Michael Mann – Violence and Displacement

Max: “First time in LA?”

Vincent: “No. Tell you the truth; whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave. It’s too sprawled out, disconnected.”

For hit man Vincent in Collateral, calling Los Angeles disconnected is an appropriate way for his character to view the space. But for Michael Mann’s cinema in general, the space he portrays is not as sprawled out as Vincent might think. For Mann, spaces are defined (Groves) and often characterised in contrast to another. Space is often subject to something that does not belong, a violation of context. What was a divided world becomes the corrupted space of invasion. In Mann’s cinema this intrusion is often the catalyst for violence. Violence is not an aesthetic occupation; instead it is a result of anxiety spawned from the transgression of space. In this essay I will discuss Mann’s use of space and argue that violence in Mann expresses the displacement created by the destruction of context. Then, drawing on the ideas of Jean-Pierre Thoret and Mark Wildermuth, I will claim that this displacement contributes to an expression of dehumanisation in Mann’s cinema.

51berpuoowlAt its most basic level, violence expresses territorial claim. The competition for space has close ties with the importance of masculinity in Mann’s cinema. Existentially empty men often engage in force for survival. The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1756, positions its central characters amongst the conflicts for land between the French and the English. Each side is established in opposition to the other, wearing uniforms that establish their rivalry as well as their competition with the land. This contrast is heightened by the presence of the American Indians, who are costumed in organic colours so they are one with nature. Unlike the French and British they belong in the natural environment. Similarly, The Keep uses costuming techniques to differentiate those that intrude and those that belong. Set in Romania during World War Two, the idea of invasion is pertinent from the disorientating opening sequence. It introduces the idea of war with a convoy travelling through a mountainous landscape. In the film, characters are killed by the Golem for being in the keep, a space in which they are invading. Furthermore, characters that contravene are also killed. Both films express the masculine claim for domination and the desire for territorial right.

Another way of establishing those that belong and those that do not is Mann’s use of race. In The Last of the Mohicans, race is the catalyst for conflict and, furthermore, dictates how space is segregated and shared. While the American Indians are associated with the land, reinforced by the natural setting of the Huron’s camp, the English – introduced with a jarring cut to a geometric bridge over which they cross – only belong amongst the modernity of their Fort. (Indeed, once they leave the Fort, they are dominated and defeated by the American Indians in a natural space composed of lush greens and deep browns). This identification of space with collectives is also evident in The Jericho Mile. Like Ali, which uses segregation as a narrative agent, The Jericho Mile presents social units as a result of racial division. In the film’s opening montage, a number of different units are shot and editing together so that “we gradually realise that [the inmates] have segregated themselves ethnically” (Wildermuth, 36). The transgressing of this established space results in death for Stiles who is killed for his association with another race.

In Mann’s cinema the transgression of space invariably ignites the violence, which in the case of Collateral is the focus of the narrative. Consider the opening sequence of this film, which introduces Vincent arriving in Los Angeles at the airport. Vincent causes the conflict in the narrative; his task is to assassinate five people associated with a criminal case for a mysterious party. Vincent’s arrival is shot in such a way that it appears to be an invasion. He doesn’t belong to the space. This is achieved through something Mann often does, shooting his subject in – but not part of – his environment. His use of tight frames with short focal lengths “give the impression that individuals are on the surface of their environment” but not within it (Thoret, 8 – see below for an example). Vincent’s presence in Los Angeles, which is the catalyst for five episodes of violence, is an invasion of space, a space he does not belong to.


Violence, therefore, occurs when established groups step outside the space they belong to. Mann emphasises this displacement through costume: Vincent is the only character to wear grey significantly, Major Kaempffer’s uniform is refined while Woermann’s reflects the deteriorating environment of the keep and the aforementioned uniforms in The Last of the Mohicans are at odds with the environment. Overall, “the thread running through Mann’s films is the destruction that arises when world’s collide” (Smith, 77). This idea is applicable in the wide expanse of Mann’s film, but a more intimate manifestation of the transgression of context is present in Mann’s representation of the domestic. Films like Manhunter, Thief and Heat focus on the relationship between work and home. In doing so, the spaces are generally transcended and what characterises one from another is blurred. Often it is violence, usually associated with work, which infiltrates the domestic.

An important aspect of the idea of invasion is who is in control of space. Heat, a study in the relationship between home and work, illustrates this (Lindstrom). Both Hanna and McCauley are controlling of space. When Hanna walks in to see his informant, Albert, in the industrial quarters of Los Angeles, his confident and arrogant disposition supersedes that he is intruding in someone else’s space. Similarly later, when he meets Albert at a club that night, he has a friendly relationship with the bouncer and has access to the club’s offices. McCauley displays similar dominance at the diner when he recruits Breedan; there he uses the phone behind the counter as if he was the owner. Other spaces like the drive-thru, which no one belongs to, is a place of violence.

manhunter_michael_mann_film_posterThe relationship between working spaces and domestic spaces in Manhunter is more complex. Manhunter is an extension of the remarkable scene in Heat at the container yard where the question is ‘who is looking at who?’ In Manhunter the central character, Will Graham, attempts to catch a serial killer through placing himself in the shoes of the murderer, Dollarhyde. The crimes Dollarhyde has committed are all examples of the domestic being invaded. The opening point of view shot is an invasion from Dollarhyde’s perspective as he enters a family’s home and watches a couple sleep. We learn later that he brutally murders them; violence ensues from the invasion. Other less dramatic invasions occur: when Graham falls asleep on a plane, his photos of the bloody crime scene spill onto his fold down tray upsetting the child sitting next to him. Similarly, Graham talks to his son about the murders and his work in a supermarket.

Space, therefore, is corrupted frequently, but these spaces are also connected through videoscopic space. Dollarhyde sources his next victims through home movies that he steals from a film-processing laboratory. This is an intrusion of a metacinematic nature: the television offers visual access into the domestic. Furthermore, the audience is indicted as we are caught watching Dollarhyde watching home movies, as well as watching the movies ourselves. Moreover, we watch Graham try to pretend to be Dollarhyde watching home movies. The parallel activities are processes of exchange that invade space through the televisual world. For Dollarhyde it is an intrusion into the family’s home (an intrusion he will physically enact); for Graham it is an intrusion into Dollarhyde (similarly an intrusion he will later physically enact). Both violations of space result in violence, with the death of those who are being intruded on.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret has addressed the idea of space in Mann’s cinema in his article ‘The Aquarium Syndrome.’ He argues that Mann’s characters (in particular his male protagonists) are trapped inside a metaphorical aquarium; they can see outside, but if they leave the water they will die. To support his theory he cites Mann’s settings and framing techniques as frequently invoking aquariums, and also Mann’s narratives, which habitually focus on a character trying to get out of something. Thoret’s theory identifies an interior and exterior in Mann’s cinema, which is applicable to the ideas being presented here. What occurs when these interior-exterior spaces are transcended is the same as what occurs when the domestic is infiltrated by something that does not belong. Violence and death are central to both ideas.

An example of the fishbowl visually represented – source

However, while Thoret focuses on the interior’s inability to exist outside of the fishbowl, there is more to be said about the corruption that blurs the definitions of interior and exterior. The domestic is sometimes a threat to the outside world. The domestic, at times, infiltrates the violence. The most palpable example of this idea is in the frequency in Mann’s films that the home or domestic obligations get in the way of a man’s work. Graham’s ability to professionally track down Dollarhyde is undermined when his family is threatened. Likewise, in Thief, Frank sends away his wife and adopted child and destroys his house so that he can seek justice. In Mann, “the price of survival [in this world] is the absolute obliteration of any hope of normal life” (Hill, 2). In other words, Frank must dismiss the domestic – his idealised bourgeois lifestyle – if he is to have any hope in Mann’s world. Both Thief and Manhunter represent the domestic as something that must be detached from work for each individual’s professionalism to thrive.

Mann’s most complete and accomplished film, Heat, is a montage of all these ideas of transcending space and displacement. Heat places a large amount of importance on context. Environments are always highly detailed in Mann’s world (Groves); perhaps a reflection on the length of time Mann spends in pre-production (Wrathall, 12; Smith, 72). Environments and spaces play a key role in the narrative, especially in the opening heist, which introduces – consistent with other Mann films – the role of the domestic against the unconventional work of the film’s men. The crosscutting between the heist, performed with professionalism by McCauley’s men, and the domestic scenes of Hanna with his wife and stepdaughter, contextualises the heist and the home in contrast to one another. Work and home are inseparable. The film has been called a sociological examination of what happens when people live and work together (Steensland, 71).

Prior to the first heist, the opening few shots establish the idea of invasion and displacement with the arrival of McCauley. The dark, misty environment of the train station before dawn is captured with a sense of the hyperreal; time seems to be standing still for the train as it makes its way towards the platform. This shot is matched with another shot of a train approaching from the opposite direction. These indistinguishable trains are a metaphor for the film’s protagonists, McCauley and Hanna. Both resemble each other, but come from different directions and both are stuck on train tracks with a preordained destination. McCauley is then shot getting off the train but, like Vincent in Collateral, seems to be on the surface of his environment – not within it. This effect is achieved through the geometric shapes of the station: lines suggest the frame has no depth. Furthermore, to emphasise McCauley not belonging, he is shown walking against the grain, not with the crowd and against the direction of a traffic arrow. The idea of invasion is reinforced by McCauley’s entry into a hospital to steal an ambulance. He walks through a ward and looks into a patient’s cubicle. Mann then cuts to a close up of the bleeding patient’s body. In this short sequence Mann has shown us that “anything can be invaded, nothing is secure, and nothing is sacred in this fragmented world of incongruities” (Wildermuth, 137).

McCauley’s invasion of space is the first of many that all have implications for the narrative. The heists are also examples of invasions. In addition, Van Zant’s decides not buy the bonds back from McCauley’s gang is because he wants to ensure people on the street know it is not okay to “invade [his] space.” Invasions in this manner stir the narrative. The dramatic drive of the film comes from the interaction between the worlds of the criminals and the cops. But also, conflict comes from the interaction between the respective worlds’ domestic situations. It is a fragmented world, and deteriorating from displacement. Similar consequences are seen from the intrusion of the domestic into the working space of both sides.

Hanna’s domestic situation is falling to pieces. By the end of the film he dismisses its obligations symbolically by kicking his television out of his car. Thoret comments on the frequency of transit spaces in Mann’s cinema (“crystalline waters, freeways and skylines, empty warehouses and airports” [2]) but for Hanna, even home is also a transit space. Halfway through the film, Hanna returns home to find his wife is preparing to go out without him. He goes to do the dishes, but quickly gives up and instead leaves the house. Mann then cuts to Hanna in a helicopter high above Los Angeles. Hanna’s visit to his home is simply a transition between work and work. Significantly, however, Hanna’s home situation does not impact upon his professionalism; he prioritises his work. Like Frank in Thief, he walks away from the domestic at the end of the film.

Hanna’s space therefore, like many of the characters is subject to the idea of displacement. At home, Hanna is displaced; he does not belong. Charlene, similarly, goes to Marciano’s home for safety, but the intrusion of the police corrupts the space. It becomes a disjointed environment, a domestic space being used for work. But at the same time this situation is complicated by the need to retain a domestic façade to lure Chris into capture. A further invasion occurs to Trejo, who is tortured in his home by Waingro. His wife is killed in much the same way as Alonzo’s wife in Miami Vice; both women are murdered in their home as a result of ‘work.’ Another example in Heat occurs in the aftermath of the bank heist when Cherritto who picks up a young girl as a hostage. The child does not belong in the gunfight, nor does the gunfight belong in the downtown streets of Los Angeles. Context in these four examples is held tenuously. Just because a scene is within a home does not mean it can be assumed to be a domestic setting.

Heat is a film of interplays: “the interplay between the intimate and the panoramic” (Dzenis, 8). But, indeed, this is true for the wider works of Mann. Interplays, fluctuations and binaries are all central to Mann’s world. Heat can be read as a film about relationships between characters, between criminals and police, between inside and outside, and between home and work. Mann’s treatment of these relationships is an extension of Anna Dzenis’s analysis. She reads Heat as a film of “poetic…oscillations between elaborately choreographed montage action sequences and close, intimate interior views” (7). Furthermore, as has been discussed, it is the breaking down of space that complicates Heat, and therefore it is the overlapping of ‘action sequences’ with ‘interior views’ which are the true poetry. In Heat, characters’ respective spaces implode.

Katherine Hayles comments in relation to the writings of Jean Baudrillard: that when implosions happen, that consume the lines between interior and exterior, they point to the constructed quality of human contexts and hence further emphasise the denaturing of humanity (275-6). This is the effect of Mann’s depiction of space. The borders are well defined, but their frequent transgression points a dehumanising portrayal of the world that his characters inhabit. Thoret, similarly, makes references to Mann’s treatment of dehumanised space. His sense of dehumanisation is similar to Mark Wilermuth’s. Both suggest the high-tech, technological dependant world of Mann shadows the characters. Mann’s treatment of space contributes to this sense of dehumanisation that these critics claim to exist in his films.

Heat gives many examples of dehumanisation. The violence, which comes as a result of displacement and violation of context, escalates throughout the film. This parallels the increasing transgressions, which occur because of the breaking down of interior-exterior definitions. The bank heist illustrates this. The police surround the crew and instead of a stand off they attempt to fight their way out of the circle in which they are being ensnared. The downtown shoot-out lacks the normal definitions of interior and exterior. It is also dehumanised in the sense that for the men involved, the exchange of bullets is the equivalent of the exchange of dialogue. Like Hanna’s dream, where he sits at a social function where no one speaks, dialogue as exchange is not possible for these men at work; they resort instead to violence.

The guns in which they battle with are themselves symbolic of the technology that oppresses their humanity. In their first meeting on the highway, both McCauley and Hanna have their guns prepared; neither is prepared to rely on dialogue as a means of exchange. They must be prepared for the invasion that will result in violence. Settings also frequently displace human existence. The finale takes place in an obscure location at an airport among concrete blocks and metal transformers in a field of overgrown grass. Everything in the location exists for the machines: “human beings have no place here, there is no space for them” (Wildermuth, 148). The technological aspect of the location is further emphasised by the runway lights, which surge brightly every few seconds. When McCauley comes out of his hiding place, the lights reveal him to Hanna who turns and shoots him; “it is no longer the men who arbitrate the fight but only the light” (Thoret, 13).

Setting of the finale in Heat where light plays such a vital role – source

Violence itself is treated in a dehumanised manner. While this seems an obvious point, it is Mann’s hyperreal stylised handling of his gunfights that make this worthy of further investigation. The MTV-edited, stylised deaths that occur in Thief owe to Peckinpah their look and choreography. Barry’s death is a case in point. The violence is sudden, but the moment the trigger is pulled, Mann slows the action down so we see in slow motion Barry’s wounded body being flung against a van by the force of a shotgun. Similarly, Leo’s death at the end is captured with the same attention to detail but, furthermore, with the same sense of parody. Neither death is realistic. Both are hyperreal. The spray of blood that surges from the back of Leo’s head is an exaggeration of death, distanced as far as possible from any association with humanity.

Mann’s academics have also pointed to Mann’s apparent illustration of the male fading from society (Thoret, 2; Sharett, 254). Mann’s character’s long to disappear: (Thoret) Frank wants to escape his business, McCauley wants to move to New Zealand, and Max in Collateral frequently escapes into his picture of the Pacific. This is an articulation of the dehumanising effect. The alienation that Mann’s protagonists feel in the postmodern landscape makes them desire being elsewhere. A move from the urban landscape to something idealised, leaving the isolating environment of the city for an imagined utopia. Just as technology overwhelms the human qualities of Mann’s world and violence conveys a literal dehumanisation in a hyperreal parody of death, the desire to leave is a desire to vacate space. Dehumanisation is generated from the portrayal of the environment, and the need of characters to leave it.

This is true for Mann’s world. As discussed, characters – as an expression of displacement – transcend space. Interior and exterior definitions break down, similarly the line between the domestic and work is mystified. Wives are forced to “walk among the remains of death people,” and men in a gun battle must negotiate a supermarket parking lot. World’s interrupt each other (Sharrett, 255). This is the destruction of context; it is the effect of dehumanisation. Mann’s films rely on violence to settle these interruptions, which, instead of solving the claims for space, only emphasise the disconnection of Mann’s world. Violence therefore only complicates the spatial situation. It disrupts context by consuming the lines that represent societal barriers.

Finally, there is one space that I have not considered that appears frequently in Mann. While space is held with a degree of anxiety, given the threat of violence and the barriers that are so easily transgressed, the sea is given special significance. For Mann’s protagonists it symbolises an eternal utopia, life outside the aquarium (Thoret). Character’s look at it, imagine it, seek it, but never achieve it. Thoret claims Mann’s characters are lost in space, (8) the sea therefore gives them a bearing. It is an unchanging aspect of Mann’s geography with an expanse that directly contrasts with the inhibiting urban landscape. It is significant because it is an non-corrupted and an incorruptible space. The context is pure, and away from the displacement that disrupts the context of the urban landscape. The sea therefore represents life without anxiety, without the threat of violence, and without the possibility of displacement. It is perhaps the only untainted piece of optimism in Mann’s cinema.

Dzenis, Anna. “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images.” Sight and Sound 14.10 (October 2004) 14-16.

Groves, Tim. ‘Lectures on Michael Mann.’ Lectures presented at Victoria University of Wellington. September 4–October 9, 2007.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Lindstrom, J. A. “Heat: Work and Genre,” in Jump Cut 43 (July 2000 <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlineessays/JC43folder/Heat.html#n>

Sharrett, Christopher. “Michael Mann: Elegies of the Post-Industrial Landscape.” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 253-263.

Smith, Gavin. “Mann Hunters.” Film Comment 28.6 (November-December 1992) 72-77.

Steensland, Mark. Michael Mann. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2002.

Thoret, Jean-Baptiste. “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann.”

Trans. Anna Dzenis. Senses of Cinema 19 (2001) <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19mann.html>

Wildermuth, Mark E. Blood in the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema. North Carolina: McFarland, 2005.

Wrathall, John. “Heat.” Sight and Sound 6.2 (1996) 43-44.

Ali (Michael Mann, USA, 2001)

Collateral (Michael Mann, USA, 2004)

Heat (Michael Mann, USA, 1995)

The Insider (Michael Mann, USA, 1999)

The Jericho Mile (Michael Mann, USA, 1979)

The Keep (Michael Mann, USA, 1983)

The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, USA, 1992)

Manhunter (Michael Mann, USA, 1986)

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, USA, 2006)

Thief (Michael Mann, USA, 1981)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s