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100 Greatest Gangster Films: Heat, #59

Movie still: Heat

100 Greatest Gangster Films

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Heat, #59

This is an organized crime movie in the literal sense of that term. It’s not about the mob, but about a gang of well-organized professional thieves. They know their business and work it very well. They, in turn, are tracked by a group of police detectives who also take their work very seriously.

Movie still: Heat

Robert De Niro plays a Los Angeles gangster in Heat. (1995-R)
© 1995 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Back in the 1980s in South Philadelphia, there was a woman named April who was married to a mobster named Cuddles. No kidding, Cuddles.

April had serious information about a couple of murders her husband allegedly had been involved in and came to believe that he planned to kill her. So she went to the Feds and became a cooperating witness. For a time, she lived in a safe house under FBI protection and hung out with a lot of guys in law enforcement serving in a rotating task force assigned to guard her. April eventually testified against her husband, whom she divorced. Then she married one of the FBI agents.

At one point, someone asked April what the difference was between the cops and the wiseguys.

Without missing a beat, she said, “The cops have badges.”

That’s the point that Michael Mann makes dramatically in this slick and sophisticated cops-and-robbers movie that paired Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for the first time.

This is an organized crime movie in the literal sense of that term. It’s not about the mob, but about a gang of well-organized professional thieves. They know their business and work it very well.

They, in turn, are tracked by a group of police detectives who also take their work very seriously. Neil McCauley (De Niro) heads the gang of outlaws; Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) directs the LAPD unit that is tracking McCauley.

Both put their jobs ahead of their personal lives. And every other relationship they have suffers as a result. Hanna is on the downside of his third marriage.

“This is not sharing, this is leftovers,” his wife Justine (Diane Venora) says during one of several arguments about Hanna choosing his work over their marriage.

McCauley lives alone in a sparsely furnished luxury apartment with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles.

“I’m alone, I’m not lonely,” he tells an associate asking about his lifestyle.

Both men define themselves by what they do. Nothing else matters.

Mann, who wrote the script and directed the movie, takes nearly three hours to tell the story. Along the way, he gives us lots of the action scenes that were the trademark of his Miami Vice television series. But he also includes scenes that lend themselves to the kind of introspective character study more typical of French gangster films.

McCauley and Hanna only have three scenes together, all in the second half of the film. But each is aware of the other as the game of cat-and-mouse unfolds. Each, in fact, has an almost animal-like instinct for the game and the other’s presence.

They finally come face-to-face when Hanna pulls McCauley over after tailing him through the streets of Los Angeles and invites him to have a cup of coffee in a nearby restaurant. They already seem to know one another.

McCauley, who has spent time in prison, tells Hanna he has no intention of going back. Hanna says the best way to avoid prison is to stop doing scores. Both know that’s not an option. Then they each talk about their work and how it has impacted their lives.

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Hanna says.

“Neither do I,” says McCauley.

“I don’t much want to, either,” says the cop.

“Neither do I,” replies the robber.

Heat moves in several different directions at once and provides backstories that flesh out many of the characters, especially the women in the lives of the central figures.

Amy Brenneman’s Eady is both attracted and fearful of McCauley and Ashley Judd is both loyal and disloyal as the wife of Chris (Val Kilmer), McCauley’s top associate.

At one point, Mann has both groups—the gangsters and the cops chasing them—out partying with their wives and girlfriends. The events take place at two different locations, but we see the same things going on at each locale.

These are multidimensional cops and robbers. Highly armed and dangerous—and often literally explosive. Both the good guys and the bad guys bring their, A games. And sometimes, it’s hard to tell one group from the other, which is the point both Mann and April were making.

HIT: Too often, gangster movies use action and violence to define character. Michael Mann has plenty of both here, but also spends the time—some critics argued too much time—showing his characters operating in their domestic worlds to give us a glimpse of who these people really are.

MISS: The armored truck heist that opens the movie goes awry because one of the robbers, Waingro (Kevin Gage), is trigger-happy. Waingro is new to the McCauley group and is clearly a loose cannon. Given the caution and detailed planning that are the hallmarks of McCauley’s operational style, it makes no sense that he would bring someone like Waingro into the group.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “This is the first time De Niro and Pacino have acted together . . . and each gives a strong, water-tight performance. The problem is, they’ve both appeared in high-energy crime yarns before, and Mann’s story doesn’t require them to do anything new, or to show new facets to their talents.

“The other problem is that Heat peaks too early. . . . You think the film is ready to end. Instead, it has more than an hour to go. It’s a monster of a movie and it gets unwieldy.”—Edward Guthmann, San Franciso Chronicle

REALITY CHECK: Some of the events and De Niro’s character were based on an investigation in Chicago into a band of robbers headed by an underworld figure named McCauley.

After the movie’s release, authorities cited armored car robberies in South Africa, Colombia, Denmark, and Norway that had mimicked the robbery at the start of Heat.

“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Jeremy Piven, who plays the obnoxious agent Ari Gold in HBO’s popular series Entourage, is the rogue doctor who appears in one scene, patching up Chris (Val Kilmer) after the big shootout outside the bank. Natalie Portman also makes a limited appearance as Hanna’s troubled teenage stepdaughter.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The movie was a remake of L.A. Takedown, a made for TV movie that Mann wrote and directed. It aired in 1989. The television version was a pared-down account of the same story, one that Mann had been trying to get to the big screen for more than a decade.

BEST LINE: “You wanna be making moves on the street, have no attachments. Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner,” says McCauley while he and Chris discuss Chris’ problems at home with his wife (Ashley Judd). The line captures the underworld philosophy of the De Niro character, a philosophy that is challenged when he falls in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman).

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Highly potent weaponry and lots of characters who know how to put it to use.

BODY COUNT: A minimum of twenty-one, although so many bodies keep dropping during the bank shootout, an accurate count isn’t really possible.


Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Heat, #59 1

George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and author of several books, including "Blood and Honor" which Jimmy Breslin called "the best gangster book ever written." Glen Macnow was a writer for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Detroit Free Press." He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia. George and Glen have co-authored "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies."

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