Michael Mann’s Heat: How Research Created a Classic Thriller

More than two decades on, Heat is still an important film. We look at how Michael Mann's research made for a powerful crime drama.

Cool, measured, melancholy and stylish, Michael Mann‘s Heat was a box office hit in 1995, and 18 years on, its impact can still be felt. A story about two weary men on either side of the law – one a cop married to his profession, the other a career criminal with no intention of going straight – Heat is also a movie about Los Angeles, in all its sparkly opulence and grimy malaise. Other directors have attempted to bottle some of Heat‘s atmosphere and move it to another city, whether it be London (see The Sweeney or the visually striking Welcome To The Punch) or Gotham, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: look at the way Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister imagine the city as an imposing, watchful presence.

Heat is a powerful, influential film, with some striking performances from Al Pacino and Robert De Niro at its centre, and some remarkable work behind the camera from Mann, who wrote and directed, not to mention cinematographer Dante Spinotti and composer Elliott Goldenthal. In fact, Heats surface gloss may have led many to assume that it’s the film’s style that makes it such an important crime drama. But beneath its performances, cinematography, editing and music, there’s another reason why it’s so effective – and to get to the root of that reason, we have to travel back to the 1960s.


In 1963, detective Chuck Adamson sat down in a Chicago coffee shop with a convicted bank robber. Rail thin and with careworn features, career criminal Neil McCauley had spent some 25 of his 49 years in and out of prison for a string of crimes ranging from theft to murder. But in spite of his repeated brushes with the law, McCauley had no intention of going straight.

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The conversation between the cop and the criminal, as recounted by Adamson himself in The Making of Heat, could have come straight from a Hollywood thriller:

Adamson: Why don’t you go somewhere else and cause trouble?

McCauley: I like Chicago.

Adamson: You realize that one day you’re going to be taking down a score, and I’m going to be there.

McCauley: Well, look at the other side of the coin. I might have to eliminate you.

Adamson: I’m sure we’ll meet again.

One year later, McCauley and his gang followed a security gang to a supermarket, before storming the building and seizing a large sum of cash. Unbeknown to them, Adamson had been on their trail for weeks, and was now sitting outside the building, waiting for McCauley and his gang to leave. They well knew that any attempt to apprehend them inside would result in a bloodbath (“There were too many people… God, it would have been awful,” Adamson would later recall.)

As the crooks attempted to flee the scene in a getaway car, Adamson and his partner opened fire. An on-foot chase ensued, with McCauley ultimately brought down on a local resident’s front lawn by one of Adamson’s bullets. It was an abrupt end for one of Chicago’s most prolific career criminals, and McCauley’s story would eventually be retold – albeit in fictionalised form – almost exactly 30 years later in Michael Mann’s crime thriller, Heat, that stark exchange above forming the basis of its similarly intense meeting between Pacino and De Niro.

By the 1980s, Chuck Adamson had managed to make the transition from detective to writer, bringing decades of his experiences on the streets of Chicago to shows such as Miami Vice and Crime Story. Adamson had befriended Mann years earlier, and the filmmaker was immediately taken by the former detective’s story about McCauley, in particular the notion of two men on opposing sides of the law with a single-minded attitude to their jobs.

It’s a theme Mann explored in his 1986 feature, Manhunter, which took Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel and turned it into an eerily clinical, unsettling procedural thriller where its sociopathic killer was given almost as much prominence as the cop trying to catch him. The movie was a cult rather than financial hit, but it, along with Mann’s 1981 film Thief, set the tone for the detailed crime thriller to come.

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LA Takedown

What would eventually become Heat was originally written in the mid-80s around the time of Manhunter, and Mann had been trying to get it made ever since. He eventually shot the script as a TV movie in 1989; called LA Takedown, its cast was largely made up of regular actors from Miami Vice and Crime Story, including Scott Plank as Detective Vincent Hanna and Alex McArthur as McLaren, a methodical bank robber. Takedown became a dry run for what Mann would subsequently rework into a grand, 170-minute drama about a career criminal and a cop on a collision course, each side surrounded by supporting characters with their own story arcs and personal battles.

Watching LA Takedown now, it’s strange to see so many familiar scenes shot on a smaller, TV-budget scale, with dialogue associated with Heat stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino spoken by less familiar actors. A lesser piece of work though it was, LA Takedown was the proof of concept Mann needed; buoyed by the success of his 1992 historical adventure, Last of the Mohicans, Mann succeeded in securing a remarkable cast for his crime movie, with Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Natalie Portman among the list of names who were either well-known in the mid-90s, or on the cusp of breaking through.

read more: The Real History of The Irishman

Heat’s big draw, at least in the build-up to its release, was the pairing of De Niro and Pacino. With the pair at the height of their reputations, Heat would mark the first time they’d appearon screen at the same time – although both in The Godfather Part II, their characters never met. (For a stark contrast, it’s worth comparing Heat with the woeful Righteous Kill, which dribbled out 13 years later.)

When planning Heat, Mann’s meticulous attention to detail bordered on the obsessive. As well as drawing on Chuck Adamson’s memories of tracking down Neil McCauley in the ’60s, Mann used countless sources in order to achieve the psychological truth he was looking for. Former criminal turned actor and writer Eddie Bunker was hired as a technical consultant; his book No Beast So Fierce was required reading for Mann’s cast, and Voight’s character Nate was based on Bunker.

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Former SAS soldier Andy McNab was brought in to give the actors weapons training, while Mann even spent several weeks riding around with Los Angeles cop Tom Elfmont, answering calls in a squad car. “We always had two guns,” Elfmont said of these patrols with Mann. “Sometimes, I would hand him a gun, because he almost became like a partner…”

Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore interviewed bank robbers in prison. Ashley Judd interviewed their wives. The actors were sent to an LA restaurant to eat and drink with cops and criminals. They were taken to a bank in disguise to case the joint, just like thieves.

“We cased the entire joint,” Sizemore remembered. “I went and got a loan application, just to figure out what was going on in this bank. It was a trip, how much knowledge we got. And they didn’t even know what was going on…”

The Heat Around the Corner

What makes Heat so resonant, I’d argue, is its grounding in historical reality, and the journalistic level of research Mann put into writing it. Although time-consuming and expensive, the training and education Mann put his actors through came out in their performances.

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De Niro’s version of Neil McCauley is quiet and introspective, a cerebral, lonely man who barely raises his voice even when he loses his temper. So much of his performance is in his eyes, which are suspicious and darting. Perhaps it was all that training and education that gave him the confidence to play McCauley with such restraint; whatever it was, his dapper, smart career criminal is a sublime creation.

Pacino’s Vincent Hanna is a louder, more aggressive character, delivered with all the swagger you’d associate with the actor’s later performances. But there’s a great sense of humanity and warmth in his turn here, too: Vincent responds to his wife’s affair not with violence towards her lover, Ralph (played by Xander Berkeley), but by taking a portable television and throwing it out of his car. The scenes where he’s shown driving around LA at night, hugging the parent of a murder victim, or quietly picking over the details of a crime scene, suggest that he’s as lonely and lost in this huge city as McCauley is.

Even the smaller characters are invested with little details which bring them to life. Look at the way Tom Sizemore’s Michael Cheritto glowers at a bystander in a diner while McCauley bashes Waingro’s head against a table. We don’t see Cheritto do anything violent until much later in the film, but with that one perfectly captured look, we know how dangerous this man is.

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Mann places the film’s celebrated bank heist sequence right in the centre of the film. All the events radiate out from it like spokes on a wheel, with the first half building tension, as we know that Hanna and McCauley are on a collision course, and the second half dealing with the equally inevitable aftermath. It’s said that Mann and his filmmakers spent several weekends (and thousands of rounds of ammunition) shooting the heist sequence. Married to the extraordinary, percussive music, and some astonishing sound design, it’s little short of unforgettable.

Then there’s that other set-piece: the recreation of the coffee shop meeting between Chuck Adamson and the real Neil McCauley in 1963. It’s an intimate, uneasy and somewhat sad portrait of two men trapped in their individual fates. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” Hanna says. “Neither do I,” replies McCauley.

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Had Mann, Pacino and De Niro not known and understood these characters, they could never have gotten under their skin as perfectly as they did. And it’s the dedicated approach to research, to finding out how real criminals behave and react, rather than looking to other movies or works of fiction for inspiration, that is the real source of Heats power.

“For the research he wanted on the convicts, he never said, ‘hold back’,” said second unit director Ami Canaan Mann. “He always said, ‘Go as far as you can go. Talk to the most extreme people you can talk to, get as much information as you can.'”

This is why Heat isn’t just great cinema: it’s also a form of journalism, albeit dressed up in the star names and the cool flourishes of a Hollywood movie.

Other films have copied Heat, but Heat went straight to the original source – cops, criminals, killers, convicts, husbands and wives. By doing this, Mann created one of the great crime thrillers in cinema.