Stages of Heat
1. (February 1996, combined initial reviews from newspaper & radio)
In Heat, writer-director Michael Mann conspicuously reworks a scene from an earlier telemovie of his, L.A. Takedown (1989). In that stylish but modest production (92 minutes in length), a cop (Scott Plank) and the criminal (Alex McArthur) he has been obsessively tracking happen to bump into each other, quite innocently, while shopping. There is a tense pause as they gaze at each other; then one of them breaks the ice with a classic invitation: “Want a coffee?” (That incident had a basis in the real-life police career of Chuck Adamson, an advisor to Mann on several projects.)
Here is a director who likes to hold onto and recycle his best ideas. The setting is still Los Angeles in Heat, but this time the actors are now luminous movie stars, and both the width of the screen and the running time (170 minutes) have expanded to epic proportions. After the triumph of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mann is obviously drawn by all things grand and grandiloquent.
I don’t think that Heat is a great film – certainly not the great film I hoped it would be. But it’s certainly a movie that knows two or three things about the crime/gangster genre in cinema. And it reaches into the heart of this genre in a number of ways.
Mann is not among the best-known of contemporary American directors, like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. He isn’t among the most prolific, either, like Abel Ferrara. He moves between cinema and television; he was the driving creative force behind the series Miami Vice (1984-1990) and Crime Story (1986-1988). This TV work is intricately plotted and jazzily stylised. His cinema work includes Thief (1980) and the extraordinary Manhunter (1986); taken as a whole, it bears a very particular tone.
The British critic Pam Cook caught my attention when she began on article in Monthly Film Bulletin (no. 660, March 1989) by declaring that Mann, Scorsese and David Cronenberg are the three “great melancholics of modern cinema” (English-speaking cinema, at any rate). She went on to comment they “all share a preoccupation with flawed, mentally unstable heroes crippled by narcissistic obsessions which alienate them from normal society (and particularly from women)”.
There could be no better introduction to Heat than Cook’s insightful view. As a film about cops and criminals, Heat is indeed one of the moodiest, most melancholic films of its genre. There have been quite a few melancholic gangster films in recent decades – I think of Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991), Ferrara’s King of New York, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996).
Is a sad gangster movie something of a contradiction in terms? In its heyday – the James Cagney era – gangster/crime stories were marked by a certain reckless euphoria and exuberance, an escalation of robberies, shoot-outs and grand escapades. Sure, there’s always a fall built into this structure – a come-uppance for the gangster hero, the moral lesson that Crime Doesn’t Pay. But it’s the gangster’s “irresistible rise” (to filch half a title from Bertolt Brecht in gangster-parable mode!) that we most remember. One of the very last films in this epic rise-and-fall mode is Brian De Palma’s magnificently uncouth Scarface (1983). [21st century note: compare it to 2020’s Capone!]
From there on in film history, however, things are more fall than rise – far less action and much more about looking, talking, agonised reflection.
Watching movies with cops and gangsters these days
usually brings home to me the thesis of philosopher Gilles Deleuze in his twin Cinema books, written at just that
moment in the 1980s when the heroes and anti-heroes of the crime genre started
going all melancholic. For Deleuze, taking a long view, World War II marks a
break in the development of what he calls the action-image. He argues
that, up until around 1945, the great action genres (like the Western or the
war film or gangster movies) are relatively uncomplicated. Everything is
happily externalised into rituals of physical action – whether hauling a wagon
train across the country or engaging in a shoot-out – and that these actions
easily reach their point of completion or fulfilment.
After 1945, everything starts getting grimmer. Actions slow down, become complicated, and are often blocked. Western heroes, like John Wayne in The Searchers or James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s films, become disturbed, obsessive figures, wandering the winds while they take ages to work out their neuroses or psychoses. Alfred Hitchcock’s hero stationed at his Rear Window (1954) – Stewart again – is a paradigm case: immobile, frustrated, an ambiguous voyeur, he’s largely cut off from taking action in the scenes he surveys. The motto of this crisis of the action-image might well be: when action is frustrated, melancholia descends.
For whatever sly reason of history, it takes longer for crime and gangster movies to be infected by these problems – although you can see the first signs of crisis in 1960s movies including Point Blank (1967). Heat gives us the melancholic phase of the genre in its full, desert bloom.
Since Walter Hill’s moody The Driver (1978), greatly indebted (as is Mann) to Jean-Pierre Melville and especially Le Samouraï (1967), movies have given us a distinctive picture of the male professional who works on either side of the law. Whether cop or criminal, the professional is a chilling automaton, cool and stoic to the point of alienation or repression. He is indeed obsessive and narcissistic, as Cook observed. This professional is hard-driven, single-minded, married to his unsavoury work. He doesn’t talk much, and he certainly doesn’t share too many of his feelings out aloud with the people around him. Sometimes these professionals, lost to the normal world of love, family and friendship, manage to crawl their way back to some fragile point of salvation, if only for a moment, before dying – that’s the sort of hard-boiled pathos you get in Luc Besson’s films Nikita (1990) and Léon: The Professional (1994).
Mann doesn’t much go in for pathos; if so, it is only in an extremely controlled way. His characteristically icy-blue style emphasises the steely side of male obsession. Mann sees these professional guys for the pathological cases that they are. But he celebrates them as well – for in their pride, their stoicism, their unending determination, he finds a certain, lofty splendour.
There are two central, essential themes in Heat. The first theme has been almost worked to death in recent years. I’m referring to the symbiotic or mirroring relationship that develops between a driven cop and a master criminal. In Manhunter, that becomes (thanks to Thomas Harris’ source novel) a particularly vicious symbiosis between a disturbed cop on the edge and an especially brilliant psychotic serial killer. After Manhunter came The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Internal Affairs (1990), Jennifer 8 (1992), Criminal Law (1988) … just a few of the films that play out variations on exactly this theme. You know it has become a right old cliché when any cheap thriller from the video shop has the obligatory scene where the psycho criminal takes the cop by his lapels and hisses: “You and I – we are alike!”
The relationship between Vincent the cop and Neil the criminal in Heat is somewhat more civilised and urbane. This urbanity creates its own offbeat humour. The plot is very simple: Vincent and his crack team keep constant surveillance on Neil and his crack team, trying to ensure they will be on the spot when the next brilliant robbery is committed. Much the film happens in the time interval between crimes. Vincent and Neil, even though they don’t personally know each other yet, start sizing each other up from a distance, trying to second-guess each other’s strategic moves. A mirroring identification inevitably looms.
Let’s return to that coffee scene – a surprising turn in the action that dares a strain on realistic credibility. The setting is no longer a local shopping centre as in L.A. Takedown; all the co-ordinates of space and speed have been expanded, almost outrageously so. Vincent goes in pursuit of Neil; first in a helicopter, then roaring down the freeway on his lonesome in a car. Epic rock guitars wail for an extended break on the soundtrack. Neil knows he is being closely tracked – he always knows everything, purely through his intuitive senses – and cradles a gun in easy reach. Neil parks the car in a civil manner and Vincent slowly approaches it, also with gun in hand.
Vincent now stands at Neil’s window, looking in. Tense pause as they gaze at each other. Are they going to pull out their guns and start firing? Violence doesn’t happen just like that in a Mann movie – and certainly the big showdown here isn’t going to be triggered by mere chance or coincidence. When these two men really reach their face-off, it has to be a ritual, a ceremony of sorts. So here, they start talking. Vincent: “How you doing? What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee?” After scanning the off-screen for any police back-up, Neil nods: “Yeah sure, let’s go”. So, in this peak of traffic, Vincent and Neil, in a manner of speaking, hook up.
As these two guys have coffee and shoot the breeze, the film stresses the growing sense of mutual respect, even the potential friendship between them. Naturally, there’s a melancholic shadow inexorably cast over this jolly little interlude. We know that a showdown must eventually take place – and when that moment comes, as they both avow, neither will show any mercy. They are both ready to kill. So they don’t stand for Good and Evil figures locked in eternal combat; they’re just fellow professionals, each doing their job.
Not even Mann can completely reinvigorate this very familiar symbiosis theme, and the film drags the more that it reiterates the point. The richer theme embedded in this material is more secretive, but even more central to the crime-gangster dynamic. It involves human bonds – ties of complicity with other people. The key line of the film (which its promotion rightly picks up on) is spoken by Neil: “Allow nothing to be in your life that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat, if you spot the heat around the corner”. This cues us to a terse level of pathos that is present, after all, despite – or precisely as a result of – all the Melvillean surface cool.
In practical terms, the upshot of keeping emotional distance is that Neil, the cool criminal, is normally a veritable monk. There are no lovers, no friends, no family members in his world. In the course of events, he does become involved with a woman, Eady (Amy Brenneman). For the most part, he tells her nothing of his true profession. But even letting himself get a little involved emotionally may be getting himself in too deep. The trust that flows on from such a reckless, all-too-human moment of tenderness often turns out to be the Achilles Heel that brings down many a high-flying cop or criminal. For as Pacino tells Andy Garcia in The Godfather Part III (1990, reworked 2020 as Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone): “When they come, they come for those you love”. And once a tough guy goes soft, losing his hard, paranoiac edge, catastrophe can sneak up.
So Neil knows, and we know, that he may have to face that very moment when the heat is around the corner and he has to walk. What Mann does with this premise, this agonising possibility, leads to the most remarkable moments of Heat – moments that are on par with the best scenes in another great, melancholic gangster film of the ‘90s, Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), in which Pacino gives what I consider his very best screen performance.
For Vincent, personal life is more convoluted and painful right from the first moment we see it. His marital and relationship history has been a string of disastrous, dysfunctional unions. He is obsessed with his work, but too respectful to share the hideous, daily pain of it with his partner – and that is a recipe for relationship breakdown. Diane Venora is very striking in the role of Justine. She’s bruised, angry, completely frustrated with Vincent. Her teenage daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), comes completely apart at the seams as the result of this discord.
There’s a terrific scene between Justine and Vincent that shows Mann’s marvellous way with florid, offbeat dialogue – pitched somewhere between Howard Hawks and John Cassavetes. Vincent comes home to what he sarcastically calls their “postmodern apartment” left over from her previous marriage, and finds her there with a putzy guy (Xander Berkeley as Ralph) with whom she has obviously spent the night. Vincent starts going ballistic, but Justine puts things into cool perspective: “See what it’s come to? I had to degrade myself with him to get some closure with you”. Marlene Dietrich never quite articulated that in Josef von Sternberg’s movies!
All the women in Heat (wives, lovers, daughters) are fascinating, but ultimately peripheral to the story and its “agency” – a bothersome tendency. Their attachment to tough guys wins them a rough end of the deal. Mann gives them all room to simmer and boil over, but basically they’re there to be masochists in the face of a particularly intense and demanding ritual of male bonding. In this hardboiled neo-noir-ish world (although Mann completely redefines film noir elements in his own terms, so the label is not terribly useful here), men act and women suffer.
The deepest dramatic function of these female characters, however, is perfectly clear: they stand for the ambivalent lure (ambivalent, at least, in the life of a gangster) of love, intimacy, emotional complicity. This theme is acutely expressed in the marital relationship between two secondary characters, Chris (Val Kilmer) and Charlene (Ashley Judd). Their union offers a glimmer of hope, of real, mutual affection, even though its careens through some pretty dark passages. But that hope, the possibility of personal redemption, is precisely what Neil and Vincent cannot ever truly allow themselves.
There is a brilliant essay by Bill Routt, “Todorov Among the Gangsters” (in Art & Text, no. 34, 1989), that illuminated for me the central, ambiguous drive of the gangster genre. The figure of the gangster is torn between two intense desires. His very tag suggests being part of a gang, a tribe, a clan, some kind of community – even if it’s a ragtag, anarchic community well on the other side of the law and normal, suburban living. There is often, in an earnest and even comical fashion, this intense yearning to belong lurking within the bosom of many a gangster hero.
At the same time, the gangster is also, by nature, a rampant individualist. He is driven to deny and destroy all ties with others, even (or especially) those closest to him. And he does this so that he can function in magnificent isolation, in order to climb the anti-social ladder of crime completely unimpeded. Naturally, this dream rarely goes as planned. For all the great screen gangsters – Scarface, Legs Diamond, Bugsy, Carlito – come undone, and plunge to their deaths, precisely because of that weak, reckless moment when they let themselves love another person, becoming vulnerable and bonded, “dependent” according to pop-psy lingo. This is the profound source of pathos in the gangster genre, for it shows the spectacle of characters rigorously trying to deny their humanity, while falling prey to it nonetheless. Heat definitely taps into this wellspring.
Although there is much that is impressive and pleasurable in Heat, it ultimately left me somewhat disappointed. Mann’s determination to forge an epic saga leads him to stretch the script material very thinly indeed. There’s an evident straining on Mann’s part. Yet the film’s strengths are its subtler, smaller, more intimate details – the kind that prompt old-fashioned reviewers to haul out their highest and most snobbish term of praise, “novelistic”.
On this level, Heat can be compared to Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death (1995), another work that plays significant but minor variations on well established themes and predictable narrative structures. Yet where Schroeder’s film was lean and low-key, taking us by surprise with its manner, Heat comes out roaring that it’s a masterpiece, the apotheosis (if not transcendence!) of a genre.
This split between minor-key virtues and major-key bombast shows up spectacularly in the acting of the two leads. Pacino gives one of his ranting, flamboyant turns; he’s shouting colourful obscenities even when everyone else is only about two feet away from his mouth. I was not won over by his method (or Method). De Niro, on the other hand, is far better keyed into the overall, quiet register of the piece. He achieves here exactly what Pacino did so superbly in Carlito’s Way: activating an intense concentration of energy within the film frame, relying on stillness and a thoughtful, brooding silence. We must assume that the contrast between Pacino’s and De Niro’s acting styles is a deliberate directorial strategy, with Mann controlling and modulating this contrast as best he can. But I think the schism tears the film open and exposes its flaws.
Heat is also not as adventurous visually or stylistically as Mann’s previous work – despite Dante Spinotti’s always formidable cinematography. Where the more compact Manhunter was dark and radical – touching, at its most extreme points, the avant-garde affinity in this auteur [see this audiovisual essay] – Heat tends to rest on the ambient virtues of elegant widescreen composition and a clanking, echoing, booming soundscape.
The action-clinches are exciting and impressively staged, but I thought they were a pale echo of similar scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s deliriously kinetic 1990 cop film Blue Steel (which, in turn, probably took some of its inspiration from Manhunter). Her films have all the obsession, the adrenalin, the twisted anger and stylistic verve of the best by Mann or Scorsese. What her films refuse – and this is an intriguing business – is precisely the melancholia that invariably accompanies portraits of masculinity in torment.
2. (April 1996)
Two months after filing my initial review, I had the opportunity to publish (in the same newspaper’s “entertainment guide” section) a re-think and revaluation of the film (I upgraded my rating from three to four-and-a-half stars) – something that rarely happens, or is allowed to happen, in the popular press.
Sometimes you just don’t get a film the first time around. I seriously undervalued Heat on my initial viewing – hence this new review/recommendation. For a second viewing has opened my eyes to the absolute mastery and precision, and the extraordinary audiovisual texture, of this terrific movie.
Heat is the kind of film that demands we abandon our tired, lit-crit-derived notions of theme or subject. Mann’s trick is to immerse viewers in an entire world of behaviours, relationships and tactile, concrete experiences.
This dual portrait circles out from the symbiotic link between driven cop (Pacino) and master crook (De Niro) to paint a vast fresco of fraught, haunted lives – many of them glimpsed only fleetingly and poignantly.
Above all, Heat is a monumental triumph of style from a great director in total control of his materials. Forget for a while all the flashy, cartoonish circus-turns that audiences today mistake for “stylish filmmaking” in dross such as Four Rooms (1995); Mann’s way with images, sounds and performances is the real thing. It repays the closest scrutiny.
3. (Combined encyclopedia entries, 2003 & 2007)
The richly deserved cult following for Heat has steadily grown since 1995. Set in Los Angeles, it takes a well-worked generic theme and meditates moodily upon it. Michael Mann combines a flamboyant, epic style with a manic attention to realistic detail – resulting in indelible set-pieces like the street shoot-out.
In Mann’s films, the camera set-ups are more crucial than the shots as they are individually edited in sequence. This is because he is fond of master shots – covering the whole or a large part of a scene in one (usually mobile) flow – and then breaks this master up with various detailed inserts.
But if such abundant coverage in the service of intensified continuity (as David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson call it) sounds suspiciously like the TV-derived norm of contemporary Hollywood cinema, what Mann does with it is special.
In effect, he creates starkly separate spaces or zones in a scene – thus multiplying the master shots required, and the possibilities for their combination in the editing.
A key scene in Heat – when Charlene (Ashley Judd), set up by the cops to nab her partner-in-crime Chris (Val Kilmer), uses the one moment in her power to warn him away with a hard look and a tiny hand gesture – would seem simple on paper. But, on screen, its effect is monumental.
Surrounding Charlene are figures both present in the room and (as so often in Mann) on the end of an open phone line: each one waits anxiously, in his pocket of space, for Charlene’s decision to head out to the balcony and identify Chris.
It is this pervasive fishbowl effect – which the film reinforces with its numerous reflective surfaces – that lends such gravity to the wordless, close-up insert of her hand, a truly decisive moment in the plot. Almost united, Charlene and Chris must split apart again, their only link thereafter being a soulful duet of intercut close-ups.
© Adrian Martin February & April 1996 / April 2003 / October 2007