Time Is Luck: The Tragic Romanticism of Michael Mann
Updated: Jan 12
Early on in Michael Mann’s 1981 crime melodrama, Thief, Frank (James Cann) and Jessie (Tuesday Weld) sit in an overpass diner. It’s not the classiest spot for a date, what with the thick fog of cigarette smoke and creamer that has, as Frank puts it, already turned into “cottage cheese.”
Nor is their discussion normal early courtship chit chat. Frank regales Jessie with tales of his time inside the joint (I usually stick to talking about my favorite episodes of The Wire, but then again I do still live alone). Frank tells Jessie all about the abuse he suffered at the hands of convicts and immoral prison guards. Likewise, Jessie has her own story to tell. She informs Frank of her last drug dealer boyfriend and, while there was a “lot of love at the beginning,” she still ended up on a corner in Bogota, Colombia, doing what she had to do to survive.
These are two people who have, for one reason or another, had time stolen from them. For Jessie, the solution to keeping her own freedom is to live the most boring life possible. She speaks with great pride about her social security card and predictable daily routine. But Frank can’t relax the way Jessie can, telling her, “look, I have run out of time. I have lost it all. I can't work fast enough to catch up. I can’t run fast enough to catch up. The only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act.”
The “magic act” Frank pridefully speaks of is when he breaks into banks and high-end jewelers. With his safe penetrating drill and eons of experience, the titular hard case robs them for all they are worth. When he is on the job, Frank is precise, direct. One false move or one false word could mean death or a return to prison. There’s not a second to waste.
This stopwatch, ticking clock tension is nothing new in the thriller genre. Hell, in most any heist film, the criminals are fighting the clock. That's literally what makes them thrilling. Yet what renders Frank and the rest of Mann’s male characters unique is the way this mentality extends to their personal life. They have to find happiness and acceptance now.
Because “time is luck.”
This line shows up in a number of Mann’s movies. The first time we hear it is in his hyper-stylish Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter (1986). Will Graham (William Peterson) meets with his wife, Molly (Kim Griest), in a DC hotel. Will is on the hunt for the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan), a killer who strikes at families not too different from the one they've built together. With the backdrop of the National Mall behind them, Molly recalls the first time she and Will met. She thinks back to the ease of their conversation, and the moment when a shadow flickered across her face. Will remembers seeing this and saying, “this is too good to live.”
Molly looks Will dead in the eye and says, “time is luck, Will. I know the value of every single day.” For Molly, every second the haunted profiler spends away from his family is a second wasted; life down the drain, never to be reclaimed.
In Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice reboot, the three key words come from Isabella (Gong Li), a businesswoman in the employ of one of the world’s most powerful drug czars. She walks down the canal with her new love, Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell). After a night of dancing, they are considering exactly where this relationship can lead. Hers is a line of work that can (and will) go south at any moment. In her mind, Sonny is a drug runner. To us, he's an undercover cop, already in way too deep with his latest mark.
Nevertheless, their love is real, even if it is not meant to last. Again, too good to live. Upon sensing Sonny’s worry about their future, Isabella’s response is, “live now. Life is short. Time is luck.”
While we don’t hear this line in every Mann film, the sentiment is still very much omnipresent. We can sense it in the struggles of Heat’s Neil McCauley (1995, Robert De Niro), perhaps the most iconic of all Mann's underworld loners.
Like Frank, Neil is a high-end thief who is completely out of time. The grey suited trigger man explains this to Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), Neil's only equal on the other side of the law. Mann loves his cafes and diners almost as much as Jim Jarmusch, and again, he sets their moment of mutual understanding there. Vincent has invited Neil to join him for coffee in the hope that he might comprehend his prey. In one of Mann’s very best scenes, the two professionals see that they are, indeed, not so different.
As an audience, we learn what is truly driving Neil. It’s not the money or the pride or the bragging rights of taking down big scores. For Neil, and many of Mann’s male characters, the big score, their true currency, is time.
Neil tells Vincent about a recurring dream he has. In his dream, he is drowning, and he has to wake himself up before he dies in his sleep. He knows this dream is about having enough time to do what he wants to do. And while he’s an amazing thief, this isn’t what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Not anymore. Now, he wants to spend every last moment with his new love, Eady (Amy Brenneman).
Neil’s relationship with Eady is one we see in many of Mann’s films. It is love on the run with elemental romanticism taking the place of amorous procedural. There is no time for flowers or the basic getting to know you bullshit. Neil, Frank, Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans ), and Glaeken (Scott Glenn in The Keep ) - they all fall head over heels in about thirty seconds flat.
After only a few dates, Neil asks Eady to join him on his escape to New Zealand. She is surprised by the invitation and says, “you don’t know me.” Neil responds, “I know enough. Will you go?” In Last of the Mohicans, after a few days of travel together, Hawkeye and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) are madly in love. In The Keep, Mann sets a new record. Glaeken meets, falls in love with, and has sex with Eva (Alberta Watson) in roughly two scenes. Possibly a product of Paramount’s insane butchering of the film in the editing bay, but Glaeken's seduction happens in about three minutes of screen time.
From any sort of realistic perspective, Mann’s on-screen relationships seem a little rushed. Still, they’re 100% Mann, who has about as little time for classical courtship as his characters. The persistent sadness of his characters is how, even after fighting and striving to find love and contentment, they can so easily abandon it. The central conflict of most Mann films is between profession and home; vocation and love. There is a coldness to these men in that they will trade in their newfound romance for freedom, no questions asked.
For Frank, a man obsessed with his own autonomy, Leo (Robert Prosky) is the Devil incarnate. After agreeing to partner with the sweater clad villain on a few jobs, Frank soon finds that Leo completely owns "the deed to [his] whole fucking life.” But Leo misunderstands Frank. He believes that he can press and threaten the safe cracker the same way he has countless other criminals. Unfortunately for Leo, he's dead wrong.
He doesn’t understand that Frank will burn it all down just to stay free. Rather than waiting for Leo to destroy his life, Frank does it for him. He blows up his own bar, car lot, and home. He sends Jessie packing, coldly telling her that it never meant everything. Adios, muchachos. It's not just the end of the line. It's the end of the fucking world for this controlling pig.
In Heat, Neil has a philosophy similar to Frank's. In fact, it's where the title of the movie comes from: "don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” And Neil maintains his discipline, abandoning Eady in a hotel alley once he sees Vincent giving chase. He looks her in the eye, saying goodbye to what might have been, and runs.
There is an inevitability to Mann’s men; a dark sense of fate that surrounds all of his primary players. No matter what plans they make, what dreams they have for the future, it will never come to fruition. For professionals like Frank and Neil, their code will never gel with a comfortable, fulfilling home life. It will all fall apart. It’s only a matter of time.
This is nowhere more evident than in the character of the Tooth Fairy or, as we learn to call him after Graham's dogged investigation, Francis Dollarhyde. Frank and Neil usually get the most attention as the purest examples of the Mann ethos. However, Dollarhyde and his inner journey place the serial killer in league with the auteur’s cops and robbers.
Like these other idiosyncratic career men, Dollarhyde wants nothing more than a home and a family. He wants to stare into another’s eyes and feel love, acceptance. The difference between Dollarhyde and Will is the lengths he will go to achieve this dream. He isn’t drawn away from a family because of his profession. His "profession" is finding a family, and the Tooth Fairy will do monstrous things to get it. In Manhunter, the clock is ticking, but not for Dollarhyde. Time is running out for the rest of us, for every innocent family with big windows that this ever evolving beast can spy through.
When Dollarhyde meets Reba (Joan Allen), there seems to be some hope. The two connect immediately, not unlike Will and Molly at that party many years ago. And Reba is blind - she does not see the hulking Dragon, only a “sweet, thoughtful man.” Dollarhyde is smitten, like a teenager falling in love for the first time. But, time is of the essence. Dollarhyde kills on a moon cycle, and it is currently waxing gibbous.
Characters like Dollarhyde, Frank, and Neil may be able to play house, but only for a short time. Because that’s what it is: play. They are all men who will do the unspeakable to achieve that dream. But these, like all dreams, must come to an end.
At the end of Miami Vice, Sonny and Isabella say goodbye as they wait for a boat to take her away. As Sonny mourns the ending of their time together, Isabella reminds him that time is luck.
Sonny responds, “our luck ran out.”
For all of Mann's characters, this truth is inevitable. Time will always run out.
Marten Carlson is a longtime film writer and a co-founder of Secret Handshake.