Last week, budding young film critic Elena Lazic lent us her thoughts on witnessing Michael Mann’s crime opus Heat for this first time. Now experienced movie commentator Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large for BFI Southbank and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, takes us back to 1995.
When Heat appeared in 1995, it felt like a new kind of crime movie, even for admirers of Michael Mann’s work. We were used to his strikingly ‘modern’ imagery, his expressive use of music, the intense professionalism of his loner (male) protagonists. But Heat added scale. Though built around a fairly generic cat-and-mouse story of a highly efficient detective trying to identify and arrest a highly efficient thief, Heat felt bigger, more ambitious, more thought through than most policiers. It had the qualities of a good novel; a complex but credible story; vivid, plausible characters; a sense of how individuals relate to one another and to society; and an astute sense of pace, structure and narrative architecture.
Years later, Heat still delivers splendidly. What interests me now is how Mann managed to make it feel epic while giving us an impression of intimacy with the characters. This derives partly from his juxtaposition of ‘big’ scenes – the initial heist, the shoot-out after the bank robbery, the final chase at LAX airport – with ‘smaller’ scenes featuring fewer characters involved in everyday interaction –with family, friends, lovers or, in the famous coffee-shop conversation, just the LAPD predator and his prey. But we should also consider Mann’s distinctive approach to cinematic realism.
Heat’s narrative was more fragmented than in his previous films, implying that it was about many characters, not just the cop and the robber. But Mann also developed a fresh, subtly persuasive way of evoking the humanity and importance of minor characters. Note how he cuts away from Pacino to a reaction shot featuring one or several of the actors playing the detective’s colleagues; he does the same with De Niro and the actors playing his partners in crime. Few of these actors are given more than a few words to speak – indeed, the same is true of the women in the central pair’s lives – yet Mann’s frequent inclusion of mute shots of minor characters lets us feel we know them a little, even care about their welfare. In reality, the movie tells us very little about them, but filmmaking is illusionism: what counts is what we believe.
Mann’s painstaking attention to detail makes Heat feel unusually authentic. By including busy, documentary-style scenes which feature people apparently concentrating intensely but which have no real narrative significance, he makes us believe in the film’s less plausible aspects. In terms of their substance, the early shots in the bustling hospital need not have been staged in such detail. But because Mann wants us to believe in a spectacularly massive shoot-out and a rather improbable coffee-shop encounter, he ensures the ‘accuracy’ of everything, including stuff not central to his narrative.
That’s how Mann gets away with Heat’s remarkable ending. With its strange cubes, flashing lights and thunderous noise, the last inevitable encounter of the cop and his prey plunges towards apocalyptic abstraction, yet still we accept it as ‘reality’ thanks to everything we’ve already seen, heard and believed. Had Mann not taken such meticulous care in guiding us through a narrative which, for all its ingenuity, includes moments of implausibility, these closing minutes could have seemed like mere bathos. As it is, the almost operatic finale is tinged by tragedy.