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Non-Review Review: Heat

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “nineties noir” – I’ll be looking at two of the finest noir-inspired films of the nineties.

I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you best, try to stop guys like me.

– Neil McCauley to Vincent Hanna

I’ll be honest and concede that, right off the bat, I have a lot more love for Heat than most. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t labour under the assumption that it’s a poorly-received film (it’s rare to find someone who will concede that they dislike it), but I still have a stronger affection for Heat than the vast majority of viewers. I was only ten years old when Heat was released, and I think that was a big a moment for me. My ten-year-old self was familiar with big, sprawling epic sagas, but I think I used to believe that these sorts of epics were reserved for stories set in times long past. I think, in my innocence (or foolishness, depending on how kind you wish to be to my younger self), I felt that epic stories didn’t really happen anymore.

And then I saw Heat, which somehow managed to take an epic, sprawling narrative style which – at the time – I could only remember from films like Dances With Wolves or Cleopatra or Gone With The Wind, and applied it to cops and robbers. If I were to construct a list of films which helped me fall in love with cinema, Heat would be on there. Pretty high, too.

It's a whole different ballgame...

What’s remarkable about Heat, notwithstanding the length of the film, is the “feel” of the film. Michael Mann crafts his multi-layered tapestry with material of a fascinating texture. Based upon an idea that the director had been gestating for over a decade (and had sorta brought to the small screen in L.A. Takedown), Heat is remarkable in that it doesn’t use a single set. Not one location in the film (from apartments to cars to hotel rooms) is on a soundstage. Even before I knew that as a fact, I think I picked up on it from the film itself. The picture has a smooth polish to it, but it also feels incredibly organic and faithful to reality. Everything on film, from the restaurant in that famous sequence to the bank in that stunning climactic robbery, really exists.

The city feels like a character in the drama. It’s more than just a place that exists to serve the plot. It isn’t that there’s an airport because Mann needs it for the end of the film – or that there’s a coffee shop because Mann needs his characters to meet there. It feels like the movie draws from the city itself, or – at least – Mann’s experience of the cityscape. Helped by the superb soundtrack (and, as much as I love Elliot Goldenthal’s score, Moby’s contributions are just stunning), Los Angeles seems like a jungle – it’s a place of infinite possibilities and promises, but also danger and despair.

A big-shot robber...

Mann’s film is essentially the story of a robbery crew and the police taskforce who are brought in to take them down. Although very few of the detectives (save Vincent Hanna, the lead detective) get any development, the movie does have an astonishingly large and complex set of central characters. Even minor crooks who drift in and out of the film through coincidence (such as the paroled getaway driver, Donald Breedon) have reasonable character arcs and development. Mann manages to skilfully introduce and set-up most of the players, so that the vast majority of them feel like genuine characters rather than nameless plot functions.

The argument is that these developments overcrowd the film. At two-and-a-half hours, there is a lot of film here. I’ve noticed (admittedly a lot more frequently in recent years) the criticism that Mann is really self-indulgent and that the film is awkwardly paced. I don’t think there’s ever a problem with pacing (there is always something happening), but I’ll accept that maybe the film is slightly over-populated. I am not sure, for example, we needed to spend so much time with the psychotic Waingro (especially when his scenes exist to remind us how sick and twisted he is – or possibly just to remind us he’s still in the film).

Pacino is firing on all cylinders...

That said, I love the development of the supporting cast. What makes Heat unique amongst most cop-and-robber thrillers is that the cast consists of more than the two leads and a bunch of anonymous extras. Although Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley take up a large portion of the screentime, we get glimpses into the lives of those around them. We see the kind of people that they deal with day-in and day-out, and we see what motivates those characters. McCauley may be a smooth and precise operator, but his subordinates might not be quite as self-disciplined. It gives the film more weight when things start blowing up in people’s faces – we have a greater sense of the impact outside our two leads.

I get the sense that, if he were making it today, Mann might be better served to approach HBO and commission a ten-part television series to fit in and develop all his subplots. There’s a lot here, and – even at 150 minutes – one gets the sense that Mann had more that he left out. There’s a famous story about Mann offering to restore seventeen minutes of footage to the finished film so it could air in a comfortable slot on network television, indicating that he had a lot of material to spare (and a lot of material he was relatively pleased with, too). Still, the film accomplishes a lot of what it sets out to do, and there’s not a lot of slack – even with its long running time, there’s never really a dull moment.

The movie was touted on release as the first big screen collaboration between Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. The two had worked on The Godfather: Part II, but did not appear together. Since this film, they’ve reunited for the awful Righteous Kill. However, in the mid-nineties, both actors were at the top of their game. DeNiro was coming off a string of collaborations with Martin Scorsese (and hadn’t yet started his flirtation with comedy), while Pacino only liked a small helping of scenery as a side dish (rather than chowing down on it like it was a bag of low-fat crisps).

Both are great here. Admittedly one can see Pacino is on the cusp of adopting “enthusiastic shouting” as his approach towards the craft of acting, but he demonstrates restraint and understatement when needed. Still, when I think of Al “shouty” Pacino, the line “heard she got a GREAT ASS – and you got your head all the way up it! comes to mind (along with GODDDDDDD!!!! is an absentee LANDLORD!). However, Vincent Hanna is a character that you believe might actually talk that at times, and seems more like a real person than any character Pacino has played since then (save, perhaps, the lead in Insomnia).

"Big Al" in action...

DeNiro, on the other hand, is wonderfully subdued. His Neil McCauley is a cold professional. DeNiro only smiles a handful of times over the course of the entire film, and yet manages to make McCauley seem like a well-rounded character. Even though he maintains a cool outer shell, DeNiro makes sure that the audience always knows how the hardened crook really feels underneath that calm exterior.

McCauley is an interesting character. Reportedly based on a real life career criminal, he’s a man who robs banks for a living. He’s learnt to be cold and clinical and detached, refusing any sort of emotional attachment that could possibly undermine him. Asked where he lives, rather than referring to his empty and clutter-free L.A. Pad, McCauley taps his temple and replies, “I live up here.” He lives by a philosophy he’s inherited from another criminal, “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.”

Even the tables have guns in this film...

And yet he longs for company. Rather than doing the sensible thing of studying his research materials (about metals and alloys and such) in the privacy of his own empty home, he opts to review them in a crowded café. He seems to long for the company of others, even if he won’t concede it. “I am alone,” he clarifies at one point, perhaps trying to convince himself, “I am not lonely.” I am not convinced.

He harbours a dream of leaving this life, with its constant risks and ever-present danger. Of that too, I remain unconvinced. He describes his plans to fly to Fiji, insisting “I’m going some day.” Why can’t he go now? He has enough money for a lavish house in Los Angeles, and the figures for the various jobs he pulls are impressive enough that one could considerably live comfortably on their share for the rest of their natural life. I get the sense that – as much as McCauley may pretend that his life is a means to an end – he enjoys it. After all, he dismisses the idea for a “regular-type life” featuring “barbeques and ball games.” They aren’t for him. His actions at the climax of the film, which lead to the finale, perhaps demonstrate just how strong his taste for the lifestyle is.

They're dining to meet each other... (okay, that one was bad)...

His counterpart, Vincent Hanna, is a similar creature. He’s a cop who has learnt to live with the terrible things that he sees every day. he doesn’t share them, even with his wife. He warned her that she would have to share him with the world, but – as she says – “this is not sharing, this is leftovers.” His real heart and energy are on the street – he handles himself with the courage and grace under fire which he seems to lack in dealing with those close to him. Various small hints through the film such Hanna is a combat veteran, and he too seems to be addicted to the thrill. The rest is, as his wife argues, just “the mess you leave as you pass through.”

It’s fascinating that McCauley and Hanna feel more at home with each other than they do with their partners. Neither of the women involved with either of the two men know the extent of what they do for a living, but the two guys on opposite sides of the law are able to chat away like life-long friends. They even discuss their dreams, which are the kind of things that I doubt either of the pair would consider chatting about with their lover. The diner scene is famous for a reason, and both actors bring their a-game to a fantastically written scene.

The end is De Niro...

Mann stages wonderful action sequences throughout the film, all the more remarkable because he’s using actual locations. In particular, the opening heist and the movie’s key bank job are powerful set pieces which work really well. It’s interesting to see that they remain influential – there’s more than a hint of these action sequences (and, I suppose, the entire film) in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Even more recently, the extended cut of The Town (to a much greater extent than the theatrical cut) seems to be heavily influenced by Mann’s Heat (to the point that Affleck includes a shot of his character actually watching the film).

Heat is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy built on a foundation of seemingly minor choices, all of which contribute through the various plot strands to bring us to the finale. Virtually every single decision the characters make – from bringing the psychotic Waingro into the group, to Charlene’s extra-marital affairs – leads to the end of the film. It’s these small choices (in the context of the film) concerning minor characters that add up to the big confrontations. It’s those judgments we make in those split-seconds (those thirty seconds of which McCauley speaks) which truly define us. Repeatedly, throughout the film, characters are asked variations upon the same question: “one answer: what’s it going to be?” And, each time, it has serious consequences.

Val Kilmer's shot at greatness...

Mann has put together an impressive ensemble for the film. I could just list off the cast members, but let’s just acknowledge that they all did absolutely stunning work. Even Hanna’s supporting cops, under-developed though they are, are played by Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson. I especially like Xander Berkley’s cameo as Ralph, who I kinda feel a little sorry for (even for his one scene).

Heat is a great film. I think it’s a modern classic. It’s a film I genuinely love, and one that I enjoy each and every time I sit down to watch it. It’s an epic which has earned the description, and it’s a powerful tragedy. They rarely get better than this.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

4 Responses

  1. Don’t you dare make any apologies for loving this film. This sucker is one of my top ten films of all time!

    • I think it might be in my top five, and is certainly one of the best (if not the best) film of the nineties from my perspective.

  2. Agreed. “Heat” is spectacular despite what any cynics might say. Michael Mann is never sharper.

    • Yep, I think part of what was disappointing about Public Enemies was that it wasn’t “Heat in the 1930s”. I know it’s ridiculously unfair to expect a director to tread old ground, but it was kinda hyped like that and… well, I loved Heat.

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