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The Best Scene in Heat Just Isn’t the Same Without De Niro and Pacino

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat. Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

While Michael Mann’s Heat was well reviewed and solid at the box office on its release in 1995, the film’s reputation has only grown over the past several decades — so much so that it’s now (correctly) considered one of American cinema’s greatest masterpieces. I’ve written about Heat multiple times over the years (including a piece about how it took me some time to appreciate its greatness), and each time I rewatch Mann’s picture, I discover something new.

On Friday, June 17, the Tribeca Festival hosts the world premiere of a new 4K restoration of Heat, and I’m moderating the pre-screening panel. In revisiting the film recently, I found myself focusing more and more on one of its most famous scenes — the diner conversation between LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). It’s a momentous confrontation, to be sure, and one that was widely recognized at the time, too, since it represented the first time these two legends shared a scene. But there’s something else about it that has always fascinated me.

As some fans already know, Mann had filmed the story of Heat once before — as a 1989 TV movie called L.A. Takedown, which was originally meant as a pilot for an NBC show. The series was never picked up (Mann and NBC head Brandon Tartikoff disagreed over casting) and reconfigured as a TV movie, which wasn’t particularly well received. A Los Angeles Times review from that year somewhat prophetically conceded that some of the scenes in the movie felt like they belonged “in a different, better picture.”

Mann had made L.A. Takedown by carving out a big chunk of a massive script that he’d been working on throughout the 1970s and which would eventually become Heat. As Mann told me a few years ago, he’d had difficulty licking the ending of that longer, more ambitious story — and he wouldn’t until the 1990s, when he finally came on the unforgettable closing moments of Heat. L.A. Takedown has a different finale: The Neil McCauley character (called Patrick McLaren in the TV movie) is killed by his deranged ex-con/serial-killer nemesis, Waingro, who is then drop-kicked out of a hotel window by Vincent Hanna. Roll credits.

L.A. Takedown is certainly no Heat — to put it mildly. But it’s not trying to be. Mann shot it in 19 days on a shoestring budget, which was standard for TV productions at the time. There was no time to hone performances, explore settings, cover different angles, or get the atmosphere and details right — all key aspects of Mann’s work as a director. The performers are typical TV actors for the time; most of them look like they came from the Eric Roberts Factory. The two leads (Scott Plank as Vincent Hanna and Alex McArthur as Patrick McLaren) were younger than Pacino and De Niro, so the film doesn’t dwell on their characters’ weariness or their decades of experience the way Heat does. Plank and McArthur dutifully run their lines and bring a certain amount of prefab intensity to their parts. I used to hate the performances in L.A. Takedown, but over the years, I’ve grown a weird fondness for them. If it had become a show, it would have been interesting to see if these actors grew around their characters. Of course, if it had become a show, we probably would never have gotten Heat, so things ultimately worked out for the better.

Today, watching L.A. Takedown remains a strange experience. Like a transmission from an alternate reality. The vast majority of the scenes in the TV movie, at least on paper, come straight out of Heat — often verbatim. One of these is the coffee-shop confrontation, so if you ever wanted to see what one of the most iconic scenes in film history featuring two of the most iconic actors in film history would look like with, well, two other guys, now’s your chance. Much of the dialogue is the same. And because the setup is still two men sitting across from each other in a restaurant, much of the imagery is also the same — intercutting static over-the-shoulder shots. Despite their surface similarities, the two scenes make for a startling contrast. Put them side by side and you’ll see how magnificently everything comes to life in Heat. How it becomes endlessly fascinating and gripping thanks to De Niro and Pacino delivering these lines, inhabiting these men. Anyone who studies acting would be well advised to compare these two scenes to understand just what an actor can bring to the work.

We often talk about characters having inner lives. It’s not enough just to look great, read your lines well, or give good reaction shots. We need to be able to simply watch you. We need to be able to look at you, even when you’re not doing much of anything, and wonder what’s going on inside your head. This, for example, is what makes Pacino so compelling in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, in which his character’s reserve gradually builds to something terrifying. (It’s probably what made Paramount try to fire the then-relatively unknown actor from The Godfather; that kind of restraint was so foreign to Hollywood megaproductions at the time.) This, too, is what makes De Niro’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver — a performance which is, on its surface, so silent and passive — so indelible. Great actors give off this sense of inner life, but they also hide mountains of emotion and information beneath the simplest gestures. It all sounds like an abstract concept until you watch something like the coffee-shop scene in its two different iterations and witness it actually happen — like an impossible magic trick that you’d only heard rumors about.

In L.A. Takedown, as in Heat, this is the first time the two men come face to face. Indeed, the incident is taken from a real-life event that Mann had learned about from Chuck Adamson, a retired Chicago police investigator (and later screenwriter and producer) who, sometime in the 1960s, ran into a man he was investigating, Neil McCauley — the real Neil McCauley — and, not knowing what to do, took him out for coffee. In Heat, of course, the moment gains even greater significance: This was Pacino and De Niro meeting onscreen for the first time. By playing up the iconography, Mann gives the scene an almost metaphysical edge. We know it’s these two huge cinematic figures together at last, so we find ourselves paying attention to every gesture, every glance, every line of dialogue. That is no mere marketing gimmick. It is what the characters themselves are doing in the scene. They are carefully watching each other, trying to gain an angle and learn more about what’s going on in their adversary’s head.

Throughout their conversation in Heat (which takes place at the famed, now-shuttered L.A. eatery Kate Mantilini), Hanna is slouched closer to the table, aggressively watchful and chatty, while McCauley is calm, controlled, standoffish. Pacino, however, brings to his slouch an almost pleading quality; he makes Hanna vulnerable and open. This is partly to disarm McCauley, to get as much as he can out of him. But it’s also, one suspects, because the detective realizes that the criminal sitting opposite him is the only one who really understands him.

The energies of the two men are quite different at the start, but they gradually and subtly come together over the course of their conversation. Their eyes keep drifting around but always end up locking onto the other’s. Hanna blurts out his emotions: “My life’s a disaster zone … I got a wife. We’re passing each other on the downslope of a marriage (my third), because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block.” (Listen to the way Pacino changes the rhythm of his delivery halfway through this sentence. Shifts like that keep the viewer off balance and force us to pay even closer attention to his words and gestures. Nothing is predictable.) By doing this, he gets a key piece of information out of McCauley: that he has a girlfriend. (“I have a woman.”) That will come in handy at the film’s climax, when Hanna spots McCauley’s girlfriend, Eady (Amy Brenneman), sitting alone in a car outside the hotel where her man has just gone to kill Waingro.

Then the two men exchange dreams: Hanna offers up an elaborate one in which he’s sitting at a banquet table with the dead victims of various murders he’s had to investigate. McCauley, still impossibly tense, simply says this about his dream: “I have one where I’m drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I’ll die in my sleep.” He says the dream is about time, but it’s also clearly about constantly being on the run. The terse speed with which De Niro delivers this line reflects his situation — it’s as if he’s already running out of time.

This, too, has greater resonance in the film. This scene is, in many ways, Neil McCauley’s undoing. His mantra, which he repeats here, has 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 yet, here’s the heat. Here is Vincent Hanna, the cop who wants to take Neil McCauley down, literally sitting across the table from him having coffee. The smart thing would have been to use the restroom, then disappear forever. But no, McCauley sits there and tells Hanna about his dreams. Somewhere deep inside, he knows he shouldn’t; that’s why his body is so rigid, his delivery so clipped. And yet he does, because this man, he realizes, understands him. And although Neil and Vincent proceed to admit that they will not hesitate to shoot each other if they have to, the scene ends with the quick hint of smiles on their faces. Neither would have it any other way. They need each other.

This, then, is what it means when a character has an inner life. The coffee-shop scene in Heat is masterfully written, to be sure, and it’s a pivotal moment within the structure of the film. But that’s also true of the scene in L.A. Takedown — which has a fraction of the impact that it has in Heat. Because once a scene like this is performed by actors like Pacino and De Niro (two actors we have been watching, mesmerized, for decades), it explodes into something sublime and unforgettable.

The Best Scene in Heat Just Isn’t the Same Without These Two