Michael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers. For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan. The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief. While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.
James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life. In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life. Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.
I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream. This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago. One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style. Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling. When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies. The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann. He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul. Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few. There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.
This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through. It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his. He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here. Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family. He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up. Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject. Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man. Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety. Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie. This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her. Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human. Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience. However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.
Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness. Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels. There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller. Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.
There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me. For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator. He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more. The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away. This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude. Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank. So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.
Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago. All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role. This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time. This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists. None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified. We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill. The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score. Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising. However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others. Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.
There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars. Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront. And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms. This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film. He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies. He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.
Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude. He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes. Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments. This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass. How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed. The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose. From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love. And overall, their score is innovative and captivating. It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.
Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling. Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie. It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter. Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook. No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story. With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie. If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann. It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.
The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more. This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece. It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection. I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.” His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down. As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered. With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!
Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them. Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it. Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it. Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives. They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that. All they are is what they’re going after. That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.
Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here. However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is. You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene. He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime. He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything. You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin. Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine. The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna. These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person. Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.
And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro. He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him. De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient. There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures. Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities. That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover. Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady. It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart. Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.
Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities. Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch. Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance. Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last. Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto. There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.
I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns. Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion. Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew. He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery. Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear. Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses. Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating. It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.
The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women. Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them. The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life. Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage. She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty. Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals. She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about. For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life. Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife. As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble. For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.
Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat. He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight. Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture. There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon. This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe. Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.
Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score. A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes. His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix. It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story. At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout. The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl. Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully. Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work. Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”
Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory. That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation. The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings. They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives. Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film. Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro. In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down. They show what haunts them and what drives them. There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other. These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another. Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.
Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan. Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted. It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially. The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films. He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.
The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann. The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent. Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted. The climactic moment is excellent and poetic. Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.
I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it. Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all. This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season. Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either. It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations. This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director. Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds. And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider. However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.