The Essence of “Heat”: A Look into the Soul of Michael Mann’s Epic Crime Drama


The true heart of Michael Mann’s Heat is revealed a little more than an hour into the film. No, I’m not talking about the classic coffee conversation between Robert De Niro’s master thief, Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s obsessed LAPD cop, Vincent Hanna — that fantastic and immortal face-off comes a little later. I’m talking about a pair of scenes that, at first glance, might seem somewhat extraneous but, when put together, hold Heat’s essence.

In one, we see Hanna and his colleagues with their families at a bar. He and his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), are dancing, a rare moment of domestic intimacy between them. Suddenly, Hanna gets a message on his pager. Justine looks away, knowingly; she understands how this goes. Hanna immediately heads to a crime scene, where a teenage sex worker has been killed by Waingro (Kevin Gage), a former member of Neil’s crew who, it happens, is psychotic.

While Hanna is investigating the scene, the victim’s mother shows up, distraught. As she approaches, he moves to intercept her — he doesn’t want this woman seeing the ghastly state of her daughter’s corpse. He grabs her, and suddenly, they wind up in a strange embrace. And then — in a brief gesture that Mann lingers on, slowing down the action and ramping up the music — they dance. Hanna and the mother start turning, arms locked around each other, and it looks like nothing so much as a mournful slow dance, an equal and opposite intimacy to what he was doing moments ago with his wife. It’s a potent echo.

Mann likes to talk about Heat — which hits Blu-ray this week in a gorgeous new edition loaded with extras — as a contrapuntal, dialectical story. (That is among the many topics I recently discussed with him in an  interview.) And the cat-and-mouse game between these two protagonists, the thief and the cop, both of whom we find ourselves thoroughly invested in, certainly shapes the film. Heat follows two men who get in each other’s heads and wind up influencing each other’s actions.

But there’s another counterpoint at play here, between these men’s work and their emotional, domestic lives. In Hanna’s case, the film is structured around the toll that being a detective — a job for which he feels he must keep his instincts sharp — takes on his marriage. In McCauley’s case, it’s the opposite. When we first see him, he lives in an empty, beautiful house, and is intimate with no one. Later, when he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman) and falls for her, he begins to open up. And suddenly, his emotional life starts to take a toll on his work.

It’s this contrast that gives Heat such depth and turns it into something resembling poetry. Hanna struggles throughout with his marriage, with the fact that he’s never home for dinner, never emotionally available, never a real husband. Neil, once he becomes involved with Eady, starts to turn into the man Hanna refuses to be — the kind of person who might call home to check in when he’s out with others. As Hanna’s relationship falls apart, McCauley’s thrives.

And, in a final reversal, it’s the family man lieutenant who walks out on his attachments in order to get to the monklike career criminal. Toward the end of the film, Hanna sits in the hospital with Justine, waiting for word on her daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), who has just attempted suicide. (It’s another moment of rare domestic intimacy.) And yet again, Hanna gets a message on his beeper. With Justine’s encouragement this time, he’s off — in a funny, throwaway shot, Mann shows Pacino briskly trotting down the stairs, almost skipping, a free man.

It’s Neil, in the end, who can’t cut things loose — or acts to do so too late. He tries to take Eady with him on his getaway. Then, in a selfish act of vengeance, he detours to kill Waingro. By the time Neil does walk away — when he literally sees the heat (aka Hanna) coming around the corner and has to abandon his girlfriend — his fate is sealed.

Here comes one final convergence, which brings together the film’s twin counterpoints — cop and robber, work and home. Vincent was sitting in a hospital, holding hands with Justine, when he was called away — much as he’d been dancing with her earlier when he was summoned to the murder scene. Now, near the runways of LAX, after he has finally shot McCauley, he finds himself holding hands again — this time with the master criminal drawing his last breath. It’s not that, at long last, McCauley is dead and Hanna is alive. In the movie’s final shot, each man is perfectly still. They belong together. For both, this is the end of the line.