WHO is he?

American film director who directed close to 40 feature films between the late thirties and the late sixties. Mann started out as a stage actor before he started directing low-budget musicals and film-noirs. His best output, and the one with which he would forever be associated, was the series of Westerns he directed for Universal Pictures during the fifties.

WHAT are his films about?

Themes

The heroes in Mann’s films are located somewhere between the psychologically invincible alpha males of earlier, more traditional Hollywood genre pictures and the brooding, wounded and frequently anti-heroic protagonists of post-studio cinema. They are full of neuroses and self-doubts. Violence simmers just beneath their skin and it often infects the relation they have with other characters. They seem to be troubled by the double bind of having to preserve their honour by the way of the gun and to submit themselves to the peace and quiet demanded by domestic life.

Style

Mann is most known today for his outdoor scenes — scenes in which man is situated in an infinitely more powerful landscape, which both subsumes and combats him — that are photographed with great lyricism and appreciation of the elements of nature. Besides his reputation as a visual dramatist of the conflict between man and nature, Mann is noted for his skill in shooting action sequences, which are perhaps the most important and crucial in all his films. Two shots, use of deep space and an affinity for the horizon are the other aspects that characterise these films.

WHY is he of interest?

Mann was not given serious critical attention in his own country during his time, partly due to the kind of inglorious genre films he was taking up. French critics, however, were all praise for him, with the great André Bazin calling him “the one post-war American director who seems to have specialized in a field into which others have made only sporadic incursions.”

WHERE to discover him?

Possibly his most widely acclaimed film, The Naked Spur (1953) deals with a bounty hunter (played by Mann’s regular collaborator James Stewart) who must take his captive to Kansas with the help of two untrustworthy characters. What starts out as a straightforward genre picture, becomes psychologically nuanced and disturbing, as trust and confidence become luxurious virtues under the sway of money and the human body, a commodity.

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