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Heat (1995)

People don't speak with contractions in Michael Mann movies - they're too focused and utterly professional for something so casual. That sort of overriding steeliness informs every frame of Heat (1995), a heist picture that was well-received when it was originally released, but has steadily grown in stature over the years. "If there's one thing Michael Mann knows how to do," wrote Hal Hinson of The Washington Post, "it's create tension. He's a master of texture and atmosphere, and in Heat...Mann works as if he were a composer, laying down his super-saturated wide-screen images like a series of menacing, unresolved chords.

Although Heat is often cited as the only picture in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share a scene together -- they both appeared in The Godfather Part II (1974), but their characters existed during different time periods -– the real draw of Heat is Mann's obsession with...obsessive characters.

De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a shrewd professional thief who asserts that there's not a situation or relationship in his life that he can't abandon in 30 seconds. McCauley prides himself on his lack of connection with the outside world...that is, the one that exists outside his own steel-trap mind. Pacino is Vincent Hanna, an unkempt career cop who is so emotionally invested in his work that he often clashes with his superiors and co-workers. And he's unsuccessful in preventing his job from disrupting personal relationships. When Vincent determines that McCauley and his crew (played with oozing machismo by such top-flight performers as Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore) are planning a complex heist, he goes after the thief with a zeal that unravels his world. "There's a design to everything Hanna does and everything McCauley does," Mann once said of the characters. "Being that inner directed, though, brings a certain solitariness, which makes them the only two men like this in the universe of the motion picture."

In an insightful 1995 interview with Graham Fuller, Mann maintains that the personal stories of his characters aren't necessarily affected by whether they're criminals or cops: "Mostly, it's based on who they are as people. In writing the story, I wanted to polarize each of these situations to make each as different from the other as possible. I wanted to make the life of each character in each relationship as authentic as it could be." In the same interview, Mann also states that the central protagonists in Heat spring from real life, rather than myth: "One of the antecedents for Vincent Hanna, the detective, played by Al Pacino, is Chuck Adamson - an old friend of mine who co-authored the Crime Story pilot, which Abel Ferrara directed. Chuck hunted down and killed the real Neil McCauley, in Chicago, in 1963. Another is a guy I can't really talk about, who's bright, intuitive, and driven, and runs large operations against drug cartels in foreign countries. He's a singularly focused individual and much of the core of Hanna's character comes from him."

When Mann began pre-production on Heat he visited inmates at Folsom State Prison in California to gain some insight into De Niro's character whose approach to life was formed by his prison experience. Other character details came from personal experiences or real life as in the case of the homicidal Waingro (played by Kevin Gage) who was actually based on a Chicago criminal of the same name that turned informer and was later found murdered in Mexico. Mann even used former Chicago cop turned actor Dennis Farina as a consultant on the film.

As for casting, the role of Chris, Neil's cohort, was originally considered for Keanu Reeves until Val Kilmer became available between the shooting of Batman Forever (1995). The part of Nate, which was based on career criminal Edward Bunker, was conceived with Jon Voight in mind but the actor turned it down repeatedly. "I thought, you don't need me for this part. But Michael was a friend of mine, and I knew Bobby and Al well and they were insistent. I tried to back out of it a couple of times, but they pushed it. I had to change myself with padding, hair, scars; it was a lot of work...But when I got into the part I really liked it. It was a delicate part...I thought I could show different sides of this guy who was a thug and convict...With his brilliance, he could have done anything. It's that little-boy thing, they want adventures...It's kind of like acting."

Amy Brenneman, who plays Eady, Neil's wary girlfriend, also resisted making Heat at first. She felt the script was unnecessarily violent with no moral point of view but Mann convinced her that her disapproving attitude was perfect for the character.

Mann utilizes Los Angeles in Heat in much the same way that Woody Allen leans on Manhattan in his best pictures. Los Angeles itself, with its endless highways and stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots, becomes an important character in the narrative. Heat was filmed in no less than 65 different locations around L.A.; there's not a single sequence that takes place on a sound stage, an approach that adds greatly to the film's realism. Although Heat hardly looks like a documentary (Dante Spinotti's coolly stylish cinematography is a particular highlight), you can sense the rhythms of a sometimes languid, always money-driven city that could burst into violence with no advance warning. A harrowing midday shoot-out that leaves an affluent business quarter littered with shattered glass and punctured metal almost seems an attack on the environment itself. Mann saw to it that the scene would play properly by putting his actors through months of high-power weapons training before the cameras ever rolled. According to co-star Tom Sizemore, "The shootout in the middle we worked on for two weeks. The whole process from December 26 to end of shooting in May, was like boot camp."

The face to face sit-down between Pacino and De Niro, by the way, may be historic, but seems contrived for the sole reason of putting Pacino and De Niro into the same frame - there's no logical reason for these two characters to chat over a cup of coffee, regardless of their respect for one another. If you're a Heat fan who's trying to find the real-life restaurant where it happened, however, look no further than Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. If you ask nicely, the staff will reportedly seat you at the exact table where the Pacino-De Niro summit took place.

Producers: Art Linson, Michael Mann
Director: Michael Mann Screenplay: Michael Mann
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Editing: Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig, Tom Rolf
Casting: Bonnie Timmermann
Production Design: Neil Spisak
Art Direction: Margie Stone McShirley
Set Decoration: Anne H. Ahrens
Costume Design: Deborah Lynn Scott
Principal Cast: Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Diane Venora (Justine Hanna), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Ashley Judd (Charlene Shiherlis), Mykelti Williamson (Sgt. Drucker), Wes Studi (Detective Casals), Natalie Portman (Lauren Gustafson).
C-172m.

by Paul Tatara

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