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“Heat” — Michael Mann’s drama explained

From the archives!

Here is my coverage of a press conference with Michael Mann for his film Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, first published in 1995.

You may have already seen a dozen police dramas when a relentless cop dedicates his every hour to catching a slippery outlaw, the crescendo of tension as the film’s climax approaches, but you haven’t seen one like Michael Mann’s Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert de Niro.

This punchy heist flick is an absolute prize fight, pitting two legendary stars against each other for the first time in their careers. Remember, The Godfather Pt II doesn’t count as they played father and son in different time frames during the film.

A slick armed robbery introduces us to McCauley (de Niro), master criminal and his ultra-professional crew. The smooth operation is only marred by a new recruit, Waingro, who unnecessarily kills a guard. After the job McCauley tries to snuff Waingro, but he escapes and later in the film contributes to a complicated scheme that threatens to ambush the crew. Vincent Hanna (Pacino), a homicide chief whose third marriage is crumbling because of his devotion to his work, examines the scene and comments on the professionalism and precision of the heist. A lucky break leads Hanna to organise surveillance of the crew as they prepare their next job. Hanna knows most of the crims but McCauley is new to him. In one creepy scene, during a small job involving only McCauley and his right-hand man Chris (Val Kilmer), McCauley senses they are being watched and the two men walk away.

Now that McCauley knows their time is up he asks the guys if they want to go through with a final bank robbery that promises a sizeable haul. Chris, who is drowning in bookmaker debts, has no choice but the others say they want to do it for the final thrill. Meanwhile almost everyone has heavy family troubles of some sort at home, especially Hanna, who is torn between his messed up family and the adrenaline charged chase he has embarked upon.

‘Heat’ is never simply a two-dimensional, macho-obsessed cops’n’robbers tussle. Mann gives the women in the story a fair share of the screen time, elevating the story to a meticulously controlled, thoroughly engrossing crime melodrama. The scripting and directing finesse of Michael Mann (‘Last of the Mohicans’, ‘Manhunter’) is evident in every aspect of the film, from the rounded characterization to the careful composition of colors, moods and well-chosen backdrops. It’s as if the filmmaker’s intention is to show off all corners of Los Angeles to its best advantage. Thus, there is plenty going on in the background of each frame; bejeweled nighttime City vistas, quiet evenings by the beach suffused with a deep blue hue, a twelve-lane freeway forming an incidental backdrop, or the industrial magnificence of Long Beach. The graceful orchestration of tempo builds to a tense shootout in Downtown LA which is as breathtaking as it is powerful. Then there is the final showdown.

Before the film gains momentum, Hanna informally collars McCauley, invites him for a coffee and tries to reason with him.

Says de Niro – “The story was such that we were always surveying each other but it eventually comes down to really a terrific scene, where we finally do get together – I mean, we both agree it was terrifically written scene.”

Was there any discussion about who was going to play which character?

Pacino – “Michael Mann said he knew who he wanted to play these parts so when we read it, well I read it with the idea of Hanna in mind. That was how he cast us.”

Mann – “It was clear. We went to Bob to play Neil.”

De Niro – “No, the day before shooting we said ‘Wait a minute – maybe we should flip a coin . . . ‘ (laughs) I read the script almost two years ago. Art Linson, the producer with Michael, gave it to me when we were on a vacation together. He said, ‘Read this script’, and I read it. I said ‘It’s good. I like it.’ Then I met Michael. Then Art met Al. He told me they’d talked about the script. Al and I were always talking about doing something together and we never found anything. But we thought this script was the perfect thing for us to do.”

Mann – “We don’t think of Heat as an action picture. We all perceive it as a solid drama. Period. So that’s how we approached it.”

When you both started out in the game did you find you were going for the same roles or looking over each other’s shoulders?

Pacino – “In a natural sense – even with Dustin Hoffman too – there was a similarity, in age, complexion and looks, with the sorts of roles we were being offered. The roles came to all three of us and it energized the whole idea. It gave it an energy. It still is there today, I get credit for their good performances – people still say ‘You were great in Raging Bull!‘ So our lives crossed a lot. And we’ve known each other for many, many years.”

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.

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