Michael Mann's Los Angeles: L.A. Takedown(1989), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004)
There’s a scene in Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown (1989) that I find very fascinating—a scene not featured in its critically acclaimed remake Heat (1995). The scene is an investigation montage early in the film in which L.A.P.D.’s Detective Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank) and his team cruise around Los Angeles at night, hitting up their contacts and informants on the streets, hoping to generate a lead on the robbery of an armored car earlier that day. The music playing over the montage is Billy Idol’s cover of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” and the visuals are strikingly similar to those in the original Ray Manzarek-directed music video from 1985. Like a phantom ride, the camera whizzes through the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Boulevard, the blurred lights creating an expressionist portrait of the city that years later Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat would compare to iridescent algae off the coast of Fiji. Helicopter shots pass over Downtown’s buildings--citadels of old power standing tall in the middle of suburban sprawl--and the network of freeway systems looking more like a sleeping giant’s circulatory system. We see vibrant street art, murals on brick walls that pronounce a history of L.A.'s streets largely stricken from the official record. Michael Mann was born and raised in Chicago, and his first directed film Thief (1981), starring James Caan and Tuesday Weld, is largely set there. He would go on to write and produce the television series Miami Vice (1984-1990) and the film Manhunter (1986), the first adaptation of the Hannibal Lector series novel Red Dragon, mostly set in the greater D.C. area. When you watch L.A. Takedown, however, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mann has always lived in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Andersen discusses how L.A. has been filmed by outsiders—differentiating between what he calls “high tourist directors” and “low tourist directors.” Low tourist directors, he says, “generally disdain Los Angeles” and prefer picturesque Northern California settings. High tourists “appreciate Los Angeles, even the tacky stuff [Angelenos] hate, like the Sunset Strip.” When looking at L.A. Takedown, then Heat, and finally Collateral (2004), I suppose that that Michael Mann is a high tourist. If writers like Chandler, Cain, and Ellroy find something charming about L.A.’s grittiness, Mann visualizes both the grit and charm with an insight beyond most Angelenos I know. “When its humid [in L.A.],” according to Mann, “the sodium vapor from the street lights in this megalopolis of 17 million people bounces up onto the bottom of the cloud layer and it becomes diffused light. You see this wondrous, abandoned landscape with hills and trees and strange lighting patterns.” In the opening shots of Heat, master thief Neil McCauley arrives on a metro train, out of this “wondrous, abandoned landscape” and into Redondo Beach Station. According to Neil, he is “alone but not lonely” and with these visuals Mann makes L.A. the ideal location for Neil’s story (despite being based on a real-life Chicago criminal). In Collateral, a coyote runs out of this vapor fog and in front of Max’s (Jamie Foxx) taxicab. Max has spent the evening driving around a hitman, Vincent (Tom Cruise), and for a moment the two men forget about the horrible things they have seen and recognize something oddly beautiful in this moment—familiar yet strange. When we look at these scenes, Michael Mann becomes something more than just a high tourist director.
Stylistically speaking, Mann’s crime films are prime examples of neo-noirs. Thief, Manhunter, and Miami Vice contain a visual palette that films like Drive (2011) remember, along with films like William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Mann’s recent film Blackhat (2015) is another foray into neo-noir, though this time it is for a post-9/11 world. Mann’s L.A. films, however, are especially good at posing noir moral dilemmas, and maybe this has to do with the effect that the city itself has on crime and policing; L.A. Takedown and Heat suggest that the inability of law enforcement officials to maintain intimate and enduring relationships is on par with the criminals they chase. Hanna’s life is a “disaster zone,” and he is passing his wife “on the downslope of a marriage” because he spends all his time chasing people like McCauley. McCauley’s policy, by contrast, is “don’t let yourself attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on if you feel the heat around the corner.” They allow themselves to bond, if only for a moment, over the idea that cops and criminals need one another. I remember back in 1995 how excited avid moviegoers were to see Pacino and De Niro pitted against one another in the same film for the first time, and Mann purposefully tapped into the energy around this pairing to amplify this noir theme.
Noir characters and themes can exist anywhere, not just L.A.. We’ve seen these stories play out in rural Texas, Pacific Heights in San Francisco, and Lumberton, North Carolina, to name a few. In Chandler's novels, Los Angeles is attacked as a city where wealth subverts justice, but we can just as easily see this happening in Salt Lake City or Atlanta. Also, not every crime story set in Los Angeles is inherently noir. The television series Dragnet (1951-1959), for example, is both politically anti-noir and a part of post-war L.A. history—unabashedly pro-Chief William H. Parker in the midst of the L.A.P.D.’s scandals. Still, one can’t deny that there is something about the region that provides a natural noir environment. For me, it is because there is no logical center to L.A.. Los Angeles is a web, indecipherable, sprawling from the San Gabriel Valley to the sea. A traveler to New York City, by contrast, could argue that much of the city’s energy radiates from Manhattan—Times Square specifically. Cities like Edinburgh, Paris, Chicago, and Seoul also have clearly identifiable city centers, epicenters of business, government, and media. I guess LAX could be some kind of city center for Michael Mann. Heat ends there and Collateral begins there. Boyle Heights also features in both films, as do Downtown locations and Koreatown. In contrast to Howard Hawk’s adaptation of Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep (1946), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Heat uses no sets; Los Angeles was sold by boosters at the end of the 19th century as a place with 300 days of sunshine a year, and yet it seems like it is always raining in The Big Sleep, but it never rains in Heat. In Mann’s L.A. noirs, he opens the city up, rather than making it feel claustrophobic and cloaked in shadow. Like the early twentieth century modernist architecture that the city is so famous for, Mann’s aim is to create a more breathable space for his L.A. stories.
Like Mann, I have my own fair share of L.A. stories. Let me share one. It was early summer of 2005. I was driving back to my apartment in Orange County alone from a show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was 2 a.m., and the post-gig coffee that I had with friends earlier was still going strong in my system. I decided not to take the 405 southbound home, even though its on-ramp at Santa Monica Boulevard was close. Instead, I turned north to Sunset Boulevard and then eastward, working my way to the I-5 south. The streets were nearly empty, similar to the coyote scene from Collateral with the same yellow glow created by diffused light and sodium vapor. When I made it to the 5, I discovered that my intended on-ramp was closed down, so I decided to drive even further south to join the freeway. As I drove, I listened to the song “Cemetery” by the Simi-Valley band Strung Out. This seemed appropriate considering that the lyrics proclaim Los Angeles as “an electric concrete fantasy, where the billboards keep on warning me, that if I don’t keep moving I’ll get stuck in this place where nobody gets out alive.” I kept moving through this electric concrete fantasy, and I appreciated The Doors reference in the song as well. Eventually I made it back to my apartment at 4 in the morning.
A few weeks later, I watched the music video for “Cemetery.” What struck me was how familiar its presentation of L.A. felt. An L.A. that I recognized from films like Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), and even Heat appeared on screen. Phantom rides, night-time traffic in fast motion, and the emptiness of Downtown are intercut with the video’s main character, a fallen angel, taking us through the seediness of Los Angeles, using a SnorriCam body rig made famous in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). Perhaps "Cemetery" is the anti-"L.A. Woman," even though the video barrows snippets from Manzarek's visual design. Also, Strung Out probably doesn't share Michael Mann's fondness for L.A.. When thinking about what connects "Cemetery," Mann's films, and other Los Angeles cinema, it becomes useful to return to Thom Andersen's film where he observes: "If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fictions for their documentary revelations." Angelenos often see themselves as the centre of the universe. Los Angeles, after all, has always tried to be something exterior to America, an ideal environment for film to thrive. However, just as Mann's cops need the crooks they chase to sustain their existence, L.A. needs its anti-mythology to counter Katy Perry's boosterism, which I suppose is what "Cemetery" does. As an L.A. native, I guess I prefer the "L.A. Woman" video because, just like Heat and Collateral, it effectively blends L.A.'s ugly and beautiful.
 Collateral, DVD, “Making of” featurette: Michael Mann explains why he shot most of the film on digital.