Watch: Hannibal Lecter: Three Actors, One Mutating Identity

Watch: Hannibal Lecter: Three Actors, One Mutating Identity

Who’s your Lecter? A more serious question than it might seem, posed in this excellent montage by Matthew Morettini. Morettini has taken the three people to play Thomas Harris’s famous villain–Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, and Mads Mikkelsen, in chronological order–and interwoven their portrayals around a famous scene in which profiler Will Graham goes to interview Lecter about a serial killing. The idea behind the scene is clear; the characters are not so much talking to each other as dancing around each other, each man trying to find out how the other man ticks, neither man getting an entirely satisfying result, both men heading off into the abysses of their own selves after the conversation is over.  In this survey of Michael Mann’s exploration in ‘Manhunter,’ Brett Ratner’s exploration in ‘Red Dragon," and Bryan Fuller’s examination in ‘Hannibal,’ we see three faces attached to one rotting core, all saying something slightly different when interrogated–not different in the words they say, but in the way they say those words, which ends up making all the difference.

Watch: The Sublime Presence in Michael Mann’s Films: A Video Essay

Watch: The Sublime Presence in Michael Mann’s Films: A Video Essay

It’s hard to say what it is that’s surging beneath so many of Michael Mann’s films, what gives them their energy. It could be that he comes the closest to the sublime of any American director. For those keeping score, the word sublime is often used to describe something that reaches heights we did not expect, beyond excellence. But what the term means for artistic works is quite different: it describes a force, somewhat inexplicable, that moves forward and dwarfs everything else around it, that is near-frightening in its intensity. And that’s what we have here, in Michael Mann’s films, which Tom Kramer has managed to get at with this video piece. It’s there in the shimmering tension between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. It’s there, believe it or not, in Colin Farrell’s momentary love in Miami Vice. Certainly the poor tormented soul at the heart of Manhunter faces it as he goes about his disturbed criminal-profiling craft. And, of course, it pervades The Last of the Mohicans, both in the characters’ relationships with each other and in their facing of the vast, complex mass of untamed America. It could be said that Mann coats his films with too much style, too much visual slickness–and that’s evident in Kramer’s piece too. But, on the other hand, that sense of visual craft could also be said to ameliorate the near-atomic power always simmering within Mann’s subject matter, always threatening to overtake all else.

Electronic Meditation: The Musical Synthesis of Tangerine Dream and Michael Mann

Electronic Meditation: The Musical Synthesis of Tangerine Dream and Michael Mann


The recent Blu-ray edition of Michael Mann’s influential Thief (1981) has inspired a number of
perceptive reappraisals of this stylish and enigmatic film. Of particular interest has been the film’s
cool, impressionistic cinematography, creating visual moods that bear a complicated
relationship to the story’s tensions and violence.  Just as important in setting these complex
moods, however, and just as influential, is the film’s electronic score,
composed by German band Tangerine Dream. 
While the sound they pioneered, combining melodic minimalism and taut
synthetic rhythms, would become almost a cliché in films and on dancefloors
throughout the 1980s, in Mann’s film their music serves to create an aural
environment that is simultaneously meditative and driving, and is a crucial
element of the film’s achievement.

While Tangerine Dream would go on to score dozens of films,
this was only their second major soundtrack for a Hollywood picture.  Their first was William Friedkin’s cult
classic Sorcerer (1977), itself due
for its first blu-ray release (and hopefully a long-overdue reappraisal from
critics) in April.  Friedkin was already
well-known for his innovative use of music, particularly in The Exorcist, where he took the main
theme from Mike Oldfield’s progressive rock opus Tubular Bells and transformed it into a sound that has become as
synonymous with terror as Bernard Herrmann’s slicing string section for
Hitchcock’s Psycho.  In its original setting, Oldfield’s music sets
a dreamy, pastoral mood, its ringing bell tones and slowly building piano
arpeggios more conducive to meditation than fear.  Yet in Friedkin’s film, the music conjures up an
otherworldly presence, the minor chords and circular melodies casting a
seductive, sinister spell.  This
transformation is every bit as striking as Quentin Tarantino’s subversive use of
“Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel to serve as the disturbingly
cheery accompaniment to Michael Madsen’s gruesome torture of a police officer
in Reservoir Dogs.  With the innovative scores used by
filmmakers like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and others, we have become well
used to hearing found music used against the grain in this way, but Friedkin’s
use of Oldfield retains an air of mystery about it.

As iconic as this score has become, Friedkin has said that,
had he heard the music of Tangerine Dream before making The Exorcist, he would have asked them to score the film.  By the time he first heard their music in the
mid-1970s, the electronic group had evolved from the abstract atonality of
their early years to the increasingly rhythmic space rock of their most popular
period.  At the core of the group were
early members Edgar Froese and Christopher Franke, accompanied by shifting
members for the remaining decade. 
Friedkin first heard them at a concert given in a darkened cathedral in
the primeval Black Forest, an experience that would play a fundamental role in
his development as a filmmaker. “I’d never seen anything like that,” Mr.
Friedkin said. “They played one long piece of music that sounded like a
combination of Jimi Hendrix and Stockhausen.  The whole notion of the film I
later made came that evening. I started to see the images of the movie that
ultimately became Sorcerer.”

Like Mann’s Thief,
Sorcerer balances contemplative,
sometimes abstract visual elements with the taut narrative of the
thriller.  This style owes much
to the European New Wave, particularly the films of Werner Herzog and
Jean-Pierre Melville, which recast traditional elements of the thriller into
abstract meditations on destiny and free will. 
The story brings together several desperate characters who have fled
from their criminal pasts into anonymity in a remote village in South America.  After terrorists blow up a local oil well,
the oil company seeks four drivers to move a shipment of volatile nitro-glycerin
through the rain forest so that the explosives can be used to stop the flow of
flaming oil.  Tangerine Dream’s music is
not heard until the film’s second half, depicting this harrowing journey
through excruciating challenges.  While
their score has a remarkable range, moving from ethereal drones to blinding
white noise, their signature sound emerges in the form of slowly evolving
modular melodies that grow more taut and rhythmic as the journey’s tensions
increase.  A key element of the
soundtrack’s success is the nature of synthesized sound itself, which can be
sculpted into a variety of forms, in which any given sound can change
from melodic to rhythmic by increasing a tone’s percussive attack.  The electronic sounds blend seamlessly with
the truck engine’s roar and the driving rain in the film’s complex sound
design, creating a total aural atmosphere of a kind that would be later
augmented by Mann in Thief.

The films also share a preoccupation with their detailed,
seemingly real-time depiction of men engaged in complicated tasks, and both
films depend upon Tangerine Dream’s score to lend focus and tension to these
depictions.  Thief begins with a now-famous 9-minute scene in which the
protagonist Frank (James Caan) breaks into a high security vault.  The electronic rhythms and pulses of the
score become almost indistinguishable from the iconic image of the giant drill
that fills the screen, sending sparks flying to bounce off of Frank’s
surprisingly hip looking safety glasses. 
The repetitive rhythms anticipate those that would later emerge in the
Chicago club scene.  Dubbed house music,
this minimal electronic dancefloor sound has become synonymous with techno and
its variants, combining driving beats with stark, industrial sounds uniquely
suited to high-ceilinged dance clubs.  It
is a sound oddly suited to the enigmatic mood struck by Mann’s film, in which
grueling, repetitive tasks become existential rituals in which the protagonist
momentarily defies the forces that would trap him. 

Tangerine Dream’s music is used prominently in three main
sections of the film, first in the tense opening scene, then over the second
major break-in depicted a little over halfway into the picture, and, finally,
in the climactic scene of the film where Frank violently frees himself from
oppressive obligations.  Each of these
major scenes is distinctive for its lack of dialogue and almost total focus on
a particular, grim task.  Taken
individually, they assume a quality that’s hard to disassociate from the music
video, a form that was soon to come into its own with MTV, which began
broadcasting the same year Thief was
released.  Mann himself, as producer of Miami Vice, would play an important role
in extending the vocabulary of this new form by incorporating extended music
sequences into dramatic narratives, accompanied by Jan Hammer’s infinitely
adaptable electronic compositions. 

But the mood of Thief
and its relationship to Tangerine Dream’s music is a much more complicated
affair than the pink and neon night scenes evoked in Miami ViceThief conjures a kind of anti-glamour in
which grim-faced criminals pound heavy metal tools, their faces pouring sweat as
they force their way into seemingly impenetrable steel chambers.  Without a driving soundtrack and incomparably
rich cinematography, these scenes would be an extremely hard sell, but Thief transforms what might easily come
off as arty and boring into gripping cinema. 
Like Mann’s film, Tangerine Dream’s score combines the ethereal and the
meditative with the metallic and the visceral. 
The result is a film in which every element combines in a portrayal of
crime as both act and atmosphere, murder and mood.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

The Chicago Way: Crime Story back on DVD for its 25th Anniversary

The Chicago Way: Crime Story back on DVD for its 25th Anniversary


EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributor Tony Dayoub marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Michael Mann's Crime Story. We have paired his new piece with Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay Zen Pulp, Pt. 5: Crime Story, which was created for the Museum of Moving Image.

On September 18, 1986, director Michael Mann (Heat) made good on his promising career in TV and film with the debut of his new period cops-and-robbers saga, Crime Story. Not only did Crime Story’s feature-quality production design live up to that of its TV antecedent, Mann’s stylish Miami Vice; Crime Story also fulfilled its aim to present a morally complex world in which it was often difficult to tell those who broke the law from those who upheld it. Set in 1963, the show explores the multiple facets of a young hood’s rise to power in the Chicago Mob through the viewpoints of its three protagonists. Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) is the pompadoured criminal quickly ascending the ranks of the “Outfit.” Lieutenant Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) is the cop in charge of Chicago’s Major Crime Unit (or MCU) who bends the law in the service of justice. And David Abrams (Stephen Lang) is the idealistic young lawyer caught between the two men and their obsessive cat-and-mouse game. Today, a little over 25 years since its premiere, Crime Story: The Complete Series (Image Entertainment) comes out on DVD. At press time, review copies were not made available, so it’s impossible to ascertain if any improvements have been made over the questionable video quality of previous iterations. But this short-lived series, an influential precursor to the well-written serials littered throughout cable this decade (i.e., The Sopranos, Mad Men, Justified, and others), is worth owning despite any potential issues with its digital transfer.

In 1984, the success of Miami Vice’s MTV cops premise had made Mann a household name, allowing him to develop virtually any project for NBC. Mann went back to a theme that informed his earlier films and would recur again and again in subsequent ones: the razor-thin borderline between order and chaos. In his first feature, Thief (1981), Mann focused on the rigid code of honor of a Chicago jewel thief named Frank (James Caan), zeroing in on his professionalism and expertise as counterpoint to the crooked methods used by the police and his criminal associates to bring him under control. Manhunter, a crime procedural, took a different tack, examining how FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) experiences a progressive loss of his own identity as he tries to get inside the head of an active serial killer. With the same skill Vice displayed in applying memorable music to key moments of its violent tale, only now taking a period setting into account, Crime Story represented a sort of apotheosis of all of these elements.

In much the same way Heat would later, Crime Story looked at opposing sides of the law – both in sharp relief and, in some cases, muddled reflection of each other. (Heck, Heat even lifted one scene from Crime Story whole cloth – Al Pacino’s cop discovers he’s being cuckolded and takes his TV as he moves out, just as Torello does in an early episode.) Torello’s poisonous hatred of Luca spills onto his personal life, rupturing his marriage and often bringing death to his loved ones. At one point, Torello acknowledges his obsession privately to Luca, “You know, when you chase someone as long as I’ve chased you, in the end, it really comes down to two people: you and me.” With little regard for his officers – big-hearted Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), cigar-chomping Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), jokester Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), and rookie detective Joey Indelli (Billy Campbell) – Torello rushes headlong in pursuit of Luca, frequently endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.  The lethal Luca, meanwhile, cooly dispatches orders and manages his lackeys in much the same way a company CEO does. Public defender Abrams justifies his work on behalf of criminal scum by righteously pointing out that everyone is entitled to a top-notch legal defense. But as the series continues, Torello begins fumbling the rest of his police work in order to focus on Luca, coming under fire from a federal attorney. Abrams starts feeling the sting of his close association with mobsters, especially when his father (himself a famous mob lawyer) is killed by a car bomb meant for him. The ambitious Luca becomes more reckless in his hunger for power.

By the time Luca makes it to the top of his organization, he is paranoid. Luca turns on his closest henchmen, Pauli Taglia (John Santucci) and Max Goldman (Andrew Dice Clay), in an episode directed by Mann himself, “Top of the World.” The real-life events that inform the episode (perhaps the pinnacle of the entire series) also provide the backstory for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Like Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro, the character of Luca stands in for real-life mobster Anthony “the Ant” Spilotro whose cowboy antics began interfering with the Chicago Outfit’s Vegas dealings. The character of Max Goldman, like Robert De Niro’s “Ace” Rothstein in Casino, is a stand-in for Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Casino’s opening scene, in which Rothstein survives an abortive car explosion, is also depicted in “Top of the World;” Goldman survives an explosion meant to eliminate him for discovering Luca cheating with his wife.

Crime Story came by its gritty realism honestly. It was created by Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago cop who consulted Mann on Thief, and Gustave Reininger, a former investment banker turned screenwriter with a tendency to put himself in dangerous undercover situations while researching his work. In fact, Mann filled out Crime Story’s cast, much the same way he did in Thief, with actors who had once been cops or felons in Chicago. Lead actor Farina had been a cop and Adamson’s partner. And Santucci, whose supporting character of Pauli was the show’s breakout favorite, had been a highline jewel thief busted by Adamson and Farina. Santucci’s exploits served as much of the foundation for Thief, and he doubled as a technical consultant on Crime Story.

While it wasn’t the first prime-time series to have serialized elements, Crime Story was one of the most cohesive, at least in the first of its two seasons. The first season follows Luca’s meteoric rise from simple home invader (in the pilot episode directed by Abel Ferrara) in Chicago to chief enforcer for syndicate boss Manny Weisbord (Joseph Weisman) in Las Vegas. Torello rides his coattails, in a sense, graduating to G-man with the Justice Department along with the disillusioned Abrams, both of them tasked specifically with bringing Luca and the Outfit to justice. The time-compressed first season comes to a natural and nihilistic conclusion, in which few of the characters seem to get out alive, Mann’s nod to the slim chances that the ratings-challenged series would return for a second season. But return it did, and now, the Crime Story writing staff, or what was left of it after many moved on to other projects, had to figure out how to get themselves out of the corner that they had painted themselves into. With two, possibly three, of the lead characters at death’s door in the first season finale, the ultimate resolution was far-fetched for a show that had always prided itself for its verisimilitude. The show wound down its second season with inconsistent episodes set in the Vegas milieu before concluding with a tight trilogy of episodes filmed in Mexico, where Torello’s squad goes vigilante in order to finally stop Luca once and for all. One wonders if today’s TV landscape might have been more supportive of Crime Story.


Though ratings played a part in its cancellation, another significant contribution was the expense of recreating the early ‘60s. Today’s cable series have learned to amortize their costs – not to mention increase the production time allotted in filming an episode – by producing seasons that are half the number of episodes as those of network series. With less need for filler episodes – Crime Story produced a number of episodes that mostly consisted of clip compilations to bring its audience up to speed – then season-long storylines take on more potency. Just look at the current season of Sons of Anarchy, another show in which the criminals are the protagonists. Kurt Sutter’s outlaw biker series had to ask for one more episode than its allotted 13 when it became clear this year’s plotline involving SAMCRO’s dealings with a Mexican drug cartel was bursting with too much story potential.
Still, as a forerunner to the morally relativistic worlds seen on TV crime sagas like Boardwalk Empire and its cable confreres, Crime Story stands out as a beautifully executed and engaging exemplar.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.