What can be said about Michael Mann’s seminal 1995 crime drama masterpiece that hasn’t already been said by countless others and probably much more succinctly than I ever could? I could, somewhat controversially, claim that Heat isn’t his best film and I’d be right; It isn’t his best film as that honour belongs to 1999’s The Insider (and the last truly great Al Pacino performance). But it is my favourite Michael Mann film and the first film that I ever watched that made me feel something that I’d never felt watching a film before.
It’s hard to describe this feeling and you don’t really know what it is until after the fact. You are different afterwards and you don’t know why. It’s like you’ve been exposed to some hidden truth not just about the world but a hidden truth within yourself. You see things differently, like you’ve been privy to something that has allowed you to feel a level of empathy that just wasn’t possible before.
The world may have been black and white once but now it is multicoloured and vivid and brimming with potential. You’ve just experienced something that has spoken to you on a soul level: An elevated experience that goes beyond the physical and into the mystical.
In short, I had fallen in love.
As this is Cinema day, I should cop to the fact that I only saw Heat for the first time in an actual movie theatre this year and that in 1995, I was about 9. Funnily enough I was aware of Heat way back then and the stir it caused because Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were finally going to share the same space on screen together for the first time in their careers.
I was aware of Pacino from The Godfather, Scent of a Woman and Sea of Love and De Niro from Goodfellas and Raging Bull. I should stress that I wasn’t a particularly precocious child but rather a lack of a real father figure combined with a surrogate one (my older brother) who let me watch things I really shouldn’t have been watching informed my knowledge of these two acting titans. To be honest, I really didn’t like any of these movies or appreciate them until many years later but when I saw Heat about four years later on TV, something clicked the way it had never done before. Almost overnight, film turned from hobby to obsession.
There’s a lot to be in awe of with Heat but more than the cool shoot-outs, the macho posturing (which Mann never fetishises like some film-makers do, in fact he frequently tears it down) or moments of Val Kilmer being awesome that are peppered throughout the movie, it’s how the music and the cinematography combine to create something ethereal, something that speaks to the melancholy of our existence and how we’re always in a race against time or “Having enough time to do what you wanna do” as Pacino’s Vincent Hanna says to De Niro’s Neil McCauley.
The scenes that became ingrained in my head from the very first viewing were both music heavy and featured Moby and Brian Eno: Moby’s cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” when Hanna chases McCauley down a freeway to set up the coffee-shop scene; Eno’s percussive and insistent “Force Marker” that leads up to and is played during the bank robbery; and finally Moby’s gorgeous “God Moving Over the Face of The Waters” that closes the movie. This isn’t just putting cool music over a scene, there is an art to this and few do it as well as Michael Mann.
Interestingly the score is credited to Elliot Goldenthal & The Kronos Quartet but the soundtrack features an interesting collection of artists from the aforementioned Eno and Moby to U2 (under their 90’s guise as the ambient focused Passengers) and the weird and wonderful Einstürzende Neubauten. The great feat of the score is that tracks from other artists mix seamlessly with the score by Goldenthal & The Kronos Quartet. The music, much like Los Angeles, really becomes another character in the movie.
Watching the film as an adult is, obviously enough, different from watching it as an adolescent but what I appreciate now is just how accurately it depicts falling in love. De Niro’s Neil McCauley is almost monk like in his dedication to his work as a criminal to the point that the house he nominally lives in is shorn of any adornments like furniture or paintings: The austerity of his living space matching the emptiness of his soul.
Neil, early on in the film, scolds Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis for the mess he’s in over his relationship with his wife (played by Ashley Judd) by repeating a mantra he learnt from his time in prison:
Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.
Chris’s response (which is the 3rd most romantic line of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie) to this is:
For me the sun rises and sets with her, man.
The irony of course is that Neil will break his rule of no attachments and yet paradoxically keep to it later on in the movie but by then it’s too late – love has already done the damage so to speak. Neil falls for Eady (played by Amy Brenneman) and their initial meeting is one of those non-events that are very true to life and love. She works in a bookstore that Neil frequents and she notices him from time to time.
Eady tries to strike up a conversation with him in a nearby diner but it fails initially because Neil doesn’t remember or recognise her. Also he’s constantly in a mode that precludes casual conversation and he inadvertently offends her. But he opens up ever so slightly when he realises this and tries to reciprocate her initial friendly gesture. And so begins Neil’s gradual change and embrace of something he’s always run away from: falling in love.
In a movie that presents a world with people who do ugly things because, in some cases, society or economics has hindered them from doing anything else, there’s not a lot of hope in the film but the exception is the love story between Eady and Neil. Neil, a loner in many respects, is now embracing another human being because he’s experiencing, likely for the first time, true love and embracing the spontaneity that comes with it.
Is there a better example of that heady rush of first love as when Neil asks Eady to come with him to New Zealand after only knowing her for a brief period of time? When she protests that he doesn’t really know her, his reply is “I know enough”.
But my favourite scene is when Neil confesses to Eady the confusion that he is feeling about where he suddenly finds himself in life. And not for nothing, it features the second most romantic line I’ve ever heard in a movie. This scene, so sumptuously shot in a lugubrious blue hue, combined with this piece of music by Terje Rypdal (again another artist and not from the main score) absolutely melts me. Every single time.
Falling in love is akin to being exposed to the world’s most powerful truth serum. You not only see through bullshit but you can no longer bullshit yourself. Neil and Eady at one point, early on, talk about loneliness and Neil tells her that “I am alone but I’m not lonely”. But by the time we get to the clip above, Neil can no longer lie to himself.
In Roger Ebert’s masterful review of Heat, he made this sublime note about the characters in Heat:
Of the many imprisonments possible in our world, one of the worst must be to be inarticulate – to be unable to tell another person what you really feel. These characters can do that. Not that it saves them.
Neil is liberated by Eady and he opens himself up to the confusing, mind altering rush that is love. This once rigid and strict disciplinarian is now free from his self made prison; He’s able to tell another person what he really feels. Tragically, and in the context of the movie, it’s also what leads Neil to his demise. His deviation from a code and his embrace of spontaneity is what causes his downfall.
A cynic could read this as an indictment of falling in love but you’d be missing the point if you did.
I fell for Heat as a boy because, for me, it opened up the possibilities of what cinema was capable of and I’m still in love with it as a man because I recognise the truth embodied within the film and the characters.
This is a film worth falling in love with….