It’s one of my big beliefs that a great movie or piece of art is not born out of a single genius idea but a million smaller ones, each almost insignificant on its own but accumulating to make up something that takes you a while to really digest. Or maybe I’m just trying to say, execution counts and small details count, and that’s one of the few ways I can explain why Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 heist thriller, has a special place in my heart.
As a kind of random sampling, I decided to confine myself to the first several minutes/scenes of the movie:
1. the change-up
The film begins with Robert De Niro dressed as a paramedic, on foot and headed for a hospital. He crosses a parking lot, and we get this shot:
This isn’t terribly notable by itself. But it’s a nice bit of photographic composition, and it’s an angle that changes up the pattern of expected shots ever so slightly. Not a huge artistic leap, but a nice little touch.
2. filling out the corners
Our first look at Al Pacino is him in bed making out with a woman who turns out to be his wife. Not remembering this scene in particular, I wondered during a viewing last week if Mann was going to interrupt this intimate moment with a telephone call from Pacino’s work, which would help set up the whole tension the film later creates surrounding Pacino’s dedication to his job over his relationship.
But no call comes. It’s just a shot of Pacino in bed with his wife. This movie, you know, is almost three hours long, and part of the reason is that it takes out a lot of time just to show people in the middle of their lives. Much more than most movies I can think of, it feels like a novel, filling out little corners of its universe in an unhurried way. The method of most films is to give you a quick shorthand way to see what a character is about, but this film isn’t quite like that. It’s a crime film, but it feels more meditative than kinetic a lot of the time.
3. filling out the corners, with women
Pacino leaves the house, and does indeed show his loyalty to his job by telling his wife he doesn’t have time for a cup of coffee. On his exit, instead of leaving with Pacino, we stay in the house, with the wife and Pacino’s stepdaughter, who can’t find the barrettes she wants to wear for the father that’s supposed to pick her up. She’s freaking out, and the mother comforts her. It’s a scene that wouldn’t seem to have much of a place in a cop vs. robber sort of film like Heat, but there it is, creating a broader life for seemingly secondary characters.
And the choice of secondary characters to develop doesn’t seem arbitrary. One of Heat’s great strengths is that it takes seriously the collateral damage that comes from obsessive cops chasing emotionally detached criminals, and it doesn’t treat the women as afterthoughts. They are not vague notions of women, but real people, and one way that happens is through the most straightforward of mechanisms: screen time.
3. filling out the corners, with creeps
But then, Mann’s strategy of fleshing out the mundane existence of even secondary characters isn’t just for the good ones. Somewhat inexplicably, over the course of the film, we spend several minor moments with Waingro, possibly its least likable character. This pattern begins when we first see him; he walks up to a take-out window and asks for a refill. The exchange barely registers as part of the story, but it’s a little longer than it needs to be, and even 10-second moments like these gradually build up over the course of the movie.
I’m not positive, but I think maybe what makes this work is that by seeing the unremarkable parts of characters’ lives, we feel the violent parts are less abstractly cinematic and more brutal, more immediately part of the normal world we know and hope will be safe.
4. the falling streamer
Around here the first robbery of the movie comes, but it feels decidedly unamplified emotionally. The plainness of the presentation almost defies any glamorization of the criminal act. And yet, you still feel the crime.
The gist of the plan is that De Niro and his crew, including Waingro, are going to knock over an armored car — in this case, they’re literally going to knock it over by smashing it with a trailer truck and rolling the armored car on its side. Turned over, the armored truck slowly grinds forward with the momentum of the hit, slowly but implacably, like a boulder, pushing one row of cars into another like aluminum cans being crushed. When the armored vehicle stops, a single streamer falls onto the ground. No music is playing, because it doesn’t need to when the image is of tons of metal being squeezed together. The violence is already there, and Mann doesn’t need to put any music to it to make you feel how much like a sledgehammer this robbery is.
5. one second of sound
You saw the guys in the truck get rolled, but it’s about to get worse for them. De Niro’s team needs to get in, so they lay explosives to blow the truck open. The resulting explosion is depicted through several quick cuts, some of the quickest in the movie, including an incredibly brief one to a very muddy look at the inside of the truck, with the security guards barely visible. We’ve heard the explosions go off, but as we cut to the inside of the truck, the sound is suddenly muffled for a split second, maybe because we’re the inside of the truck…
…or maybe because the guards have just lost their hearing, which is explicitly pointed out a moment later when Waingro thinks a guard is ignoring him. With this confrontation comes a dreamy, strange pair of head-on shots, one of the guard, one of Waingro.
Like the bird’s-eye-view I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the framing of these shots really means anything specific, but I like them just because they add a bit of variety to a stream of more conventional, unremarkable shots.
I could go on, and on. But maybe I’ve made my point: There are bigger reasons this movie is good, but at least as importantly, its these details that make it excellent.