Sunday Reads: Michael Mann’s HEAT

We revisit the 1995 classic on the occasion of its Definitive Director's Edition Blu-ray release.

Welcome to a new column at BMD called Sunday Reads. This will be a place for focused essays, evergreen film analysis and just plain good writing about film. Some of the pieces on Sunday Reads have previously appeared on the site; others will be new. It will run, as you might have guessed, each Sunday. These articles will be curated by the writing staff and hopefully represent nothing less than everything we love about the movies. We hope you'll settle in to join us here every week. 

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“What you hangin' with me for, Lily?”

“Because I’m proud of you.”

It’s a seemingly minor exchange that speaks volumes about Michael Mann’s Heat. Donald (Dennis Haysbert) drinks himself into a stupor after a tough day at work. His piece of shit boss (Bud Cort) at the diner where he works as a line cook is unforgiving and unsympathetic toward the plight of the recently released ex-con. “I did time for what that motherfucker does every day,” Donald sneers, not wanting to kick back a percentage of his already measly paycheck to the balding supervisor. His wife, Lily (Kim Staunton), reaches across the table and gently touches his hand. “Come home,” she implores, letting her hardened husband know that, no matter how many times he fucks up, she’ll always be there for him. Because no prison stretch, no foul day, lack of income or truckload of self-pity could keep her away from the person whose soul is linked to hers by both vows and indefinable attachment. He is her man, and she is his woman, and this is their life. Only bullets could bring them down.

Ostensibly the culmination of Mann’s talents working with celluloid (his digital output is obviously a separate discussion) Heat is one of the most vital crime dramas ever crafted. A revision of the ’89 television pilot-turned-movie, LA Takedown, Mann’s inspiration for the volatile cop (Al Pacino) and smooth criminal (Robert De Niro) at the center of this elegant cat and mouse chase came from Charlie Adamson – leader of the Chicago major crimes unit* who shot down the real life Neil McCauley in ’63. According to Mann (via a recent interview with Rolling Stone), Charlie was dropping off his dry-cleaning when he saw McCauley, whose case he had already been working. McCauley was getting out of his car to grab some coffee, and Neil knew that Charlie was watching him. Instead of breaking out into violence, Charlie simply offered to buy the man a cup. McCauley agreed, and the two essentially shared the same conversation that became the iconic moment in Mann’s movie. According to the writer/director, the two shared “the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think.”

This level of intimacy stretches beyond characters who are strangers and actually becomes the driving, defining element of Mann’s magnum opus. Though he’s often been pegged by both critics and fans as meticulously committed to the details of both crime and its investigation (the director himself is pleased as punch that his heist shootouts are regularly shown in military training classes), Mann’s approach to his characters is nothing less than microcosmic pulp melodrama. Presented throughout the three-hour runtime is a series of standoffs – show downs with adversaries, significant others, personal codes and (in trademark Mann fashion) existence itself. It’s easy for the viewer to get caught up in the back and forth between Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro), as they’re the most thoroughly realized duo of damned nightcrawlers in the entirety of Mann’s filmography. Yet to only focus on Pacino and De Niro would be a “forest for the trees” approach to viewing Heat, as this is a movie where everyone in its universe is struggling with their own personal stalemate, praying to whatever God they hold dear that this urban cage of steel and glass won’t cave in on them.

The eponymous line from Mann’s screenplay goes: “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." This is the mantra that Neil lives his life by, coming home after stealing cash and shedding blood to put his gun on the table of his spartanly furnished home and look out over the Pacific Ocean, allowing Mann to create one of his trademark pensive tableaus. His crew does not adhere to the same philosophy, as almost all have wives, girlfriends and children; some relationships more functional than others. When his wife isn’t present, Michael Cherrito (Tom Sizemore) admits that the “action” is the only thing that gets him off, revealing a thrill-seeker attempting to wear the skin of a family man. Cherrito would follow Neil into oblivion and does, grabbing a child to use as a shield before being shot down in the street like a dog. The image of the screaming adolescent adds a deep sadness to his final moments, as we remember that Cherrito is leaving more than his own form behind once he flatlines.

Even less successful at trying to pass himself off as a “barbecues and ball games” nine-to-fiver is Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), whose prison perfected thousand-yard stare and relentless gambling habit keep him constantly at odds with Charlene (Ashley Judd), the unfaithful mother of his child. But even as he hollers at her to leave when she confesses to being fed up with their lifestyle, Chris can’t help but admit that “the sun rises and sets with her”; his attachment to their breaking marriage so strong that walking away isn’t possible until the cops are holed up in their living room, threatening to take their child away if Charlene doesn’t cooperate. It’s a quixotic notion that has dominated a large chunk of Mann’s filmography – men and women who live in worlds of violence, yet yearn for normality as defined by the society they continue to operate outside of.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of an outsider wrestling with their own demons is Waingro (Kevin Gage), the cowboy stick-up lifer who joins up with McCauley’s tight knit crew for a one-and-done armored truck raid. A slimy, festering ball of impotent rage, Waingro (quite literally) pops off in the middle of the job, shooting one of the guards point blank despite the fact that he’s dazed, bleeding from the ears and presenting no imminent threat to the task’s completion. Waingro swears up and down the rent-a-cop was going to “make his move,” but it’s bullshit. All he wanted was to put one in the guard’s chest because it made him feel good. Turns out, murder is the only thing that Waingro truly revels in, as he’s been preying on LA’s prostitutes, beating them to death after having his way with their underage bodies. He’s a cold sociopath who knows he’ll never earn the respect of these (or any) hard case pros (notice how he glares at Cherrito when he’s told to quiet down for a minute), so he lashes out against those weaker than he, causing ripples in this concrete sea that effect everyone involved. His presence is felt inadvertently until he turns stoolie on Neil and his crew, his ultimate feebleness as a man revealed. Waingro recognizes his own grotesque ineffectiveness, never able to pin it down before he’s finally undone in a hotel stash room.

The antithesis of Waingro’s riotous wrath, it’s a crack in Neil’s code that leads to the master thief’s demise. “I am alone, I am not lonely,” he tells Eady (Amy Brenneman) after the two casually meet at a restaurant counter. Neil’s general aesthetic even reinforces this assertion; a grey suit with a white dress shirt and cropped dark hair. He’s an anonymous ghost, moving amongst the living and slipping in and out of costumes that serve his scores. The grey suit makes him indistinguishable from the next average height, average build white man next to him, so that if a witness were to spot him committing a crime, there would be nothing distinguishable about him to report. An aspiring graphic designer who works in a book store part-time, Eady recognizes a fellow wandering soul in Neil, simply drifting through existence until he’s earned enough money to live the life he truly craves. Neil never wanted to catch anybody’s eye, but it’s as if Eady could sense his isolation. “I get lonely,” she tells him after he shares a dream of witnessing iridescent algae in Fiji, and we see his veil of obscurity disappear. Because the code is merely a means to keep Neil moving and prosperous, but the touch of another human being is what finally allows him to feel alive.

On the flip side of this coin, Vincent lives in the embrace of his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora), who still desires the affection of this distant man. His stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) struggles with trying to earn the love of her biological father as Vincent absently observes. Minimal effort is the MO when it comes to the detective’s personal life, as where his criminal counterparts lovingly regale their partners with choppy cop stories, Vincent leaves Justine at a party to take a scene call. Hanna is only tolerant of the domestic portions of his existence, dreaming at night of sharing a table with all the murder victims he’s worked, unable to meet their blank stares with any sort of rational explanation for their deaths. His angst is what keeps him moving forward, constantly tracking those responsible for these crimes as he navigates the shadows. But it’s also what keeps him from ever sharing himself with another person; an emotional arm always holding Justine and Lauren at bay. “You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down,” Justine flatly acknowledges. “That's the only thing you're committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through.”

Heat delivers everything a crime drama addict could want or need from a motion picture; complete with the signature of a master stylist whose formal control is at its peak (regular Mann celluloid cinematographer Dante Spinotti perfectly captures the director’s favorite ice blues and severe LA sunlight). However, Mann’s original design of modeling the movie’s fictional subjects after real life counterparts was only a jumping off point for an adult exploration of human beings’ innate complexities and conflicts. The final shot of the movie finds Vincent extending his hand to a dying Neil, not only showing his shot down nemesis that he was indeed the greatest quarry of his storied career, but that he’s also here to help ease him into the next world; a pistol toting angel of mercy. Because Vincent recognizes that Neil operates as a dark mirror, held up to show how Hanna could’ve existed in another place, another time. “All I am is what I’m going after,” he tells Justine after being confronted with his absentee nature, but his wife cannot fathom why any man would forsake his soul in the service of protecting and serving strangers he’ll never meet or earn gratitude from. But it’s the intimacy of the hunt, moving from darkness to light, that allows him to unite with the pieces of himself he’ll always be at war with. As usual, Mann utilizes archetypes he helped mold to dig into interrogations that can never be fully answered.

*A unit which also included Sergeant Dennis Farina, who Mann would cast in his ’81 masterpiece, Thief, launching the former Chitown cop’s lengthy career as a character actor.

This piece originally appeared on this site in 2016.

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