Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Penumbra: Michael Mann’s twilight world

Daylight and darkness, and the moments in between, are crucial to Michael Mann’s contemporary crime stories.

The action of Collateral occurs entirely at night, as Jamie Foxx’s cab driver Max becomes enfolded in the blue-steel world of Tom Cruise’s contract killer Vincent. Yet the opening scenes in fact capture daylight, a late afternoon in Los Angeles, where the fiery red and orange of the setting sun match the livery of Max’s cab.

For Michael Mann these few shots illuminate the darkness to come, just as the final frames will cast a shadow on what has passed, despite their new-dawn brightness.

Although all film is born from light in darkness, no-one loads those two states with more significance than Mann. As he shapes his worlds of driven individuals, right and wrong, the absence or presence of light and dark reflect and inspire their thoughts and deeds. And crucial moments of (in)decision find a place in the penumbra, ‘the part of a picture where the light and shade blend into each other’.

Night and day are the same for Mann’s characters; each holds the same fears or none, and the same chances, and neither is a barrier. As a filmmaker, Mann treats both with equal care and his ability to establish a legible geography within a scene is undiminished by nightfall.

In the predominantly day-set Heat, colours are deployed with a painter’s precision: a mountain of yellow sulphur, a wall of blood-red freight containers, an armoured car robbery that is a collision of hues – orange/green/black/white. Meanwhile night scenes in Manhunter are washed with arc lights and pierced with flash, and in Thief the violent streets are slick with rain and neon.

In many ways Miami Vice is the inverse of Heat, the negative to its positive. Its drama plays out mostly at night. Its main gunfight is every bit as brutal as that in Heat but in darkness, and is a climax rather than a catalyst. It even differs sonically. An open dockside mutes the earlier film’s shattering reports and the scene is scored, albeit quietly.

Mann seldom employs sets, preferring the veracity of location and architecture. Consequently his interiors are as exposed as his exteriors. Artificially lit day and night, subways, hospitals and garages present a merciless realm of sterile anonymity.

Of central importance is the striking frequency with which characters reach decision points in the penumbra, moments on the edge emphasised and heightened by the half-light. Mann’s love for the ambiguity of this condition, repeatedly positioning his characters within it at pivotal moments, is such that he also seeks to create it by unnatural means.

Thus Robber Neil McCauley compromises his chances of freedom by confessing to Edey against a pink sunrise in Heat, and later submits – fatally – to the temptation of revenge in the artificial penumbra of a road tunnel. Will Graham commits to tackling a serial murderer with a blue evening looming beyond his bedroom in Manhunter; in Miami Vice, it is Crockett’s view of Isabella, isolated in a pool of golden light by the open window of her departing car after a night-time meeting, that pulls him in to her world. For Frank, the eponymous Thief, his thermic lance gives access to a vault with its burning brightness, but in doing so creates darkness around it, in his future as well as in the room. For Reba, blind lover of the horrifying Dollarhyde in Manhunter, everything transpires in this special place. Here touch and hearing enlighten her darkness.

Indeed, Manhunter is Mann’s most penumbral film to date. Almost every scene plays with light and dark. The asylum holding psychopath Lecktor is pure white space, expanded and expanded, restraining a black mind within; his hidden writing is revealed by infra red light; Dollarhyde finds love at sunrise, and his victims by developing their home movies, a realisation choreographed by Mann in one deservedly well-regarded sequence in which planes of differing reality – film and video, past and future, light and dark – mesh.

Unsurprisingly Mann has enthusiastically embraced digital cinematography, using cameras whose low-light sensitivity gives further definition and further penetration and allows a further blurring of the terminator between day and night. Even after dark, clouds loom in sick brown skies like ink on blotting paper in Miami Vice, whilst the hungry eye of digital video consumes two miles of night-time perspective from a hilltop apartment block across a carpet of distant freeways in Collateral. For the same film, Mann could now conceive a pursuit of silhouetted figures through an office suite, lit only by the lights of tower blocks beyond.

At the climax of Collateral, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith walk into a rising sun, completing a frame of daylight around a picture of darkness. It is a fitting summary of the twilight world where Michael Mann prefers to dwell.

Mann - heat

Heat (Warner Bros/popcornreel.com)

Mann - MV

Miami Vice (Universal/reverseshot.com)

mann - thief 2

Thief (MGM/manhunter.net - cropped)

mann - ManhunterSky

Manhunter (DEG/the-medium-is-not-enough.com)

mann - collateral

Collateral (Paramount Pictures/thefinecut.blogspot.com)

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