The Three Roles Architecture Performs in Michael Mann Crime Films


"You can ball my wife if she wants you to, you can lounge 
around here on her sofa in her ex-husband’s dead-tech, 
post-modernistic, bullshit house if you want to, 
but you do not get to watch my fucking television set."

(Mann, M., ‘Heat’ 1995)

Michael Mann has cultivated a distinctive directorial style throughout his filmmaking career. This style relies on many techniques and one of the most important is his use of architecture. More so than merely stating the location of a scene, in a house, in an office, at the railway yards, in LA’s South Central or New York’s Upper West Side, etc, Mann carefully uses domestic, commercial and industrial architecture as well as infrastructure, streetscapes and cityscapes to reflect and enhance his character’s traits and unspoken tendencies.

Mann’s use of architecture, especially post-modern 20th Century form, sits on screen in a way to show the audience rather than tell. He forms a whole other language that expressively and seamlessly speaks to the audience without the simplified and often banal use of dialogue. Or as Omar Ahmed more eloquently writes, “…contemporary architecture – buildings, spaces, glass, metal – could be used to embody and reflect the psychological, sociological and sexual attitudes of certain characters and describe with great intelligence relationships between estranged people without having to resort to reams of pointlessly inert dialogue.” (Ahmed, 2009)

However, Mann occasionally articulates the environment for enhanced effect as per the introductory script extract above from Heat. Additionally, in Collateral (2004, Paramount Pictures) LA is described by Tom Cruise’s character (with coincidentally the same character name as Al Pacino’s character in Heat) when asked if this is his first time in LA, thus:


Nah. To tell you the truth whenever I’m here, I can’t wait to leave. It’s sprawled out, disconnected; but that’s me.


17 million people. 5th biggest economy in the world. Nobody knows each other.

(Mann, M., ‘Collateral’ 2006)

As Robert Arnett says, “Space, not time, drives Mann’s crime cinema and offers an alternative vision of the crime genre.” (Arnett, 2009, pp 44-53)

There are three roles in which Mann utilises architecture to enhance his characters. Firstly, to help tell their own distinct story of the place. In Miami Vice (2006, Universal Pictures) the high rise towers and unique architecture of the city are used to reinforce the pre-conceived notions of Miami being a flashy haven for drug lords and the criminal underworld in general; a sort of modern wild west with a beach. In Collateral (2004, Paramount Pictures) a pedestrian bridge with high wire fencing becomes both an illustration of how Vincent and Max are concurrently separated from the city yet bound to and imprisoned with each other by the cage created by the fence.

Secondly, Mann incorporates architecture to reflect and/or magnify invisible aspects of his characters. In Heat (1995, Warner Bros.) Vincent Hanna who is a meticulous detective and former Marine with a dysfunctional marriage lives with his soon-to-be-ex-wife in a constantly untidy and chaotic yet architecturally designed, post-modern home. The environment reflects the inner turmoil he is experiencing. His antagonist, master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), for all his professionalism lives in an ultra-modern seaside home devoid of anything but the barest essentials required to live. In Thief (1981, United Artists) both master thief Frank and mafia boss Leo live in upper-middle class style homes. Leo, the older of the two lives in a neo-classical two story suburban family home while Frank’s home is a modern early single story 1980’s home featuring large amounts of glass and light. The significant differences in the homes reflect the differences in the two men but the similarities reinforce the most significant difference between these two men which is their moral code.

Thirdly, the character changes the environment by Mann adding their presence. In Collateral (2004, Paramount Pictures) the city of LA is transformed into a killing field as Vincent the assassin arrives in town. While he is driven by his hostage/taxi driver through the near empty streets of LA, every encounter is heightened to a potential murderous outcome. Additionally, Mann reflects the panic and confusion of Max and the DA while they are being chased by Vincent into the train station. Highly polished stainless steel presents a clean environment for Vincent to do his work but the maze of escalators and stairs represents the confusion of the situation while they try and escape. In Manhunter (1986, DEG), FBI Profiler Will Graham is visually imprisoned by the bars and railings of the Atlanta High Art Museum even though he is not physically incarcerated. This scene adds tremendous depth to the psychological thriller aspect of the film and enhances the powerful mind games being played by Brian Cox’s character, Dr Hannibal Lecktor.

In conclusion, Michael Mann’s use of architecture in three very distinctive ways aids in the storytelling of his films. Without having to resort to dense explanatory dialogue or exposition he expertly crafts environs to enhance, magnify, reflect and evoke unspoken and mostly invisible aspects of both character and place.


Ahmed, O., 2009, “The Films of Michael Mann”, Ellipsis–The Accents of Cinema

Arnett, R., 2009, “The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 44-53

Collateral, 2004, motion picture, Paramount Pictures, Hollywood, California

Heat, 1995, motion picture, Warner Bros., Hollywood, California

Manhunter, 1986, motion picture, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, Hollywood, California

Miami Vice, 2006, motion picture, Universal Pictures, Hollywood, California

Thief, 1981, motion picture, United Artists, Hollywood, California