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Anatomy of a Scene #1: “Heat”

May 23, 2012

“Three good scenes and no bad scenes.”

Howard Hawks on what makes a good movie

“Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happily.”

Rosalind Russell, giving advice to a young actor

“We come out of movies saying, ‘I liked that bit where…'”

Anthony Lane, “Alfred Hitchcock”, The New Yorker, August 16, 1999 issue

The above quotes are, in truth, all saying pretty much the same thing, and though they seem absurdly simple, they sum up the closest thing I have to a philosophy or aesthetic about movies. Obviously, the story and characters are what draw me into a movie (or, of course, if they’re handled poorly, what keep me from liking it), and I also pay attention to aspects like the performances, dialogue, music and cinematography (whereas someone else might be more interested in the design, the costumes, the editing or the special effects, and so on). But most often, a movie I love will have at least one small (or big) moment in it that makes me sit up and take notice, that stands out from the rest of the movie. Of course, even bad or imperfect movies can have that one scene (or more), but this seems especially true of good or great movies. And there probably have been movies I loved without a few great individual moments, but none come to mind. And while it can be a great action sequence (the long take in Hanna where Eric Bana fights off a group of bad guys in a train station), or a great musical sequence (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon singing ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” in The Trip), more often that not, for me, it’s a quiet scene or a dialogue exchange that sticks out. Whatever emotion it hits – funny, sad, dramatic, or any combination of a number of them – there’s just something about it that lingers in the mind afterwards. This is the first of what will be an occasional series looking back at movie moments that have meant the most to me, and I’m going to start off with a couple of goodbye scenes.

If, like me, you’re a fan of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995, Warner Brothers), and you think of moments from that movie, the ones that come to mind will probably be the bank robbery and shootout sequence, the coffee shop scene between Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) – which, of course, has the added resonance of being the first time these screen icons ever appeared in the same scene – and maybe even the final chase scene between Neil and Vincent. to be sure, these are iconic scenes, and deservedly so; still, they’re not the only moments to make an impression on me when I first saw the movie, or upon subsequent viewings. The two scenes that moved me the most are the goodbye scenes between Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), one of Neil’s crew, and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd), and the one between Neil and his girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), a bookstore clerk. Both scenes occur within the last half hour or so of the film, and are among the reasons why the film doesn’t let up after that bank heist and shootout.

Chris and Charlene are the one of the four couples that are explored with any depth in the movie – the others being Neil and Eady, Vincent and Justine (Diane Venora), his third wife, and to a lesser extent, Donald (Dennis Haysbert), who becomes Vincent’s last-minute getaway driver, and his girlfriend Lillian (Kim Staunton). Theirs is not an entirely happy marriage – he’s a gambling addict, and she’s carrying on an affair with Alan (Hank Azaria), a businessman. It’s this last part that Vincent and Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) try to use as a wedge to get Charlene to give up Chris, with Drucker telling her she’ll have to give up her child and go to jail as an accessory otherwise. Chris’ devotion to Charlene has been established – “For me, the sun rises and sets with her, man”, he tells Neil earlier in the film, and even after he’s been wounded in the robbery attempt, he says he won’t leave without Charlene – so it’s no surprise he ditches Neil’s getaway plan and instead goes to meet up where she’s staying after she calls him. The question is, what will Charlene do?

As Vincent listens in, the police inform Drucker there’s a possible sighting of Chris driving up, so Drucker gently but firmly tells Charlene to go to the balcony to identify him. As Charlene reaches the balcony, cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who worked with Mann on Manhunter and Last of the Mohicans, and would reunite with him on The Insider and Public Enemies) pans down from her, past Drucker waiting in the window, down to the street where Chris is pulling up in his car. After a brief cut to Vincent listening in, we see Chris get out of the car; he’s changed his appearance (cutting and dying his hair) and is still affected by the robbery (he’s limping), but his face lights up when he sees Charlene. Spinotti makes the yellow light especially bright on Charlene when Chris first sees her, as to represent how much Chris loves her. Charlene, who had been ready to leave Chris when she heard about the robbery, now feels conflicted upon seeing him again, and Mann cuts from her face to her hands, as she makes a cutting motion with her right hand (significantly, it’s the one with her wedding ring on it), signaling Chris not to come up. Spinotti changes the light to blue on both Chris and Charlene as Mann cuts back and forth between them, to further illustrate the sadness they now feel. While Chris turns to a basketball game happening behind him (there’s a playground) to ask where he can find an apartment, Charlene, back in a medium shot (as opposed to the close-ups when she and Chris were looking at each other), goes back into the apartment. She tells Drucker, “It’s not him. It’s not Chris.” Drucker, of course, is skeptical, and has the police pull over Chris and check him out (he’s driven away at this point). Turns out, of course, the ID Chris has is good, and the police have no choice but to let him go. Drucker, back to being nice again, offers Charlene a cup of coffee, to which she ways yes, and as he walks away, Spinotti moves in for a close-up on Charlene, and then we cut to Chris driving away.

Obviously, the way Spinotti uses color here contributes greatly to the emotion of the scene, as does the way “Armenia”, by Einstuzende Neubauten is used throughout the scene. But mostly, it’s the work of Kilmer and especially Judd. On the commentary for the DVD, Mann admits he was stunned by how good Judd was, and he’s not the only one. With the subtlest of glances, she’s able to communicate the process she goes towards deciding to help Chris escape, and how she feels about it. Even when Drucker has the police check Chris out, Judd only works with her eyes and face, never doing anything obvious about how worried she is. Except for Cora in The Last of the Mohicans (Madeline Stowe in interviews credited Mann for allowing her input into the character) and arguably the Gong Li character in the Miami Vice movie, woman are generally secondary characters in Mann’s movies, but he give the actresses to work with a chance to shine, and Judd takes advantage here, as does, in the next sequence here, Brenneman.

The second goodbye scene happens right before the final showdown between Neil and Vincent, and like the previous one, is all the more powerful for being silent. Neil, who has convinced Eady to run away with him (she freaked when she found out he was involved with the robbery), is on his way out of the country with her when he finds out Waingro (Kevin Gage), who has been a thorn in his side (he made the first robbery Neil’s crew did more complicated, and he informed the cops about the second one, as well as being responsible for the death of one of Neil’s crew), is staying at a hotel under an alias, and is under police surveillance. After a brief instant where it looks like Neil is going to ignore this and continue on (the Kronos Quartet’s theme song for the movie kicks in here), he instead detours over to the hotel where Waingro is, and leaves Eady in the car while he goes to kill Waingro. While Neil does this – he dresses up as a hotel security guard, pulls the fire alarm, gets into Waingro’s room as the guard, and shoots him – Vincent, having been alerted to Neil going to kill Waingro, has come to the hotel, and is outside looking through the crowd who’s fleeing because of the fire alarm. As Elliot Goldenthal’s music kicks in (the track is named “Of Separation”), Vincent spots Neil’s car, with Eady sitting in it. Obviously remembering the conversation he had with Neil, where Neil admitted to having a woman, Vincent puts two and two together and starts running towards the car.

We then cut to Eady, unaware of this, looking at Neil as he leaves from the service exit. He walks to the car with a smile on his face, but as he hears a truck driving, he turns to his right and sees Vincent running towards him. Neil’s credo has always been, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner”, and despite what he feels for Eady, this discipline kicks in. So, when a truck pulls in front of Vincent, blocking him for the moment, Neil turns to Eady with a sad look on his face and starts to back away. Mann then cuts to Eady, who gets out of the car, uncomprehending, and we cut back and forth between the two for a few more seconds before Neil finally turns and runs. We then cut to Vincent, running through the crowd, and then we see him pass a still-dazed Eady.

In a featurette on the special-edition DVD, Brenneman admitted when she first got the script, she turned it down, and when Mann called her up asking why, she told him she thought it was too violent and the characters were too amoral. According to Brenneman, that made Mann want her for the part all the more, because Eady is the one character in the movie to look at the others and say, “You’re all crazy.” In contrast to Charlene and Justine, who have a tired, hardened look to them, Brenneman makes Eady open and innocent, and therefore the look on her face is all the more devastating.

Throughout his career in both movies and TV, Mann has been criticized for creating work that is merely style over substance, which misses not just the way the melancholy of his films – Manhunter is arguably the only one of his films to approach a cathartic ending – but also in how his style is actually pretty substantial. These two goodbye scenes, not just in the way they’re acted, but also in the way they’re shot, are an example of that. Heat is one of the great crime dramas of the last 15-20 years, and yes, the bank robbery scene and the coffee scene between De Niro and Pacino have a lot to do with that, but the film wouldn’t have as much emotional resonance as it does without those two goodbye scenes.

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