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Retrospective Film Review: Michael Mann’s Heat

Sunday 26 April 2015
Words Ailis Mara

Obviously there’s far too much to say about perhaps the greatest crime movie in the history of Cinema than can ever be written. And people have written a lot about Heat.

Mann’s breathtaking fruition of his original 1979, 180-page treatment, that went on to find its way into the world in a truncated version as L. A. Takedown, a 1989 TV movie, before finding its way to the greater public in all its three-hour glory in 1995. Heat is one of those rare moments in film in which not only do all the production and creative elements align to form a sublime and cohesive whole, but also when artistic intention syncs with public reception.

Time has not undone Heat. It still looks like it might have been made last year and what’s more extraordinary, audiences, with their fickle and fleeting preferences, I’m sure would still mark it out as a thing of extraordinary construct. The story is pure cops ‘n’ robbers. Al Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, a dedicated and canny LAPD lieutenant hot on the trail of Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a career criminal of comparable intellect. While on the chase, Hanna has to confront a relationship in tailspin with his wife Justine (Diane Venora), as well as with his volatile and vulnerable step-daughter (played by freshly-post Leon-ed Natalie Portman). McCauley isn’t as alone, surrounding himself as he has with an extended family of loyal lawbreakers, but he is lonely, drawn into an existential crisis of commitment to his mantra (“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.”) versus a regular-Joe relationship with graphic designer Eady (Amy Brenneman).

Mann’s film is a profound duet for his two protagonists, different sides of the same coin, something the famed coffee shop scene expertly and efficiently dissects. Perhaps Heat‘s success comes from its broad, literary tone where the writing is poetic but never portentous, and the imagery is inescapably arresting (filmed by the great Dante Spinotti). On top of that, Mann’s great and enduring love for the ECM and 4AD record labels gift his scenes with mesmeric underscore from Terje Rypdal, Lisa Gerrard, and Michael Brook. Heat then is total triumphant, immersive cinema, as expansive as a Shakespearean tragedy, as meticulous and complicated as a Straussian opera. In another universe, it might have been conceived as an acclaimed and elaborate graphic novel. Mann’s exposé on Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco-industry whistle-blower in The Insider comes a close second, but Heat remains his – and the genre’s – finest hour.