Two Dissolvers keep the Heat conversation going...
Nathan: In 1995, Heat wasn’t just a movie: It was an event, the long-awaited teaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two of the most important actors of their generation. They shared The Godfather Part II, but they famously had no scenes together. A year later, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta had a similarly explosive pairing in Face/Off. And all of these actors’ stock has plummeted so far in the intervening years that people wouldn’t be too excited to see any of them in films today, separately or together. This was reinforced by the reception of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s third teaming, Righteous Kill, which was largely received as, “Ugh, these two mercenary hams again? Do we really have to watch this?” But in 1995, the teaming of these simpatico giants meant something, especially when a particularly ambitious Michael Mann was in the director’s seat, and seemingly half of Los Angeles appeared in the movie, from Henry Rollins and Tone Loc to Bud Cort and Jeremy Piven. What was your experience with the film the first time around?
Matt: In retrospect, I barely had one. I spent the winter of 1995-96 in a town with a one-screen theater and no car. My first viewing of the film was on VHS, probably pan-and-scan; it looks like the widescreen special-edition was released about six months later. So let’s pause for a moment to be thankful for our current era of home video, because the entire time I was watching Heat on Blu-ray, I was struck both by how beautiful Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is, and how much its cool geometries must have suffered from cropping. (And 1990s television speakers can’t have done the booming sound design any favors, either.) What I do remember clearly is hearing secondhand that the De Niro/Pacino pairing was oversold, which gets us into the historical context. The 1990s were a golden era for scenery-chewing, capital-A Acting. Just look at a few of the Best Actor awards: Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs, and, hey, Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman. Love or hate any of those performances, no one would praise them for their subtlety. And I think that’s what people were expecting from Heat: Pacino and De Niro locked in a room, strutting and fretting. It was certainly sold that way. One of the trailers promised in voiceover: “Now, for the first time, America’s two most electrifying actors collide.” Which sounds a little better than, “Now, for the first time, America’s two most electrifying actors get a cup of coffee and, much later, hold hands.” What do you think of their performances and the film’s radical structure, which works almost entirely with parallels rather than, as the marketing department insisted, collisions?
Nathan: Yeah, the marketing really played up the whole Pacino Vs. De Niro aspect to the point where it might feel like a bait-and-switch. The amount of time they spend onscreen together is a fraction of the time they spend looking at each other from long distances, contemplating each other, or strategizing how they’ll outwit such a formidable adversary. Describing it as a Pacino/De Niro movie also radically short-changes an astonishing cast, which includes the tough-guy usual suspects (Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Ted Levine, William Fichtner) some huge stars in secondary roles (Jon Voight and Val Kilmer) and a surprising number of women on the periphery, including Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, and Amy Brenneman as De Niro’s love interest. As for the acting, I misremembered Pacino as being way more toned-down than he actually is. By the time he’s yelling about a woman with a “GREAT ASS!” we’re unmistakably in scenery-eating Pacino “Hoo-ah!” territory. But as with a lot of his earlier performances, that unabashed theatricality works, and it nicely complements a truly subdued, understated performance by De Niro as a man whose defining characteristics are professionalism and loneliness.
It’s insane how many subplots and seemingly excess characters there are, like Dennis Haysbert’s bitter ex-con, who would likely have gotten edited out of anyone else’s version of the film. Heat has an enormous cast, and seemingly each character has a separate subplot, but the film weirdly never feels overcrowded. That’s in part because Mann takes his time and makes Heat a mood piece, a character study, and a dark valentine to Los Angeles as much as it is the action-adventure promised. In other words, it’s a Michael Mann movie; that possessive credit at the end has seldom felt as justly deserved. Did you find the film a little overstuffed? Was there anything you thought could have been excised in the name of time, pacing, or economy? Did anything about the film not work for you?
Matthew: I’m glad you brought up the cast. Bud Cort was the biggest surprise for me, but as you say, there are so many great actors in small roles it’s almost unfair. Bonnie Timmermann was the casting director, and she has a remarkable talent for putting together murderer’s-row ensembles, for good films (Glengarry Glen Ross) and not-so-good films (Armageddon). But Heat shows there’s more to making that kind of cast work than just getting recognizable faces. Everyone here suits their role, even Tone Loc. In an interview on the Blu-ray, Amy Brenneman says she didn’t want to be in the movie at all, which was exactly why she was perfect. She met with Michael Mann and told him she found all of the characters in the screenplay despicable and wanted no part of it, at which point he insisted she take the part because he wanted her character to have the same attitude. As for Pacino’s very Pacino performance, the Blu-ray again informs me that he and Mann decided part of his character’s backstory was a barely-under-control cocaine habit, which explains the verbal explosions and the TMJ-style jaw-chomping. (Imagine a time when a director could tell Al Pacino he wanted a more coked-out performance.)
Whatever the justification, that’s the one part of the film I don’t love, especially when contrasted with—as you noted—De Niro’s understated performance. But that’s also why I do love their scene together so much. Mann filmed both sides of the two-shot simultaneously so he could cut reactions and dialogue together from the same take, and it’s amazing how much Pacino and De Niro accomplish playing off each other’s micro-expressions, eye movement, posture. They really were perfectly matched, even if Pacino was further along on his decline to self-parody at this point than De Niro. As for the subplots, I don’t find it overstuffed at all, in part because the structure is as cleanly symmetrical as To The Lighthouse: that beautifully understated coffee-shop scene slicing neatly through the center, with two heist setpieces on either side. Let’s talk about those—the armored-car heist, the aborted burglary, the bank robbery, Waingro’s assassination, and the final shootout. Did anything strike you about them on this rewatch?
Nathan: Wow, it’s crazy to think that even more could have been stuffed into the film. I don’t find Heat overstuffed in part because of the beautiful symmetry of the storytelling and the film’s epic scope. It reminds me of Robert Evans’ horrified reaction to the two-hour cut of The Godfather, which he said kept the essence while killing the poetry. There is a two-hour (or 90 minutes, with commercials figured in) version of Heat, sort of, in that a version of the script was filmed by Mann for television in 1989. It was the pilot for a series that never happened, eventually released as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown in 1989. It isn’t terribly well-regarded. [Check back on Thursday for more about L.A. Takedown and other Heat sources. —ed.] Heat needs its expansive running time. It needs to breathe, to be slow and hypnotic at times, and loud and flashy at others. Mann was aiming to make a great movie, one worthy of De Niro and Pacino’s legends, and he succeeded in part because the action sequences are so flawlessly executed and rooted in character.
Part of what distinguishes Mann is his sense of place: there’s a clear sense of where everything is happening in regard to everything else. There’s a cleanness and a clarity to the film that’s all the more impressive considering how many different elements, characters, subplots, and egos he’s juggling. And I share your affection for just about everyone who worked on the film, particularly a location scout who found so many unused, expected places to film that Heat looks both like no Los Angeles movie that had ever been made, and like the ultimate Los Angeles movie.
Let’s talk about the film’s tonal shifts, which can be extreme, as epitomized by the contrast between Pacino’s scenery-chewing and De Niro’s introverted, internal, quiet performance, but also by dialogue that shifts from tough-guy realism to highly stylized, like the doomed prostitute who feigns having just experienced “the monster fuck” of her young life. Heat is all over the place at times, but there’s always a sense that Mann has everything under perfect control, in part because he’d already had a crack at this material before, and didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice.
Matthew: I’d love to see L.A. Takedown to see what Mann was able to cut—it does feel to me like a film where pulling out any of the threads would risk ruining the entire thing. Those Los Angeles locations are amazing, aren’t they? From the clean blue oval in the first shot of a train coming in to the Redondo Beach station to the crazy yellow sulfur pile on Terminal Island, Mann and Spinotti do an amazing job of finding ways to make an overexposed city look new and alien. (Those locations are fast disappearing—the drive-in theater where De Niro’s crew gets double-crossed was gone shortly after the film; Kate Mantilini, where De Niro and Pacino had their cup of coffee, closed last summer.) Except for one misstep—the downtown grocery store that appears in the middle of the bank shootout—Mann’s version of Los Angeles feels simultaneously heightened and authentic.
Which gets back to your question about tone. It’s amazing how well Mann handles the stylistic and tonal shifts from the very beginning. I think the difference between Pacino and De Niro’s performances is part of what makes the film work, as much as I sometimes wish Pacino had dialed it back a little. The risk with a film like Heat is that it ends up making the same, tired, “We are not so different, you and I” point about hunters and the hunted. What’s so moving about the film is that De Niro and Pacino understand each other while being very, very different. De Niro’s McCauley is a sociopath whose entire M.O. is based on dispassionately weighing risk and reward—like the way he immediately has the witnesses killed once Waingro shoots the first guard—and his one concession to empathy with Edie is what gets him killed. Pacino’s Hanna is driven by a sense of justice, and you can see that dealing with the aftermath of McCauley and Waingro’s crimes takes a toll on him. What they have in common is a certain addiction to puzzles—and the film does an exquisite job of showing the personal cost that brings each of them. I think a certain amount of tonal shifting helps differentiate the two characters in a way that would otherwise make it too simple to draw a false equivalency between them.
But I want to ask you about the film’s portrayal of violence, because it’s something that really stuck out to me this time. The bank shootout, for all its chaos, is peculiarly controlled and bloodless: I counted one civilian death, a hapless clerk at that mythical grocery store. It’s particularly strange compared to the sequence from which it takes some of its queues, the opening shootout from The Wild Bunch, which is an absolute charnel house for innocent bystanders. It struck me that, for all the ways Heat questions the macho code of non-attachment that McCauley and Hanna live by, it has a very old-fashioned view of the uses of violence. Both McCauley and Hanna deploy it very precisely. What’s wrong with Waingro is that he can’t control himself. And for all the wreckage they make of their personal lives, things seem to go according to plan once the shooting starts. Do you think this is just an inevitable part of a film about preternaturally gifted cops and robbers, or do you see any disconnect there?
Nathan: I think Heat is very much about professionalism. Like so many of Mann’s other crime dramas, it’s about leaving as little bloodshed behind as possible, for moral reasons, but more importantly, for professional reasons. We know from the start that McCauley isn’t going back to jail, no matter what, that he’s too old and exhausted and has seen and experienced too much to endure that kind of punishment as an old man. So as with a film this sometimes reminded me of, To Live In Die In L.A., where the hero and the villain both seem to be chasing death, it seems inevitable that one (or both) of them are going to die. So there’s no real point with half-measures, or not committing fully to the task at hand.
McCauley knows exactly what the stakes are, and at this stage in his life, there must be some strange part of him that welcomes the notion of violent death in pursuit of his art form. McCauley really is an artist of the trade, as opposed to wild-card creeps like Waingro, who violates McCauley’s personal and professional code, and therefore must be eliminated. There’s a certain weary dignity in an explosive death at the end of a criminal career, whereas there isn’t spending the next 25 years making license plates and trying to fit into prison gang culture as a 75-year-old.
Final thoughts on the film? Though I have a lot of affection for Thief, The Insider, and Ali, this could very well be Mann’s masterpiece, a bravura contemporary Western that not only transcends the cop-and-crook-are-the-same theme, but shows us a Los Angles we had never seen before and would never see again. What are your final thought on Heat 20 years later?
Matthew: This was the viewing that blew me away, the first time I was really able to appreciate the stunning, alien landscapes of Los Angeles. I have an unreasonable affection for Collateral, but I share your suspicion that this is Mann’s masterpiece. It made me want to rewatch everything else he’s made (or in the case of The Keep, watch), which I suppose is the best thing a film could do. I like your idea that Heat is a film about professionalism and the costs of committing fully to any realm of art or life. I think part of what’s going on when Hanna takes McCauley’s hand is an acknowledgement that neither man will ever be as completely in the moment—as completely themselves—as they were stalking each other across the runways at LAX. I think all any of us can hope for is a few moments like that, whether we’re robbing banks, chasing criminals, or more mundane endeavors.
I enjoyed talking about this with you, but I hope you understand that if you get in my way, I will not hesitate—not for a second.
Check in with the Heat Keynote for more about the importance of the L.A. skyline, Michael Mann’s vision of the city, and his consideration of cop and criminal as part of the same environment. And on Thursday, Chris Klimek considers where Heat came from, in Mann’s career and the artistic environment.