HEAT: A Modern American Classic

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

“So you never wanted a regular type life?” 

The crime saga has been a genre staple in film-making since nearly the beginning, with the earliest surviving gangster film from early pioneer D.W. Griffith being made in 1912. While other types of stories have risen and fallen in popularity in the 100 years since, the public has maintained a near constant fascination with the celluloid exploits of the outlaw. Filmmakers like Scorsese, De Palma, and Sidney Lumet (just to name a few) made careers out of exploring what makes those on both sides of the law tick. Arguably none of them, however, have done so with the same obsessive attention to realistic depiction as Michael Mann.

Mann is well known for being an intensely meticulous filmmaker, both in preparation and in practice. Much has been written about the research that goes into his process and the dedication to accuracy; from William Peterson working alongside FBI Violent Crimes before starring in Manhunter to paroled thief John Santucci acting as technical adviser, and taking on a bit part on Mann’s debut, Thief. The effect is often felt in the text, with a degree of authenticity not afforded in the average crime saga.

In many ways, Mann is an anti-blockbuster filmmaker. Which is not to say that he doesn’t make big films; Mann is unrivaled in the genre when it comes to creating set pieces, with the most well known being the bank shootout from Heat (often praised for its realism, both mechanically and tactically) which was famously said to have inspired the Battle of North Hollywood. Ultimately though, the brilliance is in the telling, as nothing ever feels fetishized to the point of Hollywood levels of exaggeration. At his best, Mann is something akin to a sociologist. Even when the stories he is telling are undeniably cinematic, his best work feels most like an honest and hyper realistic examination of its subject.


“I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me.”

While Mann has turned in arguably several masterpieces working in the crime genre (namely Thief, Collateral, and Miami Vice, with the latter two being films I hope to write much more about soon) none stands taller than Heat. It is a towering film, both in the genre and in modern American cinema. It is also a film that owes its existence to the man who lived it: former Chicago police officer turned TV writer/producer, Charlie Adamson.

In 1963, Adamson, then a Detective in the Major Crimes Unit,* became aware of a man named Neil McCauley. McCauley was a career thief recently released from the infamous prison on Alcatraz. Upon release, McCauley began plotting heist jobs almost immediately, drawing the attention of the Major Crimes Unit. In recounting the story, Mann explains how Adamson was dropping off his dry cleaning one day when he saw McCauley getting out of his car to get a cup of coffee. McCauley had been under surveillance from Adamson’s team for some time by now, and McCauley knew both that he was being watched and who was watching him. The two men put eyes on each other, and violence could have erupted imminently. Instead, Adamson offers to buy the other man a cup of coffee, leading to a scene said to have played out very similarly to the one we see on film. Most famously, this includes an alpha exchange between the two, “we’re sitting here like a couple of regular fellows, but if you come at me or if I come at you, I will not hesitate.”

In 1964, McCauley and his crew would go on to attempt an armored car robbery, foiled in part when Adamson and his team boxed out the exit routes. A shootout ensued and McCauley was killed by Adamson on the front lawn of a residential neighborhood.

It was the relationship between the two men that fascinated Mann, who first heard the story recounted circa 1980 (Note: Heat was released in 1995) ** According to Mann, Adamson respected his rival for his discipline and professionalism, and this is reflected in the film. Mann’s approach to cops and robbers was not entirely revolutionary in the medium, but few filmmakers had committed to the portrait so thoroughly. In Heat, there are no good guys and bad guys, there are only the players. Most importantly, they’re given damn near equal screen time. De Niro’s crew of thieves (made up of Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo among others) have interior lives, they have wives and girlfriends. They’ve got children and dreams. They are ordinary people. Similarly, the cops are not given any heroic complexities; they are average men doing a job, not immune to the toll police work takes on their lives and their families. It is an incredible exercise in making one city (Los Angels) feel like the largest possible stage for this cat and mouse chase, and Mann wrings every bit of tension and thrills from the set up. It is a flavor that would go on to be of tremendous influence (most recently on Nolan’s The Dark Knight [2008]). 

It is in every sense an epic film. With a 172 minute run-time, some critics have complained about the inclusion of certain subplots and smaller characters, such as the time given to Chris (Val Kilmer) and the complex relationship he shares with his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd). But to this writer, it is all necessary to fully appreciate and understand the world inhabited by the major players. All of these men (and to a lesser degree, but only because there are less of them, women) contain multitudes (particularly the two leads) and allowing the film to breathe allows Mann to fully realize the depths it can go. The film acts as a novelization of the medium, at least 5 years before the approach began to catch fire during the latest Golden Age of TV (see: The Sopranos, The Wire, etc). 

At the heart of the film, though, is the relationship between Hanna (Pacino) and McCauley (De Niro). The characterization of these two men is so soulful and thrilling that it puts aside any fears of wearing out the “one last job” plot. This was the first time the two acting titans had shared the screen, and it lived up to the billing. Though both would arguably spend the next decade plus delving into lesser work, this was everything a pairing felt like it would be. Onscreen, these are two men who identify one another as two sides of the same coin, destined now that they have found one another to do so until one of them is put down. In every Mann film, characters live by a code, and even for those on opposing sides, there is a sense of understanding not shared by those who lead “normal” lives. As McCauley puts it only for Hanna to agree, “I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t much want to, either.” 

The ending of the film (which I won’t spoil, release date be damned) is tragic, stirring and entirely inevitable. Even when each man makes choices that will only lead to one conclusion, the final act is in turn thrilling and heartbreaking. For these men, there is no other way. Both Hanna and McCauley are called upon to sacrifice things they love to the altar of the men they must be.


“A guy told me one time, ‘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 coming around the corner…'”

Mann recounted the coffee shop conversation between Adamson and the real McCauley as “the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think.” It’s little wonder why the story remained of such interest to Mann over time; it is a thematic summation of so much of his work on film filtered through reality, acting essentially as an inversion of his entire approach. It’s fitting then that in the retelling, it would become his greatest achievement. 

* Fun fact: one of his partners during this time was Dennis Farina, the Chicago police officer turned prolific actor, who would go on to work with Mann several times.

** An earlier draft of the script was filmed in 1989. L.A. Takedown, a TV movie that was also intended as a potential pilot was an early prototype for what would become the film. After Mann disagreed with the network about the tone of the show, he opted to go another way.

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