Michael Mann has made a name for himself for producing some of the best American crime films of the last 40 years. Beyond Thief, he has directed Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral. Outside of the crime genre, Mann directed The Last of the Mohicans and the political drama The Insider. Along the way, he co-created Miami Vice and adapted it to the big screen in 2006. It started with Thief, his feature film debut, exploring the life of a talented safecracker in Chicago. From the start, we can see the atmospheric lighting and the attention to detail that would become a hallmark of Mann’s best work.
Body Heat (1981) Written & Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
I don’t think I’ll ever consider Lawrence Kasdan as one of my favorite writers or directors. However, I do believe he has made some excellent movies. He wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes him miles above much of his competition. I am not a fan of Return of the Jedi, which I see as one of the worst Star Wars films, but I don’t necessarily blame Kasdan for that. I have been able to tell that he has a deep love of film, including all genres. I’ve found it interesting that he didn’t achieve the level of public acclaim as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when Kasdan is arguably as responsible for their successes in the 1980s as they are. Having penned such iconic films makes him deserving of a much closer look and appreciation of his work.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Written by Alan Trustman Directed by Norman Jewison
In the late 1960s, filmmaking was undergoing a transformation. It was happening both in the counter-culture, becoming prominent in the content but also in technological changes. At Expo 67, the World’s Fair held in Montreal, a pair of films showed off the revolutionary split-screen technique pioneered by Christopher Chapman. Chapman was a Canadian-born cinematographer that created the multi-dynamic image technique or “the Brady Bunch effect.” This allowed him to composite multiple film images into grids of varying sizes. This allowed a single scene to be shown from various angles and character perspectives. After Norman Jewison saw the films in exhibition at Expo 67, he wanted to use it in his new movie The Thomas Crown Affair, seeing it as useful when showing the heist scenes.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) Written by Stirling Silliphant Directed by Norman Jewison
In the Heat of the Night was a huge film in terms of its pop-culture resonance for a few decades, yet it is almost forgotten in our current age. I was aware of the seven-season television sequel that premiered in 1988. I recently discovered Sidney Poitier continued to play the character of Virgil Tibbs in two sequels. There are also seven novels in the Tibbs series. Now I’m sure not all of this media is as great as this movie, but it’s so strange for a character to have been that prominent only to have entirely vanished from the cultural discourse. As presented in this film, the character is so compelling that I have to believe the following productions just didn’t live up to the bar set by In the Heat of the Night.
Prizzi’s Honor (1985) Written by Richard Condon and Janet Roach Directed by John Huston
John Huston only had two years left in his life. I suspect he realized this. By 1982, he had to use an oxygen tank almost all hours of the day for his emphysema. He didn’t slow down in his filmmaking though making seven movies in the 1980s, even one the year he died in 1987. Prizzi’s Honor was his second to last film, the picture that won his daughter, Anjelica, her first Academy Award. Once again, he’d gather a cast of strong actors to deliver a deceptively dark comedy about love & business in the world of organized crime. I don’t think any of the films I’ve watched previously were overtly a comedy as much as this one. And it is a strange creature.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Written by Ben Maddow & John Huston Directed by John Huston
John Huston was fascinated with the state of the urban in post-War America. We saw in Key Largo that there was a looming fear that the old Prohibition-era mobs would return to power. In The Asphalt Jungle, Huston takes a much more nuanced look at the criminal element, refusing to present them as one-dimensional and no good. The Asphalt Jungle was a challenge to get made as MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer did not like it. He was overridden by the head of production, Isadore “Dore” Schary. Schary was a Jew born in New Jersey who eventually worked his way up to run MGM after Mayer left when his direction was losing the studio money. Mayer favored dazzling wholesome spectacles, while Schary wanted darker movies that had a message.
Key Largo (1948) Written by Richard Brooks and John Huston Directed by John Huston
Back during the 1930s & 40s, it was common for a director to have two films out per year. These days that would be a surprising accomplishment, but you were expected to churn out a larger workload at the height of the studio system. John Huston was working under this type of contract at Warner Brothers, so 1948 saw the release of The Treasure of Sierra Madre in January, followed by Key Largo in July. Huston had such an eye for detail & quality he wasn’t going to let one film suffer to make the other better. He’d ensure both movies were fantastic. And that he certainly did.
Movie Review – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston served in the U.S. Army during World War II, making films for the Signal Corps. He directed several films, both narrative & documentary, about soldiers and the war during this time. Despite the acclaim these pictures received, they were ultimately banned because some of them focused on failures of the U.S. military. The brass labeled them as “demoralizing to the morale of the troops.” He seemed to develop a fascination with war documentaries for the rest of his life as his daughter, Anjelica, said that when the family moved to Ireland, that was most of what they watched at home. I think something about men put in desperate situations surrounded by violence must have appealed to Huston, and it was the basis of his next film.
Casino (1995) Written by Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi Directed by Martin Scorsese
After the success of Goodfellas, both with audiences and critics, it was reasonably sure Scorsese & author Nicholas Pileggi would collaborate again on something. Five years later, they told another true story of organized crime and its deleterious effects on people’s lives in Casino. Like Goodfellas, the movie focuses on an outsider to the Italian Cosa Nostra, a Jewish man with a remarkable ability to gamble and win big. Unlike Goodfellas, Casino feels more epic in scope. These people deal with amounts of money that are far beyond what Henry Hill ever got his hands on. The story is also more balanced with its three central cast members in a way that Goodfellas never really did.
Cape Fear (1991) Written by Wesley Strick Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cape Fear came to Martin Scorsese on a trade. Scorsese had been working on Schindler’s List after Steven Spielberg had walked away at first. Spielberg was offered Cape Fear but found the story too violent for his personal filmmaking style. In turn, he offered it to Scorsese, who realized he wasn’t the right fit for Schindler’s List. The result of this switch is that we got a gorgeous remake of the 1961 Cape Fear that leans heavily into the filmmaking territory of Alfred Hitchcock.