Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece returns to cinemas on Monday 26 June as part of Culture Shock. Film critic Elena Lazic describes the impact of watching Heat for the first time.
I first became aware of Heat some years ago, when I was living in France. I was at home and the TV was on, though no one was watching it. Then all of a sudden, I found myself hypnotised by the screen. An ageing Robert De Niro was talking to a beautiful young woman on a balcony, the both of them obviously enjoying each other’s company, timidly trying to get closer to one another.
I could not hear the dialogue at all – the film was dubbed in French, so maybe that was for the best – but something immediately grabbed my attention. The profound obscurity of the night, the L.A. landscape softly glittering with city lights, the omnipresent blue tint of the image, were bringing to this silent exchange a romantic melancholy that charmed me just as it made me curious. Why this sense of impending doom? Why so blue?
Although an emotional intensity like this might seem at odds with the tropes of the bank robbery thriller, this contrast between stoic action and profound sentimentality is the essence of Michael Mann’s cinema. Perhaps because it is also the driving thematic of Heat, the 1995 film might be his best.
A thriller of cops and villains, pitting two major macho actors against one another, and featuring what might be the best bank robbery sequence of all time, Heat is undeniably a male film, in the most classical sense of the term – it is at first unfeeling, cold and precise. Yet it doesn’t take long for cracks to appear on its smooth, steely facade. Emotions – unstable, persistent and dangerous – soon enter the scene and mess up all the careful plans of bank robbers and cops alike.
Tellingly, it’s in the figure of lowlife psychopath Waingro (Kevin Gage) that emotional disturbance first manifests itself, in an outburst of violence completely uncalled for and which sets dedicated, obsessed LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) on the tracks of professional thief Neil McCauley (De Niro). Most importantly, this incident is triggered by pride, and on the parallel paths followed by Hanna and McCauley – the two sides of the same coin – this will ultimately make all the difference.
The films of Michael Mann are all about brief encounters – people mutually recognising something of themselves in the other, before inevitably returning to a destiny they cannot stray away from for too long. Heat‘s infamous face-to-face confrontation in the coffee shop sees the two leads bond over the loneliness of their similar lifestyles, and agree they would not have it any other way.
Yet as both declare they would not hesitate to kill the other if it came to it, Hanna reveals the key difference between them: “If it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.” This cop’s personal life might be a ‘disaster zone’, as he puts it, but that is only for caring too much, about everybody. McCauley, on the other hand, spends his life trying to ward off all emotional attachment. So what is he living for? Selfish pride, money all for himself – after this encounter, even he isn’t sure anymore.
The profound and savage romanticism of Heat creeps up on the unsuspecting audience as it does on the characters. The women of the film, pushed to the sidelines in most cop thrillers, are here the true raison d’être for these men, their motivation for everything they do, and the heart of the film itself. The gravity in the soundtrack and in the image isn’t that of cold blooded self-interest, but rather that of blind dedication to the people they love. Under its cool, icy appearance, Heat gives its characters the full dimension of life.
Heat plays at Picturehouses across the land on Monday 26 June. Find your cinema and book tickets.