Heat

Nick James,
Heat (BFI Modern Classics).
London: BFI Publishing, 2002.
ISBN: 0 85170 938 9
96pp
UK£8.99 (pb)
(Book supplied by BFI Publishing)

“Violent crime film, tragic epic, heist movie, realistic thriller, sobering action movie, policier, melodrama – by using all these terms in trying to pin down what I enjoy about Heat (and what disturbs me) I have intimated what a slippery behemoth it is to define.” (13)

Heat (is) a meeting place for a complex set of ideas and responses that grew out of the late 1970s and the early 80s to dominate the imagery of the 1990s.” (76)

On the front cover of Nick James’s book on Heat (1995) there is an arresting two-shot of Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer wearing dark glasses and smart suits, walking out of the bank they have just robbed. It is the moment in the film just before the streets of L.A. explode into a violent gun battle as Al Pacino tries to stop De Niro’s criminal crew in their tracks. The image on the back cover of the book reveals an animated Al Pacino with his hands pointing to two possible escape routes just after an earlier robbery. These iconic images of these actors are part of a wider selection of commanding images that support, illustrate and underline this thoughtful analysis of Michael Mann’s visually spectacular epic crime film Heat. This is a book that is as good to look at as it is to read.

James’s study of Heat is an accomplished addition to the ever-expanding BFI modern classics series. It is also a welcome addition to the scant literature on the film and television work of Michael Mann. In the tradition of other books in this series, James sets out to detail the film’s origins and sources, its themes and preoccupations, its different versions, its place in Mann’s oeuvre and the way it can be read as both an index and a repository of its aesthetic and cultural moment. Structuring the book loosely around a chronological retelling of the narrative, James undertakes a close analysis of key sequences from the film, weaving passages of description and analysis. In the process of doing so he attempts to reveal what it is about Mann’s ambitious crime film that makes it one of contemporary cinema’s masterworks.

James makes his own passion for the film very clear from the beginning. He claims that “Heat goes deep with me” (7), illuminating this further by saying that “Heat ‘s treatment of work, destiny and male identity…moves me to a stronger degree than anything in most of the art-house films of the 1990s.”(7) This is an important claim to make about a film that had been dismissed by some as little more than an excessively long genre film. But James’s passion is also tempered by his acknowledgement that Heat is a “slippery behemoth” (13) of a film replete with “fulsome ambivalence” (14) and “teeming contradictions” (14), consistently challenging those who have seen it and chosen to write about it.

There is certainly a good deal of evidence to suggest that many writers and viewers have had difficulties with the film. James mentions Richard Combs who, at the time of the film’s release, argued that Heat “gives off a blankness, an indeterminacy, that frustrates interpretation.”(15) In Australia there was a particularly interesting case in which film critic Adrian Martin was initially moderate in his response to the film in his weekly column for the Age. A few weeks later, however, he publicly retracted this earlier analysis, saying he had missed the film entirely and, after a return viewing, celebrated its complex and layered sound/image construction. He even changed his rating for the film from three to four and a half stars. Such are the mercurial, mysterious and elusive qualities of Heat that in two viewings it could bring about such a public change of heart.

It is these kinds of shifting responses that inform James’s central claims for the film. He goes on to say that it may very well be these troubling elements in Heat – its mixture of contradictions and ambivalences, its shifts in tone and genre – that are the very things that make it a contemporary classic. Apparently contradictory impulses are nothing new to those conversant with the cinema of Michael Mann. On the one hand, his films reveal an impulse to high stylisation with their experimental sound/image relationships, racy editing, the play with light and colour, and their glossy surfaces. But, on the other hand, there is a realist, almost documentary, impulse that is found in the stories he chooses to tell, the locations he selects, the actors he works with and the painstaking research he undertakes. Heat eloquently combines these two impulses. It is both highly stylised at the same time as it is has its origins in the real and the true. And it is precisely this nexus between realism and high stylisation that James is talking about when he says that “Of all the ambivalences that make Heat such a high-wire act, none is more extreme than the contrast between Mann’s desire for a hard factual basis to his films and the gleaming, hyper-real end result.” (15)

In the first part of his book James tracks the impulse to realism in Mann’s early films. He finds evidence of Mann’s insistence on accurate research and a “reality-based method” in Jericho Mile (1979), Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986) as well as Heat. He notes that Heat in fact originated in a true story that L.A. cop Chuck Adamson told Mann about a thief he once met but, in the line of duty, was forced to shoot. James even cites an interview in which Mann condemns “style” as something that will only hold a reader’s attention for a short period of time, as he goes on to speak about his own desire to tell real and true stories.

But, in spite of Mann’s own claims, James’s analysis goes on to demonstrate that what is most compelling about Heat is more than the fact that it is an “expert crime procedural movie” (16) with realistic crime scenes, characters based on real people and actual environments. It is, in fact, evident from the very beginning of his book that it is Heat‘s complex formal construction that draws him in. It is also there in his writing. Of particular note is his well-observed description of McCauley’s house where he tries to give a sense of the look and feel of the liquid blue interior: “A mirror-like surface floats in the foreground of a bare unlit room, reflecting what’s beyond it: a set of glass sliding doors that open onto a concrete balcony with a fuzzy view of the night-time ocean. The sea is immensely blue, flooding the room with blue (I don’t know what blue, lighter than Matisse blue or Yves Klein blue, but just as intense, and almost phosphorescent). (34)

The thrilling action sequences in the streets of downtown L.A. also grab James’s attention. In fact he claims that “the partial mystery of the film’s appeal for me, it’s the battle’s resemblance to one in a Western or a war film that excites me most.” (71) As he tries to understand why he is affected by these action sequences he is once again drawn to the stylization. He talks about the sound that he describes as “astonishing in its variety of penetrations and ricochets.” (68) There are also the figures of the men in battle that are so visually abstracted that they remind him of Robert Longo’s black and white drawings Men in the Cities (69). These action sequences are so strikingly stylized that, for James, they invite comparisons to the cinema of John Woo. He says that the “ambition, invention and stylized violence (of Heat’s action moves) challenge the thrill-count of even John Woo’s fantasy action blockbuster.” (13) It is a thought-provoking comparison and I would suggest that a comparative study of Heat and Hard Boiled (Hong Kong, 1992) waits to be written. And yet, while James begins to communicate a sense of the action and affect of Heat, there is much more still to be said. The limitations of the small book format means that James’s study of Heat is the start of what I hope will become a growing body of literature on style in the cinema of Michael Mann.

Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution to the critical literature on Mann can be found in the attention that James pays to the role and place of the female characters. This interest in the women is significant for two reasons. One is because Mann is usually described as a director of men’s stories, focusing primarily on men and their relationships with each other. The other is because the crime genre is not known for its interest in the “human drama” of relationships. James points out how pivotal the women are in this crime story, saying, “They are there not only to show us, in romantic and sexual terms, what the men have to lose, but also to challenge their inadequacy and to thwart their excesses.” (36) He also quotes at length some striking conversations between Justine and Vincent. In particular there is Justine’s poetic, evocative prose as she describes what is wrong with their relationship. With lines such as “You don’t live with me, you live amongst dead people. You sift through the detritus; you read the terrain; you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey..” James observes quite rightly that this is “hardly regular crime film ‘husband and wife stuff'”.(49) In quoting these lengthy monologues James foregrounds one of the many ways in which the complicated relationships between these men and women are delineated. In fact, it is in the fleeting connections and disconnections between these solitary individuals that the film becomes something else. For James, it is “in the confrontation between Justine and Hanna… that Mann is trying to forge a new hybrid of melodrama, tragedy and thriller.”(51)

James concludes his book by returning to the issue he raised earlier about the overlap between the “real” and the “highly stylized”. The connection, in this instance, is a story of a “real-life heist” that took place in North Hollywood. The reason that James mentions this heist had to do with its evident similarity to the one in Heat, a fact apparently noted by most news broadcasters. James takes this story further by explaining how the cultural theorist Norman M. Klein screened the footage from the newscast and the shoot-out scene from Heat to his students. The students responded by saying that Heat “looked more realistic” but that the “film grammar” of the two formats was identical (76). In this case Heat becomes significant for more reasons than its place in Mann’s oeuvre. Heat becomes central to a very contemporary discussion about screen language and a realist aesthetic, and about the influence of films on the behaviour of individuals as well as other cultural forms of representation such as television.

I found a lot to recommend in this book. Hopefully it is the sign that the serious study of the film and television work of Michael Mann is really beginning.

Anna Dzenis
La Trobe University.

Created on: Wednesday, 2 July 2003 | Last Updated: Friday, 7 May 2004

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author


Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is co-editor of Screening the Past and has been its review editor from the beginning. She lectures in the Media: Screen + Sound program at La Trobe University where she teaches Contemporary World Cinema and Screen Criticism. Her current research is exploring the relationship between cinema and photography in the work of Wim Wenders and Andreas Gursky.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →