Most good filmmakers revisit familiar themes and situations throughout their careers. A consistent area of inquiry is probably essential for would-be auteurs. And while it’s unusual for directors to remake their own pictures, it isn’t unheard of: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 American revision of The Man Who Knew Too Much differs substantially from the version he made in England 22 years earlier, but its premise and title are the same. Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language remake of Funny Games, meanwhile, replicates his 1997 Austrian version of the grisly home-invasion flick shot-for-shot.
Heat, Michael Mann’s defining masterpiece, is something else again.
It isn’t Mann’s biggest (adjusted) earner—that would be The Last Of The Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis at his most-smoldering and least-shirted. Nor is it the picture most admired by critics or his peers: Heat’s follow-up, The Insider, earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and other major categories. And like Thief, Mohicans, and Manhunter—the film that gave us Brian Cox as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, half a decade before Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for the same role—it holds a Tomatometer rating higher than Heat’s not-too-shabby 86 percent fresh.
But Heat, which will turn 20 in December, still feels like the Michael Mann-liest film its now-71-year-old writer/director ever made, or ever will. His subsequent pictures about violent-crime professionals—the Tom Cruise-starring hit-man thriller Collateral, the TV reboot Miami Vice, the John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies—all aspire to Heat’s weird cocktail of the hyperrealistic and the operatic. None are as indelible. That’s because Heat is the mature realization of a story Mann had been trying to tell for the better part of 20 years. Or more truthfully, one he’d already started to tell in the wretched bastard medium of pre-Sopranos television.
“The small screen doesn’t give you anything for the cityscapes of L.A.,” Mann said in a 1997 interview. “Television cannot surround you with experience. It just can’t do it. The screen is too small… it’s not going to be an experience of a place I’m in.”
TV screens have gotten bigger and sharper since then, but Mann still has a point. Shot almost entirely on location (a tiny handful of green-screen shots are noticeable on the Blu-ray), Heat showed its audience sinewy parts of Los Angeles—the jagged, industrial, our-business-is-not-The-Business Los Angeles—rarely glimpsed in the innumerable cop shows and movies made there before. Likewise, the exhaustive preparation Mann demanded of his cast during Heat’s six-month preproduction—everything from ride-alongs to interviews with Folsom Prison lifers to advanced firearms training, courtesy of British Special Air Service veterans Mick Gould and Andy McNab—seems intended to make them forget they were working in a hopelessly wrung-out genre. It worked: When Heat opened in December 1995, it crackled with the energy of something unpredictable and new. But “new” it was not.
Warner Bros.’ press materials for the film did not mention that its $60 million, star-driven, ruminative cops-and-robbers epic was a remake of a TV pilot Mann had directed only six years earlier. (Even Spider-Man doesn’t get rebooted that often.) It was initially green-lit as the proof of concept for a drama intended to replace Miami Vice, on which Mann had served as Executive Producer. NBC passed on the series, but aired Mann’s pilot in late August 1989—the network-TV dead zone—as a TV movie under the unpromising title L.A. Takedown. Officially, it’s out of print. Unofficially: YouTube.
L.A. Takedown features Scott Plank and Alex McArthur as LAPD’s Lt. Vincent Hanna and expert thief Neil McCauley, the roles Robert De Niro and Al Pacino would later assay definitively. L.A. Takedown lacks Heat’s glossy cinematography (by Dante Spinotti, who’s shot five features for Mann); it was shot in 19 days, versus Heat’s luxe 107-day schedule. Nor can it touch Heat’s journalistic scope, or its persuasive immersion in a hidden world of career criminals and lawmen, or the unhurried pacing that gives even its secondary characters rich emotional lives.
But L.A. Takedown is still conspicuously the same movie, done fast and cheap with lesser actors. Plank and McArthur are almost a generation younger than Pacino and De Niro; they’re both too pink-faced and handsome to be convincing as Hanna and McCauley, men of soul-wearying experience. (Also, watching L.A. Takedown in the 21st century means being distracted by how uncannily circa-1989 Plank looks and sounds like the adult Ben Affleck, though Affleck was a mere pup back then. It would be almost a decade before Jerry Bruckheimer spent $20,000 to buy him movie-star teeth.) Heat is about 70 minutes longer than its network prototype. It spends most of that extra runtime exploring its protagonists’ relationships with their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and stepdaughters. The film actually introduces Pacino’s Lt. Hanna as he’s making vigorous love to his wife.
Still, many of its scenes are reprised from L.A. Takedown almost verbatim, save for the R-rated words. Heat’s two best-remembered setpieces—the historic sit-down between Pacino and De Niro, and the bank heist that unravels into a firefight so tactically authentic that the United States Marine Corps shows the scene to new recruits (according to Val Kilmer, Heat’s third-billed player)—are both there. They only feel tentative to people who’ve already seen Heat.
Even the names of the characters are the same, with one exception: Neil McCauley, De Niro’s meticulous, conservative crook, is called “Patrick McLaren” in L.A. Takedown. That’s noteworthy only because the character was based on a real-life criminal.
His name was Neil McCauley.
McCauley isn’t the only character in Heat based on a real, specific, not-a-composite, Social Security-number-having person. Jon Voight’s character, Nate, is based on Edward Bunker, an armed robber who learned to write while serving a lengthy prison term. He eventually published seven books and became a screenwriter and film actor, playing Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, among other roles.
The hole goes deeper: L.A. Takedown isn’t even Heat’s sole small-screen antecedent. The movie also includes numerous beats, and at least one complete scene, that previously appeared in the first season of Crime Story, a Mann-produced NBC series that ran for two seasons between 1986 and 1988. Crime Story was co-created by Mann’s pal Chuck Adamson, a Chicago police detective whose experiences have informed several Mann projects, but none more directly than Crime Story and Heat.
In the late ’70s, Mann hired Adamson as a technical advisor on Thief, a 1981 thriller starring James Caan. That feature offered the first evidence of Mann’s obsession with elite crooks and lawmen. Adamson told Mann about his pursuit of an ingenious, disciplined burglar named Neil McCauley some 15 years earlier. Adamson even ran into McCauley in a parking lot while he was picking up his dry cleaning. The encounter is more believable the way it’s dramatized in Heat, when Hanna pulls McCauley over on the 105 freeway and confronts him intentionally. But L.A. Takedown version is more literally accurate, dry cleaning and all. “I didn’t know whether to arrest him, shoot him, or invite him for coffee,” Adamson recalled.
Anyone who remembers Heat will guess correctly that Adamson settled on the third option. He and McCauley had a frank but civil conversation that inspired the historic late-night bistro tête-à-tête between Pacino and De Niro three decades later. McCauley was 49 years old and had spent more than half his life in prison. Adamson knew he was never going to go straight, so he told him he should find another town to steal in. “I like Chicago,” McCauley shrugged. Adamson was one of several officers who shot McCauley dead in 1964 as he attempted to flee arrest following an armored-car robbery. Adamson and his team had been tipped off about the score.
Crime Story’s two-hour pilot episode, L.A. Takedown, and Heat all include iterations of this event, as well as of an earlier attempt to catch McCauley in the act. Adamson stationed two of his detectives inside a department store McCauley had cased. When McCauley arrived to rob it, he heard one of the cops moving around, though the store was supposed to be deserted. McCauley quickly weighed the odds and chose to walk away empty-handed, save for an invaluable discovery: The police were on to him.
Mann wrote a 180-page screenplay based on Adamson’s recollections in 1979. On Heat’s DVD featurettes, Mann says a 1986 rewrite was motivated by his desire to avoid repeating too much material from Thief. That’s ironic, given that Heat, brilliant though it is, contains so much recycled material, they could sell the Blu-ray at Whole Foods.
1986 was also the year Crime Story premièred. The show was a stylish period cops-and-robbers saga co-created by Adamson and Gustave Reininger. It too is on YouTube; feel no compunction about watching it there, since its DVD editions are unrestored and of poor quality. I became obsessed with the series when the USA network ran it in order the summer before I started high school. USA showed Crime Story four nights a week at midnight, right after Miami Vice. To 14-year-old me, it was indisputably the greatest block of programming in the history of television.
Crime Story was initially set in 1963 Chicago. The action later moved to Las Vegas, and the series was intended to progress, like the later Mad Men, through a decade or more in time. NBC cancelled it before it could make good on this ambition.
Although there were occasional one-off episodes, Crime Story flaunted the network conventions of its day, spinning a complex, ongoing yarn about organized crime’s increasing sophistication. It charted the rise of an enterprising thug named Ray Luca (Anthony Denison, under a foot-tall and presumably combustible pompadour) and the increasing desperation of the cop trying to catch him. Boasting an eclectic cast—Andrew “Dice” Clay, Pam “Coffy” Grier, Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman, Stephen “The Bad Colonel from Avatar” Lang, and Ted “I’d Fuck Me” Levine were all regulars during the first season—it was pulpier than a crate of oranges, but still a closer cousin to the high-toned cable dramas of the 21st century than to anything on TV at the time. Even the flashy Miami Vice, the show that made men stop wearing socks for five years, suddenly looked conventional by comparison.
In Crime Story’s lead role was Dennis Farina, another former Chicago detective who, like Adamson, advised Mann on Thief. Mann found Farina charismatic enough to cast him as a henchman in Thief while Farina was still on the force. Farina made his stage debut the following year, playing a cop in Thomas Babe’s A Prayer For My Daughter for director John Malkovich. Like Mann, Farina accepted cops and crooks as his bread and butter. When Mann adapted Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon in 1986 (as Manhunter), he gave Farina a much larger role, as senior FBI agent Jack Crawford—a part played in subsequent Harris adaptations by Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel, and currently, Laurence Fishburne.
Several beats and scenes that would recur in Heat nine years later cropped up in Crime Story’s opening half-season. The Abel Ferrera-directed pilot featured a tense setpiece straight out of Adamson’s memory, wherein the police have laid a trap for Luca in a department store. “When Luca opens that door, he’s gonna get the surprise of his life,” Farina says. Pacino echoes the line in Heat: “When these guys walk out the door of whatever score they’re gonna take next, they’re gonna get the surprise of a lifetime.” But in both versions, the perp’s instincts tell him something is off, and he walks away.
The writing credits on Crime Story’s seventh episode, “Pursuit of A Wanted Felon,” read: “Teleplay by Eric Blakeney and Gene Miller. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Michael Mann.” In that one, Farina’s Lt. Torello comes home to find his wife, played by Darlanne Fluegel, entertaining another man in their home. “Are you gonna kill me?” the stranger asks him. “You can go out on dates with my wife,” Farina tells him. “You can sit on my sofa. But you are not gonna watch my TV.” He grabs the set and storms out. Later, he kicks the television out the passenger-side door of his car and drives away.
Though this is a personal recollection rather than a professional one, it too is drawn from Adamson’s life. On Heat’s commentary track, Mann explains: “[Adamson] didn't know what to say, or how to react. The only thing he owned in his domicile was the television set. And that was the thing, irrationally, all his attention focused on.”
But like the hands of a clock, the scene comes around again, 130 minutes into Heat. Pacino’s Lt. Hanna comes home to find his wife (Diane Venora) making dinner for a stranger. The alterations to the dialogue neatly sum up the difference between relatively unpretentious mid-1980s television and mid-1990s auteur filmmaking. “You can ball my wife if she wants you to,” Pacino tells Xander Berkeley. “You can lounge around on her sofa, in her ex-husband’s dead-tech, postmodernistic bullshit house if you want to. But you do not get to watch my fucking television set!”
Before leaving with the TV, Venora’s character gives a laser-guided assessment of their relationship: “I may be stoned on grass and Prozac, but you’ve been walking through our life dead,” she tells him. “And now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you.” How did these two meet, exactly?
The philandering dinner guest in Heat, Ralph, is played by Berkeley, the actor who played Waingro in L.A. Takedown. In both L.A. Takedown and Heat, Waingro is, in Mann’s word, “the contagion”—the unstable fill-in member of McCauley’s crew whose unnecessary killing of a guard during an armored-car robbery is the inciting incident of the story. Like so many characters in this tapestry, Waingro was based on an actual person. But it took Michael Mann 16 years to make him real.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week look back at Michael Mann’s Heat. Don’t miss the Keynote, where Scott Tobias talks about the personal codes of cops and criminals in the movie, and the Forum, in which Nathan Rabin and Matthew Dessem examine the much-vaunted Pacino/De Niro team-up. Next week, we go Back To The Future just in time for the film’s 30th anniversary.