The Best Mann

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Anthony Mann would have turned 100 last month, if he hadn't died 39 years ago last April. A centenary is reason enough to celebrate the work of an artist-artisan who lays fair claim to being Hollywood's finest unsung director.

Or, anyway, undersung. Turner Classic Movies did run a four-day tribute to Mann last month, and that was nice, even if TCM didn't include his late masterpiece, the epic El Cid. I also hear that Jeanine Basinger's excellent 1978 study of the director may be issued by Wesleyan University Press, though at the moment the book can be found only in a bilingual edition published two years ago by the San Sebastian Film Festival, and then only if you ask the author to send you a copy. (Thank you, Jeanine!)

Ask students of old high Hollywood to name a mid-century director named Mann and they might say Delbert, whose credits include the Academy Award-winning Marty, or Daniel, who won the International Prize at Cannes for Come Back, Little Sheba. Well, Anthony Mann had it all over "dreary Daniel and Delbert," as film critic Andrew Sarris pegged them, yet during his life he got nothing like their peer recognition, receiving not so much as an Oscar nomination for his directorial work. A more appropriate Mann would be Michael, whose big-screen version of his Miami Vice TV series opens this weekend. The haunted tough guys of Thief and Heat occupy a Southern California nightscape within hailing distance of the one that Anthony Mann's antiheroes crawled through in the '40s. Yet film noir was just one of the genres our guy vivified and perfected.

Anthony Mann's feature-film career falls into three main phases: noirish melodramas in the '40s, westerns in the '50s, epics in the '60s. Nothing unusual here, since these were the dominant genres of their decades, and nearly every director of middling or higher status was obliged to try his hand at them. But Mann did more than crank out the sausage on order. He turned it into sirloin.

T-Men, Reign of Terror and He Walked by Night may not be the most satisfying of film noir tales, but they are surely the noiriest in their artful oppressiveness, their connoisseurship of violence, their sense of the world as a rat trap with rancid cheese as the bait. The westerns Mann made with James Stewart — Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country — constitute the strongest body of work, for that time, in that uniquely American form. El Cid is, to my mind, among the very finest of epic films, second only, perhaps, to Lawrence of Arabia.

For most of his time in Hollywood, Mann was a director for hire — that is, he was contracted to make movies he usually didn't write or produce. That helps explain why he was ignored by critics who can parse a movie's plot and sniff out its moral lesson but can't appreciate or write about what's actually on the screen. Mann put it up there handsomely, tellingly, and the great strength of Basinger's book (really, someone has to get it published here) is its ability to translate his pictures into her words. Mann received little of that scrupulous and passionate attention in his lifetime. Toiling in noir and westerns, avoiding the big adaptations of famous novels and plays, Mann was thought of, if at all, as a "mere" director.

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