Michael Mann speaking at BAM Harvey Theater earlier this month Credit: David Godlis

It was only a matter of seconds before Chicago stole the show. Having been introduced as a visionary and a master of lurid cinema, Michael Mann took the stage at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn earlier this month for the keynote of the career retrospective Heat and Vice, which launched on the Humboldt Park native’s 73rd birthday. (The series wrapped last week.) Asked off the top by moderator Bilge Ebiri why he became a filmmaker, Mann looked homeward. “I had a visual appreciation for scenes in Chicago,” he said. “A steel bridge on a rainy night, the spaces, the way snow fell on the prairie outside Chicago. But I didn’t put that together with film. I wasn’t doing anything with a visual medium. I was an English major caught in the anguish of not having any idea what I wanted to do with my life.” After a screening of G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925) during a film-history course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he strolled down Bascom Hill. “It was a freezing, crystal-clear night—you could see every star in the sky—and it suddenly struck me: you’re going to make films. It’s one of the only two or three times in my life where I was assaulted with total knowingness. That was it, I was going to be a filmmaker.”

The body of work in the decades that followed—era-defining network television (Miami Vice), cult fare (Manhunter, The Keep), prestige Hollywood films (The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider)—reveal a focused, rapacious mind. Rarely has the texture of the Chicago crime world—its poetry, its blasphemy—been more faithfully rendered by one of its own, particularly in Mann’s 1981 debut, Thief.

Nearly two decades later, Mann would return to the city for the gangster picture Public Enemies, which he dedicated to former Chicago detective Chuck Adamson, who passed away in 2008. To re-create the shooting death of John Dillinger for the film, Mann and his crew painstakingly reconstructed the corridor surrounding the Biograph Theater to appear as it did back in 1934. In the early 60s, mere blocks away, near the corner of Lincoln and Belden, Adamson once chanced upon real-life criminal Neil McCauley. Adamson was running errands at the cleaners. McCauley was simply eyeing some deli coffee. Their split-second decision to share a couple cups instead of gunning each other down right there on the sidewalk would inspire the famous face-off between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a Los Angeles coffee shop in Heat (1995).

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As Mann explained to a full house in Brooklyn, he saw his hometown with fresh eyes after returning to Chicago from film school in London in the late 1960s. To grapple with the changes then taking place in American society, he made the documentary 17 Days Down the Line. “It was a road trip from Chicago to LA, through what was happening in America in 1970, with myself and a friend from Chicago who had been a Newsweek journalist.” (Though the film remains largely unseen, Mann noted that riot footage he filmed in Albuquerque can be glimpsed in his 2001 film Ali.)

While directing the Emmy-winning television movie The Jericho Mile, which Mann shot over 19 days inside Folsom Prison, he chanced upon a scene that would heavily influence Thief, which went into production the following year. “The most poignant experience was walking by one guy’s cell,” he said. “All the cells were wallpapered with pornography—sex as airbrushed perfection, an idealized form.” This particular cell, however, was lined with “unattractive” black-and-white photographs of an inmate’s conjugal visit with his wife as well as pictures of the birth of his child. “It just stopped me,” Mann said. “It was so powerfully moving, because I knew what this guy was doing. He was doing real time. He’s not fantasizing. He was aware every single moment that he’s in there and what he’s not a part of—that life goes by and he’s outside that dynamic and that flow. It was a very poignant, poetic thing about someone who’s living a life totally authentically. That then led me to an understanding of Frank [James Caan] in Thief and Peter Strauss in The Jericho Mile, and how hard it is to do time when you can’t game yourself into being delusional.”

Incarcerated from his teens to his 30s, Frank pulls images from magazines and assembles a collage to represent his future life on the outside. After serving his time, he keeps the collage tucked among an arsenal of Diners Club cards in a wallet the size of a washboard. As a thief, Frank values his independence above all, going to extremes to avoid the exploitation of Leo, a crime boss modeled in part on “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, an Outfit figure from the 50s and 60s—an era, Mann noted, with a Life magazine article as his source, when the Outfit’s business constituted 6 percent of the country’s GNP.

Intensifying the mood of Thief is the electronic Tangerine Dream score, which Mann deliberated on until the last moment. “My gut wanted me to use Chicago blues,” he said. “I’d listened to [blues] live in some of the best circumstances possible, which was Muddy Waters’s local bar, Curly’s, on Madison and Homan, in 1962 to 1963, when he had probably his best band, which had never recorded. The regional specificity is what that music would’ve brought to [the film]. But I thought the important themes would emerge better with something abstract like electronic music. I don’t know which would have made a better movie. I still don’t know.” (Viewers can get a sense of the blues pairing in Abel Ferrara’s 1986 pilot for Crime Story, executive produced by Mann, in which safecrackers slice through a vault door, dodging sparks to Bo Diddley.)

After praising Ryuichi Sakamoto’s recent contribution to the score for The Revenant, Mann was asked which of his own musical moments remains a source of pride. He settled on the Sam Cooke medley that opens Ali, and stressed the challenges of duplicating one of Chicago’s most iconic voices. “I had a lot of famous R&B singers saying, ‘Man, I’m gonna kill it,'” he said with a trace of laughter. “After three takes they were done—including R. Kelly.”

Mann’s trademark meticulousness was in high gear throughout the Heat and Vice series, particularly in the planning stages. Reached by phone, Schawn Belston, head of archival and restoration work for 20th Century Fox—whom Mann first connected with while restoring The Last of the Mohicans in the 90s—detailed the process. Mann’s own vault prints were exhumed. A new cut of his most recent film, Blackhat, was prepared and customized exclusively for the retrospective. Belston himself was dispatched to Brooklyn to personally inspect the projectors and monitor light levels. “Michael is demanding about exactly how he wants everything to be,” he said.

For Heat, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival last fall in celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary, the preparations were exhaustive. “We pulled every single print we could find, from every source we could think of, including Michael’s own collection, film archives, prints from Warner Brothers, prints from dupe negatives. I screened them all, eight or nine prints, before Michael chose which reels to run. It was an amazingly rewarding thing to watch.” In Mann’s world, even a retrospective can take on the dimensions of a heist.

As the Thursday event drew to a close, Mann stressed the often-sideways nature of getting hooked on a story. When his conversations in the mid-90s with Lowell Bergman, then a producer for 60 Minutes, strayed from a tentative project about a Lebanese arms dealer to daily frustrations at CBS—he was fighting to air an unfiltered report about the tobacco industry from a difficult source—Mann proposed dropping the gunrunner story. “What you’re living through is a terrific nucleus of a story, let’s do that,” he told Bergman. As Mann elaborated on the origins of The Insider, a police siren echoed throughout the auditorium, competing with his remarks onstage. Somewhere out on the streets, another potential Mann plot was on the loose.  v