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In Heat, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face off—though not in the way audiences expected

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In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

It may be hard to remember now, even hard to believe, but there was a time, not all that long ago (he insisted, shaking his bottle of Geritol), when superhero movies didn’t own the multiplexes. Back then, movie stars were our superheroes, and fans clamored for particular matchups the way they demand Batman vs. Superman today. At the very least, there was one pairing that moviegoers couldn’t believe still hadn’t yet happened circa 1995: De Niro and Pacino, who had both appeared in The Godfather Part II, but had been cruelly separated by several decades’ worth of flashbacks. Michael Mann’s Heat finally made proper co-stars of these two Italian-American icons (antagonists, no less!), but even then—despite a sprawling three-hour running time—they barely interacted, to the disappointment of many. The movie’s big diner sit-down had to bear the weight of years of expectations, and while it’s a well-written, beautifully acted scene, it’s almost mockingly low-key compared to the Method fireworks display everyone had imagined.


But that’s not the scene I want to discuss. What interests me more is their actual first confrontation in the movie, which doesn’t involve any dialogue between them, or even any direct contact, but nonetheless creates an unmistakable psychic link. At this point in the narrative, Pacino’s robbery/homicide detective has successfully identified all the members of De Niro’s crew, thanks to Tom Sizemore’s habit of calling people “slick” (and thus earning that nickname himself). Non-stop surveillance has paid off, and the LAPD has worked out the site of the next planned heist, which involves the theft of precious metals. All they have to do is sit outside the building in an unmarked vehicle and wait for the oblivious bad guys to emerge with the loot. It’s in this tension-filled context that De Niro and Pacino, who haven’t yet spoken, share their very first onscreen “moment,” even if the exchange is entirely hypothetical on one side. It’s plenty electrifying, if you ask me—well worth the decades of buildup. Take a look (or another look):


Part of what makes the diner scene a tiny bit of a letdown, at least for me, is that it functions so baldly as a Michael Mann mission statement. Mann films are often about consummate professionals who are consumed by their work, and Heat is the epic apotheosis of that idea; having the ultimate cop and the ultimate crook sit down and chat about their inability to do anything else with their lives feels overly self-conscious. Plus, it’s redundant; scenes like the one above achieve the same goal with much less fuss. Note that there’s virtually no dialogue, on either side. To some extent, that’s practical—both cops and robbers are trying not to call attention to themselves—but it’s also simply a function of how guys like De Niro and Pacino operate. They’re working here. Indeed, Pacino snaps at the officer who attempts to get a status report for someone outside the surveillance rig, more or less telling him to shut the fuck up. Even if the intent is to foreshadow that officer’s mistake—he’ll make the noise that alerts De Niro to the LAPD’s presence—Pacino’s response seems more like irritation about wasted energy than the fear of being heard.

Another interesting and productive approach Mann takes is to provide us with almost no information about the nature of the heist itself. Bear in mind, Heat is a movie that doesn’t generally skimp on detail. In many ways, looking back at it from the golden age of serialized television, it plays like a heavily condensed season of an amazing cop show, with the sprawling narrative and multi-character arcs we now associate with that medium. Yet we don’t really know what De Niro and his crew are doing in this scene, apart from breaking into a building to steal precious metals. (Gold? Silver? Palladium?) Mann doesn’t brief the audience on how Sizemore disarms the door—as someone with zero knowledge in this area, I just sort of assume he’s cutting the power to the alarm system, but I have no idea why that involves a laptop, or what the bars on the laptop represent. Nor do I understand how you jimmy open a door by hammering a steel peg into the lock and then doing some sort of crowbar move. (What’s the peg for? Isn’t a crowbar just a lever to which you apply brute force?) None of this is really intuitive, and Mann could easily have prepped us a little bit so that we could better follow along. But he doesn’t, because it isn’t important. Focusing too much on the details of the heist would only distract from the delicate pas de deux about to be performed.

Having accompanied Val Kilmer into the building—I’m not really sure why he bothers with this, to be honest; his presence apparently isn’t necessary at all—De Niro heads back outside to stand watch, choosing a spot deep in the shadows. This forces Pacino to observe him via infrared, poetically creating the impression that he’s staring right through his skin into his soul. Then Dipshit Cop decides it’s time to relax a little and slumps against the trailer’s metal wall, making a slight clanking noise in the process. Pacino instantly recognizes the danger, staring intently at his prey on the monitor. (A realistic touch I love: Every piece of equipment is carefully but cheaply labeled PROPERTY OF L.A.P.D.) De Niro stares right back, presumably trying and failing to imagine a source of that noise that doesn’t portend his doom. And Mann shoots both of them looking directly into the lens, thereby creating a proxy staredown. We know that Pacino can only see the fuzzy infrared image of De Niro (there’s a shot of it to remind us), and that De Niro can’t see Pacino at all. All the same, this moment has the same charge that movies provide when lovers lock eyes across a crowded room: The distance between them fades into irrelevance.

Once the moment passes, both men revert to professionalism, brooking no challenge to their authority. De Niro orders Kilmer to walk away, even though Kilmer protests that he’s almost finished. (I’m a bit surprised Mann didn’t let him drill all the way through, actually. The choice to abort would be even more powerful if they had their hands on the loot. It’s certainly more realistic this way, though.) Pacino orders his men to let the crew go, preferring to wait for another opportunity to catch them red-handed rather than hit them with a petty breaking-and-entering charge. The logic of that decision, I have to say, seems suspect—as someone with a second-degree burglary conviction expunged from his record (no, really), I know well that all the law has to prove is intent, and the drilling equipment Kilmer leaves behind would more than suffice for that. (Pacino’s dialogue seems to suggest that breaking and entering is some lesser charge; it’s actually just another term for burglary, which is all they’re committing. Armed robbery is more serious but requires the threat of harm; it doesn’t apply to stealing stuff from an empty building. Correct me if I'm wrong, attorneys and law students.) Dramatically, however, the scene’s conclusion works beautifully as a mirror reflection, with both De Niro and Pacino hugely frustrated but resolute in their commitment to what needs to be done. They’re perfectly, evenly matched. Just what we’d always wanted.