He was educated at the University of Wisconsin and the London Film School, and he went on to write for the TV series Police Story and Starsky and Hutch.
He was cowriter, as well as director, on The Jericho Mile, which had Peter Strauss as a Folsom Prison inmate who tries to make the Olympic team. Within the bounds of a TV movie, Mann brought out both the ferocity and the absurdity of the attempt to find redemption in hell.
Thief is, in many ways, another version of that same theme, with James Caan as an increasingly hopeless criminal whose grasp on integrity is canceled as the story unfolds. The Keep does not work nearly as well, but it has a group of German soldiers who stick to a benighted mission. Nothing matters in Mann’s world so much as that ultimate resolution. It is the most interesting, quietist form of male dedication in our movie landscape crowded with macho posturing.
Manhunter is an unfairly neglected picture, largely because its Hannibal Leeter is less spectacular than that of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme. But Manhunter knows the dread with which the questing mind of the cop comes close to occupying that of the serial killer. Its puzzle is engrossing, and Manns use of vivid supporting players can scarcely be rivaled today.
Nevertheless, it is Mann's TV work that looms largest. He has been the creator, and steady controller, of two series: Miami Vice (1984-89) and Crime Start/ (1986-88). The first is by far the better known. It recognized the potency of Miami (was Mann inspired bv De Palma’s Scatface?)-, it employed the drive of pop music and the patina of modem design; it was a racial melting pot, very sexy and violent; and it recovered the career of Don Johnson, while making a bizarre Hispanic cult out of Edward James Olmos. Miami Vice is pulp, but full of ideas, often gorgeous, rarely dull, and hugely influential—not only Miami aped it; TV ads picked up on Miami’s electric colors.
Crime Stary is several degrees greater. Indeed, the many hours of this unsuccessful series amount to a true American epic. It was a series and serial: the struggle between cop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and hood Ray Luca (Anthony Dennison) spanned years and reached from a Midwest city to the Nevada deserts, all propelled by Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Watching it, week after week, was one of the joys of the mid-eighties, with meaty performances not just from the leads but from John Santueci, Stephen Lang, Jon Polito, Ted Leyne, Joseph Wiseman, and Darlanne Fluegel and Patricia Charbonneau, wdio join Tuesday Weld, Madeleine Stowe, Ashley Judd, and Amy Brenneman in Mann’s corps of resolute dames in tight corners.
By the late nineties, Mann had clearly moved further ahead. Heat, it seems, was one of the best-made films of the decade, the need to look and listen closely was constantly rewarded. But even that richness of texture could not overcome the thematic triteness—the jungle prowfled by cops and crooks alike. Less attitude, less deepseated respect for these loner men, and a more intricate tracing of how money works. Something like the same could be said for The Insider—it was riveting and very well acted (though Al Pacino was allowed to he lazy in both films), but its view of different kinds of compromise was too pat. Mann the director needs better waiting than he has been getting. But no one does film with better touch.
Is his least interesting film, smothered in impersonation and evasion, an irrelevant footnote to all the new's reel and documentary.
No one has done more to uphold, extend, and enrich the film noir genre in recent years than Michael Mann. He is a director and producer, an organizer of TV series, a visionary of modem style who somehow integrates the fluency of Max Ophuls with the iconic poise of the most hip TV commercials. His theatrical movies come years apart, but his work for television has filled the time and been just as vital and creative a part of what he does. For Mann, The Last of the Mohicans was a conscious breaking of new ground, and instinctively he found not just an atmosphere and a sound but a style to fit the primeval forest and mans struggle to survive with dignity. As for civilization, in Michael Mann’s eyes that has always been a tenuous extra.