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Born and raised on the tough northwest side of Chicago, Mann has always sought to infuse his crime stories with a minutely detailed authenticity, a habit he has retained even when his films depart from the mean streets. While he was developing his first feature Thief, Mann befriended a former Chicago detective named Chuck Adamson, who became a regular collaborator and consultant on many of Mann’s projects. One of Adamson’s war stories in particular—his tale of a terse coffee-shop encounter with a professional thief named Neil McCauley, whom Adamson later killed during an attempted robbery in 1963—fired the young filmmaker’s imagination, and versions of this story would recur in Mann’s films and television series for more than a decade.
The thematic crux of the Adamson-McCauley encounter—a wary professional respect between adversaries on opposite sides of the law—is already somewhat evident in the dynamic between William L. Petersen’s FBI agent Will Graham and Brian Cox’s unrepentant serial killer Hannibal Lektor in Mann’s second film Manhunter, adapted from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. But it was with his magnum opus Heat—a large-scale, big-budget semi-remake of his earlier TV movie L.A. Takedown—that Mann achieved the highest expression of his perennial theme. The culmination of nearly two decades’ worth of thought, research, and refinement, this grandiose action masterpiece marked the first time that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (in the Adamson and McCauley roles, respectively) shared the screen. The central coffee-shop showdown between the two is not only the most eloquent encapsulation of Mann’s romantic-fatalistic philosophy, but a milestone in movie masculinity: it’s almost as if all the gangsters, cops, and other iconic men that De Niro and Pacino had embodied over the course of their careers were sitting next to them in that brightly-lit diner.
While Heat is very much the pinnacle of Mann’s career, he has continued to explore his vision of manhood in a variety of different milieus and genres. Furthermore, his relentless pursuit of realism—whether telling the stories of real historical figures in The Insider, Ali and Public Enemies, recreating eighteenth-century frontier America in The Last of the Mohicans, or bringing a remarkable sense of verisimilitude to the crime fictions of Collateral and Miami Vice—has become as much a defining element of his style as the visual gloss of his rain-slicked neon nights, the pulsing beat of his musical scores, and his masterfully staged action set pieces. Much like Stanley Kubrick, Mann’s desire for authenticity has led him to take years in between projects, which makes the arrival of each new film an event. As Mann’s latest crime epic Blackhat makes its premiere this January, we look back at the work of this most stylish of American masters, and the men who have defined his cinema.