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"Heat" at 25
Michael Mann's groundbreaking crime-drama turns a quarter of a century old.
Last week marked the 25th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite movies, Heat. Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama starring Hollywood heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is an absolute masterpiece that I’ve watched countless times over the years.
Though the movie has held up very well, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that it had turned a quarter of a century old. That’s mainly because I remember seeing it for the first time in a theater with my college roommates (and walking out afterwards thinking, “Wow”).
Pacino is fantastic as Lt. Vincent Hanna, a tenacious LAPD robbery-homicide detective who’s hot on the trail of a crew of professional bank-robbers led by Neil McCauley, played brilliantly by De Niro. Their work in this film is memorable on multiple levels, from Pacino’s work/life complications and his wide-eyed rhetorical outbursts (some of them ad-libbed), to De Niro’s no-nonsense portrayal of a man stuck between the discipline required for his work and the hidden desire for a more meaningful life.
The large supporting cast is also tremendous. Val Kilmer, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, and others deliver first-rate performances. And if you’re into the “cool” factor, it’s tough to beat the seasoning of Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Kevin Gage, and Wes Studi.
On a side note, Wes Studi, who’s perhaps best known for his role as the sinister “Magua” in The Last of the Mohicans (another Mann film), was an early Twitter follower of mine. I’m not quite sure how or why it happened, but I’m among just 200 lucky souls who can say that. Wes even occasionally replies to my tweets, which to me is particularly cool since Magua is one of my all-time favorite movie villains.
Anyway, back to Heat.
While the film’s cast is spectacular, it’s really Michael Mann’s writing and directing that place this movie far ahead of most in its genre. Its tone and dialogue-rich development of complicated characters and relationships amount to masterful storytelling.
The parallels Mann draws between Hanna and McCauley (and their respective crews) are in themselves a creative achievement. A lot of it is subtle, but the picture becomes much clearer in the iconic “diner scene” where the adversaries calmly and coolly size each other up from opposite ends of a table.
The tension between them subsides for a few moments as they find themselves discussing their relationships, future goals, and even recurring dreams. They realize that they have a surprising number of things in common, but they both leave undeterred from the plans that will eventually bring them back together in a chaotic, deadly confrontation.
Movie buffs particularly enjoy this scene because, believe it or not, it was the first time Pacino and De Niro had ever appeared on-screen together. What was sort of unknown to a lot of fans at the time, however, was whether or not the two had actually filmed the scene together. Just about every shot in the diner includes just one of them. And the very brief one where they both appear looks like it could have easily been shot at separate times, using a split-screen special effect.
Another suggestion of it came from the scene’s prominent inclusion of a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup sitting on the table between them. It felt less like product placement, and more like a prop used to tie the scene, and the positioning of the actors, together.
Earlier this year, I happened to stumble across a t-shirt online by an artist who actually depicted this scene with special attention to the ketchup bottle. Of course, I had to buy it (though pretty much no one I run into while wearing it “gets it” but me).
As it turned out, the two screen legends had filmed that scene together. What they hadn’t done is rehearse the scene beforehand, for the purpose of making it appear more organic. It certainly showed, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. Also of note is that most of the scene was filmed in a single take.
One theme of Michael Mann’s films, that is very much present in Heat, is characters paying the consequences of their own decisions.
Watching Heat for the first time, viewers are introduced to one particular character who seems to have been created by Mann purely for the purpose of embodying this element. I’m talking about ex-convict Donald Breedan (played by Dennis Haysbert).
Breedan is trying to turn his life around for him and his girlfriend, who stuck by him while in prison. After serving his time, he quickly finds that a man of his criminal background has very few options for honest work. He takes a low-paying job at a restaurant where the cruel owner subjects him to inhumane work conditions, and dangles his probationary status in front of him. The film checks in on Breedan from time to time, but the character has no connection at all to any of the other characters or larger plot until well over two hours into the film. At which point, he’s unexpectedly called on to make a life-changing decision, for which he’s very much held accountable.
We see the same theme with Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer’s character), whose choices lose him the love of his life. And just when McCauley thinks he may have found his, and is scot-free to pursue a new life with her, his nagging desire for revenge (complete with a well-done metaphorical tunnel shot) alters those plans.
Of course, one can’t talk about this movie without recognizing one of the wildest, most intense shoot-outs in film history. Michael Mann was so consumed with making the prolonged rip-roaring, shell-dropping, multi-block melee as realistic as possible that he hired a British ex-Special Air Service special forces sergeant to train the actors involved in the scene. The training lasted three months, most of it involving live ammunition.
I you haven’t seen Heat, and I haven’t given away too many plot-lines (sorry if I did), you should really check it out. It’s a long film, but it won’t lose you. It will consume you.
For those who have seen it, you might be interested to know that Mann is currently writing a prequel to the film, in the form of a novel. He apparently plans to write a sequel as well, again in literary form. I can’t wait to read both.
The Best of Both Worlds
Over the past few months in this newsletter, I’ve written about how I’ve missed attending live concerts during the pandemic, and also about the pros and cons of streaming music. One of the pros, as first became part of our culture with mix-tapes in the 1980s, is the ability to compile music and share it with others. Streaming services make this ridiculously easy.
So, I decided to throw together a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite live performances over the years, to share with Daly Grind readers. You’ll certainly recognize some of these tunes, but I’m betting you haven’t heard the live versions of more than a couple.
Incidentally, I was actually in the audience for one of these concerts (not knowing it was being recorded). You may be able to figure out which one based on the venue listing.
Enjoy! (Click on the preview below to listen to the full playlist on Spotify).
I’m somewhat surprised (perhaps even disappointed) in myself that I’ve been writing this newsletter since September, and am just now getting around to featuring a Drivin N Cryin album. Talk about a sound that was made for vinyl.
I became familiar with this great Georgia rock band back in 1991, when guitar-heavy songs from their Fly Me Courageous album were getting some decent radio play. I loved their southern sound, including Kevn Kinney’s very unique, soulful vocals. But I didn’t really explore their other work until years later… which was a big mistake on my part because it’s pretty great.
Mystery Road, the album that preceded Fly Me Courageous in 1989, is overflowing with great music. 20 years after its release, the Washington Post said it "remains a classic of the genre."
Straight to Hell is probably the best-known song on the album, a folksy track written about Kinney’s sister. Honeysuckle Blue is a cool southern tune that sticks in the mind as well. The violin-thick Ain’t it Strange has a very cool sound, while You Don’t Know Me is probably the album’s heaviest rocker. In fact, there’s so much diversity on this album that it almost comes across as a compilation. Even a little punk is thrown in.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!