An ode to Michael Mann’s definitive L.A. crime film, ‘Heat’
Mann soon found some direction as an aspiring novelist at University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s from London Film School. In Hollywood he found early success writing for TV shows before directing the TV prison movie “The Jericho Mile” in 1979. His feature debut came with 1981’s “Thief,” based on real-life criminal John Santucci – establishing a pattern of using real people as character inspiration.
“Santucci was a high-line pro jewel thief. He was a burglar. And I got very close to him. He never stopped being a thief, even when he was on camera,” says Mann, referring to Santucci’s brief career in film and TV. “Santucci was a sometime informant and a full-time professional thief.”
Portraying him was James Caan, who died last month at 82. “I loved him. He was outrageous,” Mann says, recalling the time Caan told a top film executive he should quit, “and then proceeded to list all the reasons why this particular executive ought to fire himself.”
From “Thief,” Mann moved on to classics like “Manhunter,” which introduced Hannibal Lecter to filmgoers, and “The Insider,” which earned him three Oscar nominations. “Thief,” “Heat” and 2004’s “Collateral” marked him out as a peerless chronicler of modern Los Angeles’ criminal underworld.
The most indelible scene in “Heat” is a casual meeting between McCauley and Hanna. In their first scene together, De Niro and Pacino play deadly adversaries who share a grudging respect for each other’s drive and professionalism. The scene is based on a real-life encounter described to Mann by detective Charlie Adamson, former partner to Dennis Farina, who left the Chicago Police Department to pursue a successful career in Hollywood.
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“There was about to be a shootout in the parking lot, and then Adamson said, ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee,’” Mann recalls. That single moment of enemies breaking bread “opened up a whole world to me – respecting and admiring the professionalism of McCauley” though Adamson would “blow him out of his socks at the drop of a hat. Both can be true. It’s not a contradiction.”
The sequel-as-novel is just the latest twist in the long cross-genre journey of a story that’s been Mann’s constant companion throughout his career. He began writing the script in the 1970s, eventually turning it into a 1989 TV movie, “L.A. Takedown,” before reworking it into the 1995 feature film. “I’ve met the real people that are in this book and have been in the milieus that are in this book,” he explains. “In the real world, this stuff is way more exciting than anything you can make up sitting in a room in L.A.”
That hard-earned authenticity, based on insider knowledge and a journalistic eye, is a prized commodity in crime fiction, from the thrillers of former cop Jobaugh to ex-reporter David Simon’s “The Wire.” Mann, who comes by his expertise via decades-long relationships with cops and criminals, has now brought it to both the screen and the page via the same narrative.
Adamson, who was dropping off his cleaning, looked across the street and saw the real-life McCauley going into Belden Deli
What the 27-year-gap has allowed Mann to do is mark the impact of time on both mortal men and the crimes they perpetrate. Toward the end of “Heat 2,” Shiherlis finds himself on the precipice of a new world in transnational crime – software systems that can penetrate any defense or shield offenders from crime solvers. He realizes bank jobs like the ones he pulled off with McCauley’s crew are going the way of the dinosaur.