On the grandest throne at the center of Michael Mann’s universe, relatively undisturbed, sits 1995’s Heat. While one can argue all day about every one of his films’ merits and haggle about what represents his greatest work, it is without question that Heat gave Mann the ability to see a long-simmering dream project finally realized as a whole. For behind every work by Michael Mann is the foundational idea that there’s not a lot that separates cops and criminals and that they quite literally share a yin and yang existence. And at the core of that idea lies Heat, Mann’s biggest projection of the existential crisis of identity that faces every high-line criminal and determined police investigator that walks the earth.
An epic tale of worn down supercop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) doggedly chasing high-line professional criminal Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) through a stylistically arid and desolate Los Angeles, Heat was initially written by Mann in 1979 and had long been cannibalized for various projects since its initial completion. The scene with the cheating spouse and the television feels like a well worn joke to fans of Crime Story where it first appeared in 1986;transponders are put in wheel-wells but end up in the luggage compartment in an interstate bus line to elude police tails as in Thief; a chair is tossed through a plate glass window to capture someone off guard as happens in an early episode of Miami Vice; the Major Crime Unit and Chicago, Mann’s hometown and secondary location to much of his work, get name-dropped quite a bit; and, once again and not for the last time, a character is there to explain to someone else that, among other pieces of sage and poetic advice, time is luck.
But even though elements of the screenplay popped up in works past, even down to a 1989 made-for-television dry run entitled L.A. Takedown that was envisioned and produced to serve as a pilot for a television series centering around LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division (which would finally get green lit close to fifteen years after its airing), Heat is the film Mann always wanted to make and, boy, does it show. Beyond Mann dressing all of this material up in its shiniest and best suit, there is the literal connection to it and Mann’s earliest forays into film with Jon Voight’s Nate being based off of criminal-cum-author Edward Bunker, an impossibly important character in both inspiration and spirit in Mann’s world. Folsom, which was the location of the opening shot of the (uncredited) Mann-penned /Ulu Grosbard-directed Straight Time and the setting for almost all of The Jericho Mile, looms large in the past of McCauley and some of his crew.
As a drama about a professional thief trying to pull his life together as he gets out of the business while a wholly committed cop is coming up fast behind him, Heat is a beautiful meditation on obsessiveness. Captured in clean compositions by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Heat is set in an L.A. that glitters by night but lacks the same kind of sun-kissed warmth traditionally found in that cinematic location. Here, people float through the landscape of abandoned drive ins and crisscrossed freeways like spirits affixed on greased tracks. Literally nothing else matters in the lives of McCauley and Hanna except their need to exist for each other. Intimacy is fleeting and warmth is almost nonexistent.
Yet, ironically, Heat is a film as much about relationships as it is about crime. Unions are built on broken foundations, lies, and emotional neediness. With the exception of McCauley’s partner, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), and his long suffering-wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd), the main relationships in Heat are mostly detached and loveless. The characters who are involved in loving relationships are only exposed in peripheral manner but not explored. For the mantra in Heat is that one can just drop everything and take off at a moment’s notice if trouble is near, so this HAS to be a tale about two men for whom domesticity and absolute freedom are separated by the thinnest of membranes. A pain capacitor who gets his emotional fix by comforting grieving mothers, Hanna would rather spend his time at a crime scene than hang out with his wife, Justine (a terrific Diane Venora). In the end, she and Hanna are just big budgeted Sonny Crockett and his ex-wife with Justine coming to the conclusion that Hanna’s work is, in her own words, “the only thing you’re committed to.”
On the flip side, Neil McCauley needs displaced graphic designer Edie (Amy Brenneman) like Frank needs Jessie in Thief;Edie not much more than a piece of McCauley’s own mental postcard mosaic. Lines like “I am alone, I am not lonely” reveal a distinction without much of a difference and his proclamation that he knows enough about woman to run off with her even though they’re barely acquainted registers as less romantic and more melancholy and desperate. For Neil wants the only life he knows, which is the semblance of stability in the absence of deep-rooted relationships. Less direct than Frank, McCauley eats around the center, trying to construct a life he sees others enjoying while also knowing that deep down what he’s trying to pull off is likely futile. But what’s lost in the gritty sincerity between Frank and Jessie in Thief is made up for by the epic, operatic sweep in all of the relationships in Heat,which stands as the halfway mark between the ten minute diner conversation between two people and the purely cinematic, archetypical cyphers of 2006’s Miami Vice.
In Heat, Robert DeNiro looks lined and tired but still has a youthful spark in his eye and does give off the impression of a younger man who has served some hard time. Conversely, Al Pacino looks like a building falling into disrepair. But despite their differing exteriors, their characters are on the same wavelength and completely vibe together. Hanna picks up his revolver in the morning, McCauley puts his down at night. Hanna’s final cornering of McCauley comes from his recognition of the woman McCauley is going to be leaving behind because Hanna himself has just seen her face in Justine. Hanna’s first reaction to the news that his wife is going out on the town without him is to run and find McCauley and take him to coffee. Hanna watches McCauley break into a platinum warehouse on a surveillance monitor and admires the craftsmanship (“Technique” he whispers as if he’s watching a Clippers game in stunned awe). And Hanna bounds down the hospital stairs like a child on Christmas morning on his way to his final showdown with McCauley only after being given permission by Justine who he is now abandoning immediately after he’s just told her “I ain’t going anywhere.”
But ultimately, the dramatic thrust of the film is found on Hanna’s face in the closing moments, being one of sadness and not accomplishment; a thousand yard stare into the night as he realizes he has just killed a little more than half of himself all in the span of an evening. It’s almost as if he is coming to the realization that, according to his own mantra of “All I am is what I’m going after,” he is now cursed to walk the earth alone like so many Mann heroes before and after him.
For in the world of Michael Mann, the heat goes both ways.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain