cenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much in the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.
Heat was the middle child in a trilogy of rapturous home runs by Michael Mann, the winning streak broken by the strangely uninvolving Ali and empty Collateral. A remake of his earlier TV success L.A. Takedown, Heat attracted considerable attention for its pairing of Pacino and DeNiro, who had never acted opposite each other before. At 171 minutes, it may sound like a hard slog, but the film is leaner and more textured than any other modern cop movie, and remains exciting with each new viewing.
Fans of strong acting and writing could pick a hundred different scenes to analyze in Mann’s film, and certainly much has been made of the coffee shop moment, where Pacino and DeNiro confront each other in a mildly threatening, unexpectedly friendly fashion. Great though it is, the scene comes across as foreplay between our two greatest actors and two characters who like each other a lot, despite having chosen different sides of the law. They don’t know whether to fuck or fight. If the coffee shop scene borders on the sexual, then it’s the movie’s climax in LAX where the true test of strength lies.
McCauley (DeNiro) should not even be there. In a film filled with silence punctuated by action, McCauley is on his way out of the country with his woman, Eady (Amy Brenneman), home free and on his way to the islands like Pacino in Carlito’s Way. The camera mounted on the hood of the car stares passively at the driver and his nervous passenger as they drive to freedom. No dialogue is exchanged, but we can see every thought in McCauley’s mind laid bare. His eyes, his breathing, his jawline say everything as we hope he can forget about one tiny piece of unfinished business and just get the hell out of Dodge. But he cannot, and grins ruefully as he pulls off the freeway to go and kill Waingro (Kevin Gage), almost as if he knows he has just made a fatal mistake. Having admired Hanna’s (Pacino) tenacity and intelligence throughout, he is aware that he is handing him an opportunity for confrontation.
And what a confrontation it is. McCauley has to leave Eady without a word of goodbye as Hanna spots him in the crowd and begins to run. She is destroyed as Hanna brushes past her, McCauley unable to even look back and acknowledge she ever meant anything to him. Now, the chase is on. Contemporary directors would do well to study the different elements of this climactic sprint towards death, particularly the sound. There is no pounding music or corny dialogue, no balletic gunplay or bullshit martial arts kicks—just two men on foot in the darkness, the only sound their breath amidst the overpowering aircraft engines. It’s merely a matter of time before they come to the end of the runway and must pause to play out their final act.
The tension and sense of danger is palpable. Unlike most good guy/bad guy payoffs, neither man wants to harm the other, but they have backed themselves into a corner and something has to give. As a viewer, we, too, are torn, undecided as to what we want to see happen. McCauley’s intelligent, lonely thief is eminently likeable and we badly want him to get away. Hanna’s career policeman has had too many knocks and no real luck; we don’t want this to become one of the statistics that have plagued his life and marriages.
They are hesitant, careful as they near the end of the runway. As planes take off they are bathed in light, throwing confusing shadows across the grass, abruptly plunged into darkness as the aircrafts soar overhead. It will come down to a hair’s breadth, and in the end, it is McCauley who is undone by a shadow. He chooses to step out as the lights come up to blind Hanna, who is canny enough to look for the shadow and react. The sound of shots shatters the moment and McCauley slumps back over a low power box, staring down at his gaping chest, watching as the life ebbs out. Hanna approaches, not relieved at surviving, but crestfallen at having taken the life of the man in whom he saw a reflection of himself. McCauley represents the person he could so easily have been, perhaps should have been, and taking that life is almost too much for Hanna to bear.
McCauley never really believed he would make it to retirement in the islands. He was frightened that he would not know how to live, how to love, but he did not want to die cheaply or for nothing. Hanna was the man he always looked for, the one who could touch him briefly with understanding, even if it meant dying in the process. His final gesture is to reach his hand up to be held, and Hanna embraces it gratefully; their first and only physical contact, so emotionally charged that Hanna cannot look, and must turn away from his brother.
In a film replete with minor moments of stolen tenderness–Ashley Judd’s hand signal to Val Kilmer that he must walk away forever or be caught, Jon Voigt’s pragmatic phone calls to McCauley, Dennis Haysbert’s sudden, fatal decision to drive the getaway car, Diane Venora’s painful summation of Hanna’s disconnected manner—Hanna’s shepherding of McCauley to the afterlife is sublime and powerful. Mann comes closer than most to transcending the conventions of cinema in this climax. McCauley shooting Hanna would have been shocking and unnecessary. When Hanna presses that trigger and takes McCauley’s life, he has done himself in anyway, and he knows it.
By: Chris Flynn
Published on: 2006-05-22