Public Enemies director Michael Mann shares his favorite Chicago memories

The Public Enemies director’s works lift imagery and story lines from his Chicago childhood.
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ILLUSTRATION: JOHN UELAND
By Martina Sheehan |
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From the meticulous reimagining of 1930s Lincoln Avenue in Public Enemies to Wabash Avenue’s instantly recognizable labyrinth of Rat Alley fire escapes in the opening scene of Thief, Mann’s films could only have been made by a Chicagoan. The writer/director/producer, 68, who’s also known for the Miami Vice TV series (and movie), says his childhood in Humboldt Park, and later Ravenswood, shaped everything from his choice of films to their gritty urban feel. Mann recently directed the pilot and serves as executive producer for the HBO original series Luck, premiering in late 2011 or early 2012.

On how his Chicago childhood influenced his aesthetic
“It gave me an appreciation for the architecture of steel bridges, of industrial wastelands, the beauty of formalistic architecture, the alleyscapes of downtown. The fire escape is the first frame of Thief, my first movie. It’s not by accident that that’s how I wanted to open that movie. Tilting down through all the fire escapes, descending into the depths of the city in a place we called Rat Alley [just east of Wabash and south of Adams]—because it had gigantic rats in it—was for me, how to discover [safecracker] Frank in his world.”

On the inspiration for telling John Dillinger’s story
“I was probably drawn to [Public Enemies] because I don’t know how many times we passed the Biograph and my folks said, ‘That’s where they killed John Dillinger.’ Then in 1970, I was living in that neighborhood with a girl I met who became—and still is—my wife. The Biograph, at that time, was our theater. We’d go there to see films all the time and then ate at the coffee shop on the corner of Lincoln and Armitage. You can drive through the streets and…they would look exactly the same. So it was very easy to evoke in your imagination what it is to have been John Dillinger in those moments, those years back and feel the world of 1933 all around you. My mother lived around there, and she worked in the World’s Fair of 1933. I grew up in that area, too. So I was drawn to it.”

On the city’s lasting visceral impressions
“[The setting of Public Enemies] was something that I could vividly recall—what the world might have looked like. My grandparents lived on Oakley and Potomac—down near Wicker Park. As a four- or five-year-old, I remember the patterns that passing headlights would make on the very high ceilings—because all those places had very high ceilings. It felt like that world was alive to me. I suppose if I had grown up in Southern California, the verisimilitude of 1930s Chicago would have to have been acquired. For me, it was somewhat native.”

On his first memorable movie
“The first movie that ever made an impression on me was The Last of the Mohicans. I saw it in the basement of a church on Pierce Avenue…one block west of Kedzie. This probably was 1946 or ’47, and it was a bad 16mm print with a noisy projector. So maybe I was four years old or five years old. And then a thought occurred to me in 1989: This movie’s been rattling around in my brain my whole life—why don’t I go do Last of the Mohicans? I remember vividly a certain sense of tragedy and I didn’t recall what it was until I went back to the movie—it was the death of Alice and Uncas. She committed suicide. I also remember the look of the Northeastern Woodlands Indians. The formality of English uniforms in juxtaposition with that—I realized it had all been floating around in my imagination for years.”

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