Michael Mann’s gruff humanism characterizes his best heist films

“Thief” and “Heat” get the 35mm treatment at UW Cinematheque on April 1 and 8.
A simple image collage featuring the two Michael Mann films. On top, Frank (James Caan) points a gun at plating company boss Attaglia (Tom Signorelli) in "Thief." Below that, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), armed with assault rifles, face off against the police on the Los Angeles streets in "Heat."
A simple image collage featuring Michael Mann’s “Thief” and “Heat.” On top, Frank (James Caan) points a gun at plating company boss Attaglia (Tom Signorelli) in “Thief.” Below that, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), armed with assault rifles, face off against the police on the Los Angeles streets in “Heat.”

“Thief” and “Heat” get the 35mm treatment at UW Cinematheque on April 1 and 8.

Painstakingly researched and highly stylized, the films of Michael Mann are instantly recognizable. Though he’s eternally tied to his role as producer of the pastel-toned Miami Vice series, Mann’s crime films more accurately reflect his aesthetic. Mann’s interest in professional criminals and the detectives who hunt them has been a constant throughout his career, most notably in the two films UW Cinematheque will be screening on 35mm as part of its 2x series at 4070 Vilas Hall this spring. Thief (1981), screening April 1 at 7 p.m., is a gritty character study set in Mann’s hometown of Chicago. Heat (1995), screening April 8, also at 7 p.m., is a slow-burn game of cops and robbers between two aging titans of New Hollywood. It’s a fitting celebration of a director whose awakening as a filmmaker came as a UW-Madison student, walking across Bascom Hill after a campus screening of Faust (1926).

Thief stars James Caan as Frank, a professional thief who fronts as the owner of a used car lot. Having spent most of his life in prison, Frank is determined to make up for lost time. He’s saving up the money from the safecracking jobs he pulls off with his partner Barry (Jim Belushi) to start a new life with everything he’s dreamed of: a wife, kids, and a house in the suburbs. But a conventional life is something Frank’s only read about in magazines, and the survival tactics he learned in prison make it difficult to blend in with polite society.

After his usual jewelry fence is thrown out a window, Frank is offered work from crime boss Leo (Robert Prosky), who guarantees bigger payoffs and police protection. The fiercely independent thief agrees to do two jobs for Leo, not realizing he’s entering a Faustian bargain. Frank is then finally able to buy a house and bribe a judge to get his father figure Okla (Willie Nelson) out of prison. When Frank’s new wife Jessie (Tuesday Weld) is unable to conceive, Leo helps get them a baby on the black market.


As Mann’s first theatrical film, Thief already shows his distinctive visual style fully formed. Shot on the rain-soaked streets of Chicago, Thief reflects Mann’s career-long interest in capturing nocturnal artificial light. Scenes of neon lights reflecting off Frank’s car or the melting metal and sparks of a safe job verge into abstraction, propelled by Tangerine Dream’s synthesizer score.

Mann’s penchant for realism, a remnant of his beginnings as a documentarian, is evident throughout. Instead of using props, Mann actually had Caan break into safes using burglary tools borrowed from the professional criminals who served as the film’s consultants. Mann spent considerable time with convicts doing research for Straight Time (1978) and directing the TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979) inside Folsom Prison before directing Thief, and Mann incorporates their mannerisms, slang, and world outlook into his characters. His research within the criminal underworld would eventually culminate in Heat, which similarly draws from real-world people and events.

A long-time passion project for Mann, Heat builds on two storylines doomed to intersect—one following a crew of professional criminals led by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), and the other centering on Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the police detective on their trail. Hanna tries to track down the gang after an armored truck hijacking, but even at the onset, he has an appreciation for the crew’s efficiency. Hanna begins questioning his informants to search for a lead, while McCauley tries to collect his pay from crooked businessman Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner) and deal with Waingro (Kevin Gage), the white supremacist psychopath who turned the armored car job into a multiple homicide.

Mann balances these storylines with scenes involving the characters’ personal lives, lending them a greater depth to show how McCauley and Hanna are more alike than they realize. McCauley’s crew—including Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), and Trejo (Danny Trejo)—have girlfriends and wives. But McCauley is an austere professional, a lone wolf living by his personal credo—“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”—until he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman). Similarly, Hanna’s marriage to Justine (Diane Venora) is falling apart due to Hanna’s obsessive dedication to his work.

The crew’s final job, an immaculately planned bank robbery, goes perfectly—but the police, tipped off by a vindictive Waingro, show up just as the gang are leaving. The resulting showdown turns downtown Los Angeles into a warzone. As Hanna closes in, McCauley deviates from his personal code, leading to a fatal showdown between the two protagonists.

Heat returns to a recurring element in Mann’s films: a hunter and prey relationship where the hunter must psychologically understand his target in order to catch him. Mann frames McCauley and Hanna as two apex predators, both stubbornly appreciative of the other’s skills. The centerpiece of the film is the iconic diner scene, where McCauley and Hanna finally meet face to face. In this brief truce, they discuss their lives and dreams, recognizing in each other a kindred professionalism.

In a recent interview with Marc Maron, Mann revealed that he creates elaborate backstories for all his characters, and this obsessive attention to detail helps even actors in minor roles deliver nuanced performances. While the basic elements of Heat aren’t much different than the average heist film or police procedural, Mann expands upon the story until it takes on an epic scale. At nearly three hours, Heat has enough time to build a compelling narrative for both Hanna and McCauley, and the audience finds itself in the awkward position of rooting for them both.

Heat’s reputation as a classic American film has only grown in its second life as a home video/cable/streaming staple. It’s been cited as a major influence by directors like Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright, and even Mann himself can’t quite escape the film’s grasp. Last year, he published Heat 2 as his debut novel (with co-author Meg Gardiner), with plans to eventually turn it into a feature film. Though filled with incredible action sequences, it’s Mann’s gruff humanism and compelling characters that make Heat an enduring classic, something its many imitators can’t replicate.

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