It’s been said that Miriam Hopkins was an actress who often tried to upstage her fellow actors. She supposedly had a tendency to overact, and the purpose was to outshine everyone else. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, but if that was the goal in Trouble in Paradise, then consider it a success. The only thing I wanted more of after watching it was Miriam Hopkins.
In the film, she plays the role of Lily, a svelte thief masquerading in Venice as a Countess. The target of her next score being a certain Baron Lavalle who – unbeknownst to her – is also a fellow crook named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and she is his next score. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they expose their true identities to each other over dinner. As if a potent aphrodisiac, the revelation makes them fall lustily for one another. They team-up and then swing from Venice to Paris where a third party enters the story in the form of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Initially eyed by the thieving couple only for her bejeweled purse, an amusing turn of events eventually puts Gaston in Colet‘s household as her secretary with Lily as his assistant. From here, it doesn’t take very long before Madame Colet is captivated by Gaston and shows jealousy towards Lily.
The dialogue is witty, clever and snappy, and the plot is evidently something that will be borrowed from by romcoms and con films for many decades. But what characterizes Trouble in Paradise the most is that it’s a film filled with silky sophistication. From the romantic setting to the high society crowd that Colet surrounds herself with, everything in the film floats with softness and grace. Marshall’s performance in particular is the epitome of the cool and composed smooth-talking gentleman, while Francis sashays elegantly across the screen with every move of her body. Even the camera follows in theme as it glides from side to side and up and down as Lubitsch himself chooses to move the frame and transition with fade ins and outs instead of employing quick cuts.
As beautiful and light the film is to behold though, everything seems like it’s a little bit insincere. There’s a hint of something hidden beyond face value. There is playful innuendo, but no action. There is disappointment, but no anger. There is worry, but no distress. It’s a film about people being fooled and robbed, but all the emotions seem stifled, which makes the film occasionally uninteresting. It keeps on gathering momentum, but never really takes off.
The exception to this of course, is Lily. In a picture where everything is made out to look sleek and where characters maintain the utmost poise, Miriam Hopkins gives a performance that doesn’t care if things have to be loud and dirty. Hers is a role that wears her heart on her sleeve and that is what makes Hopkins shine. That is why people want to see more of her. When she is happy, she is ecstatic. When she is mad, she is livid. In a picture full of tempered emotions, she is the one that gives the film life, fun, passion and spirit.
I might have just seen the best action-thriller movie ever. It’s just that this 2-hour movie exists within the 170-minutes of Heat, but I’m sure that it’s there and it’s amazing. It has this riveting and intense cat-and-mouse chase between the De Niro-led gang of criminals and the Pacino-led LA police. It has some of the most raw, visceral and well-crafted shootout sequences I’ve seen, including a particularly incredible one in the middle of downtown LA. It knows how to pace itself, can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.
What it doesn’t have is the rushed and underdeveloped subplot of how a bank robber meets a younger woman, falls for her, and how he wants to give up his life of crime so they could run off into the sunset. It neither has the story of a cop having domestic problems due to his dedication to his job, nor does it have the totally disjointed backstory of a getaway driver who just gets killed and dropped from the plot completely.
Thus is the predicament of Heat: It tries to be both a thrilling heist film and a romantic-drama at the same time. The good news is that it still succeeds at being the former. In fact, as a more taut and focused two-hour film, it can be considered the high point of the genre. The bad news is that Michael Mann really does not know how to do drama, and he’s even more inept at developing a believable romance. The one and only such scene that I felt worked in the film was at the end when Charlene (Ashley Judd) makes a sacrifice for her husband at the last second. That worked and it was powerful. The other bits of melodrama, not so much.
It’s almost as if Michael Mann thinks that his films can’t be compelling within the action and suspense only. The funny thing is that without the melodrama, his films actually are quite compelling. Watching De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – two passionate individuals who are similar in so many ways, yet find themselves on the opposite ends of a tense situation – is already an interesting setup that doesn’t need dramatic flourishes to support it.
I understand and appreciate how Mann was trying to make the stakes higher for both of them by including McCauley’s romance and Hannah’s domestic drama, but it just makes me wish that he was much better at writing these things. In any case, the parallels that one can draw between them is intriguing and the way in which Mann increasingly blurs the gray line between good and bad is fascinating. Ultimately seeing them understand, respect and admire each other through the conflict is what ends up being the most compelling thing about the story. Considering they both know that only one of them can come out of it alive ends up being bittersweet
Manhunter is proof that Michael Mann is brilliant in every element that lends to creating a sense of style on the screen. He’s great at visually arresting an audience and effortlessly creates a distinct atmosphere for his films. Take the first shot after the opening credits. Not even the first scene, but just that first shot. FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) & his superior Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) sit on a log on the beach. The calm waters, clear blue sky and horizon serve as their backdrop. Graham looks to the left – facing the viewer – as he holds a drink. He’s clad in a plain shirt and shorts with his bare feet in the sand. Crawford on the other hand is in full office attire, with his suit draped on the log. He has his back towards us as he looks down at the ground. It’s an intriguing image and lingers a few seconds for the audience to take it in. It’s meticulously composed and very typical of the skill that Michael Mann has in creating a lasting image.
The problem, however, lies in his writing. Mann has a tendency to be heavy-handed, and every example of his poor writing tendencies are on display in this film. He’s the classic example of someone who you’d want to yell at and say, “Show, don’t tell!” The worst offenders of this are the scenes where Graham mutters to himself as he tries to get inside the killer’s head. Mann’s script makes him say out loud every detail, thought and move of the killer as if a play-by-play announcer at a basketball game. The end result is that almost every scene in Manhunter ends up being an exercise of style over substance.
Even then, there are actors in the film talented enough to rise above the material. Joan Allen in one of her first film roles works wonders with her naturally soft easiness to balance out the film’s grotesque look and chilling atmosphere. The highlight though is clearly Brian Cox in the role of Hannibal Lecter. The performance is magnetic in the handful of scenes that he’s in. He brings confidence, charisma and a chilling sense of danger to the role. There’s always the impression that much more is running in his brilliant mind than what’s said and shown on-screen. And a feeling that he knows more about everyone else such that one would wish that the film was about him more than anyone else.
I think I need to rewatch Collateral after I’m done with this Michael Mann marathon. As the only film directed by Mann that he didn’t write, it interests me to revisit what he’s done with another person’s screenplay. I’d imagine that if Michael Mann directed a piece similar to Malick’s The Tree of Life or Caruth’s Upstream Color based off another writer’s work it would be an interesting experience. It would be the perfect vehicle for his unbridled style combined with another writer’s substance.
Two mysterious characters come out in the dead of night. The bright streetlights contrast with the dark in stark noir fashion. Rain falls. Smoke fills a lifeless alley. Two thieves work their magic as a riveting musical score pulsates in the background. This is the opening scene to Thief. It runs for ten minutes yet feels like it just blows by once the pair of robbers drive back to their hideout as the sun rises on downtown Chicago. It exhibits the type of patience, control and meticulous attention to detail that one would think it was put together by a seasoned director. But it’s not.
If there were any opening scene from a feature film debut that one could say typifies the potential of a budding filmmaker, this would be it. In Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, he exudes the visual and aural pizazz of an auteur far beyond his years. He juggles tones with expert dexterity at the same time filling the screen with a flamboyant style, which is to be his trademark in later years. He nails the gritty and sinister atmosphere of a vintage noir. He enthralls with thrilling and bloody action sequences. And amidst all of this, he compellingly tells the story of a tragic hero determined to follow his plans on his terms.
At the heart of it is James Caan infusing his innate tough-guy bravado into the character of an ex-convict we only know as Frank. He’s a businessman by day, running both a used car shop and a bar to front his criminal operations. But during the night is where the real money is, as he and his partner Barry (James Belushi) carefully map out and execute various diamond scores. The grand plan at the center of all of this being the realization of a perfect, normal life. A life with a wife, a child and a modest home in the suburbs.
It’s at this point where Mann shows a knack for playing with the viewer’s sympathies. When Frank’s fence bites the dust, all hell breaks loose. His plans get thrown off the rails, and try as he might to get them back on track his way, it becomes increasingly apparent that the only way may have to be by force. By the time the film draws to its climax, we find ourselves rooting for the criminal – this stubborn, hardened thief – hoping against hope that he comes out of it alive with his dreams intact.
Thief is precise and detailed. It’s intricately planned and slickly executed. It drills down to the details such as testing the voltage of wires for information and running an extinguisher under a thermal lance while melting away at a safe to make sure nothing catches fire. In fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie and that’s where the strength of the film ultimately lies. It’s such an intricately-made piece of work in that every shot, every edit, every scene and line of dialogue seems like it’s all been painstakingly plotted on a map.