fluff, Simon & Simon, likewise debuting in 1981, became the audience go to, most especially after being moved to Thursday nights as to follow Magnum.

Despite finally nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for Best Television Series-Drama in its third season and a two consecutive Globe noms for Urich’s performance in seasons two or three, Vega$ really wasn’t a multi-season megahit worth intense scholarship, pop or otherwise. Nor was it really brief enough to be a binge-worthy curiosity. But Vega$ does capture something unique. Its colors and style, most especially the earth tones that make up the wardrobe of Dan Tanna and the splashes of green that appear in the Wimbledon Suites addition to the Desert Inn, evoke a very specific time that was here and then gone in a literal flash. Because recent nostalgia waves have favored the late 60’s and early to mid-70’s as the most desirous of eras to ape, the late 70’s through the very early 80’s only truly exist in the media of the time and Vega$ is special that it was a show the chief purpose of which was to capture its location as contemporarily as possible. So, in retrospect, Vega$ ends up existing as a moving snapshot of a less heralded time (which boils down to the nadir of the Carter years). And beyond the neon and the towering signs that no longer dot the Vegas strip, the half-moon archway-heavy, western architecture of the era has a distinct familiarity for Generation X kids who can still see remnants of that style as it crumbles in the strip malls of their youth that have long gone to seed.

And where is Michael Mann to be found in this mess? While there may not be more disparate work than Vega$ and Straight Time, which both debuted in 1978, you can see the raw material of Mann’s work emerge in both, though it’s completely segregated. In Dan Tanna, there are small traces of the Mann archetype but trying to turn Tanna into some kind of a brooding mope who’s constantly explaining that all he is is all he’s going after or giving one of Mann’s patented “time is luck” monologues while staring off into the desert night would have been verboten in the palace of Spelling. So Robert Urich mostly plays the role with a loose, relaxed charm that sometimes gives way to a harder edge as the show marches toward the end of its run.

Debuting three years after the cancellation of Vega$, Miami Vice became something of that show’s spiritual successor as it took the formula of exploiting its exotic location with massive budgets and hip guest stars. As the third season came to a close, Dan Tanna basically took his fashion-conscious look, his high-dollar car, and his satellite office down to Florida where he gave up shaving and socks to become Sonny Crockett. And while Vega$ retained far less Michael Mann than Straight Time, it is still an important entry on Mann’s resume even if it did nothing but burn his name into the consciousness of American audiences who would get to see it before the beginning of all of its 69 episodes.