Heat, Michael Mann’s sprawling, glorious epic of obsessive professionalism, ego, single mindedness and doomed relationships on either side of the law, sprang from that most innocuous of accidents: a cop bumping into a suspect and inviting him for a coffee.
Mann first had the idea for Heat in the 1970′s when his friend Chuck Adamson, ex-Chicago cop and later technical advisor on Mann’s feature debut, Thief, told him how he’d bumped into a criminal he was keeping tabs on in the parking lot outside his local laundry. Intrigued, he invited him for coffee to intuit his behaviour. The criminal in question was one Neil McCauley. Mann tinkered with the script for years, shooting a pared down, quick TV movie version called LA Takedown in the eighties. It is fitting that for the final “symphonic drama”, as he calls it, the signature scene that would psychologically penetrate both cop and criminal’s mindset so clearly should have percolated so long – 1995. Time enough for modern American cinema’s two titans to mature and appear on screen together for the first time.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro retained the criminal name) and cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) each have a voyeuristic fascination for their opposite number. Vincent is charismatic, full of bluster, single minded and brusque, with two failed marriages behind him and a third on the skids. “All I am is what I’m going after,” he admits to his wife. For him, the hunt is the juice. Neil is calm and centred, reserved and introspective. Each has previously socialised with their respective crews and wives earlier in the evening, but Neil subtly withdraws from the cameraderie around him. “Who’s the loner?” Vincent asks, surveilling them leaving. Ironically, Neil is just now reaching out, having slipped away to call new girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), who as yet has no inkling of what he is – a stone cold sociopath. Home for Vincent is an attempt at normal life – “barbeques and ball games“. Neil, in a keynote blue drenched night shot, slips his keys and gun on a glass table top and restlessly contemplates the view across his minimalist apartment’s balcony. Mann, a meticulous planner, based this on a 1967 Alex Colville painting, “Pacific”.
Pacino and De Niro were each given script notes for the short scene where Vincent flags down Neil’s car on a whim, and suggests buying him a coffee.
Pacino: “You left the dysfunctional marital area for the engaging dynamic complex one, as if simmering in the subconscious was dilemma: a surveillance of a man cognizant of it; go meet, go get him, go talk to him.”
De Niro: “Is this guy nuts? What is this about? What’s going on? No other units… yeah, I’ll talk to him. He wants to find out more about me? I’ll find out about him.”
Sitting across the table from one another, each admires the others total professionalism. They can both be totally honest with one another. Neil scoffs at the idea that Vincent can have a normal life and remain as successful as he is, yet part of him wants to also switch off at the end of the day, to be with someone. Vincent in turn calls Neil’s life and personal code vacant (“Do not have anything in your life that you cannot walk out on within thirty seconds if you feel the heat coming around the corner”), but admits that chasing crooks is the only life he himself wants to know.
Mann had narrowed the location for this scene down to two. One was a taco stand by the freeway, but instead he brilliantly blocks and shoots it across a table at Kate Mantilini’s diner on Wiltshire Blvd. His mirroring shot, two over the shoulder cameras behind each actor rolling simultaneously, evokes their isolation, and also gives a unified performance in one take. The actors chose not to rehearse beforehand, for a more organic, natural flow to the scene. Each looks off in one direction, reflecting on what is being laid down, then straight back into their adversaries eyes – wary, hesitant, slowly opening up, maintaining a safe distance, the table between them, intimate yet apart.
De Niro and Pacino, friendly in real life, avoided each other during filming. Andy McNab, arms specialist on Heat, recalls talking one evening to De Niro at a barbeque (funnily enough!) when he suddenly made his excuses and left – Pacino had turned up.
Multiple takes were shot, most of take eleven ending up in the film: two grandmasters bouncing off one another, subtle shifts of posture and tone batted back and forth. Pacino dials his character down , but the fire is still glittering behind those eyes.
“You and I are a couple of regular fellas, ” Vincent says, admitting that now he’s met Neil he likes him. However, “If it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow… brother, you are going down.”
Neil takes this in, then reciprocates. “There’s a flipside to that coin…No matter what, you will not get in my way. I will not hesitate, not for a second.” Vincent smiles. Game on.