The Story Of Heat All Started With That Famous Final Scene

My favorite final shot of any film is Michael Mann's "Heat." Three hours of a cops and robbers game across Los Angeles between Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) culminates in a lone shoot-out on the outskirts of the LAX airport. In the end, Hanna lethally gets his man, but it's a tragedy. McCauley is the only man Hanna's been able to find mutual understanding with during the film, and now the man lies dying at Hanna's own hand.

Even in their last moments, they say little to each other — McCauley gasps out that he won't be going back to prison after all, while Hanna responds with a simple "yeah," almost inaudible under his breath. Their silence is because they don't need to say anything; a simple holding of each other's hands conveys their emotions. Between the blocking of the two actors, the stillness of the shot, and the depth of the background, it's a painting made with photography. The swelling score, "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" by Moby, doesn't hurt either.

According to Mann, this ending was the first part of "Heat" set in stone. Working backward doesn't always work in storytelling, but it did for Mann.

History of Heat

"Heat" was inspired by a real cops and robbers tale, about a bank robber named Neil McCauley who, in 1964, was shot dead by Chicago Detective Chuck Adamson. Given the fate of the real McCauley, there was no other possible fate for his silver screen counterpart.

Mann, who first heard the story of McCauley and Adamson in 1979-1980, wrote the script that became "Heat" afterward. This was before Man had even made his directorial debut in 1981 with "Thief." The project then spent 15 years in development; Mann had a chance to film the story as a TV movie, "L.A. Takedown," but the results were underwhelming.

In an interview with Scraps from the Loft, Mann revealed the image of the ending, mirroring the end of Adamson and the real McCauley's encounter, is what drove him to see "Heat" realized as a feature.

"I had most of it there. But you know when you know. And I knew when I figured out exactly what happened in the end and I took that dialectical conclusion and worked it backwards into the structure and modified everything that was going on to serve that, that's when it all clicked into place for me."

Notice how Mann describes the ending as "dialectical," or two opposites coming together. That's literally what McCauley and Hanna become in the final shot; they're far enough apart that their figures remain distinct, but still connected by their outstretched hands. Two sides of the same coin, Hanna and McCauley, law and criminality, life and death, finally come together only after their struggle is over.

The emotions of the ending

How did Mann manage to craft a story where this ending made sense? He honed in on Hanna and McCauley as mirrors of each other. Both men live for the thrill of their jobs, so much that it's the only thing in either their lives that they're truly attached to. It's just a shame that their chosen professions have made them enemies. Mann elaborated that;

"The notion that both characters are the only two characters in the film who are completely conscious wasn't there yet. There's not an iota of self-deception in Vincent Hanna, nor is there in Neil McCauley. They know exactly what's happening inside of them, they know exactly what's going on in their world."

That honesty is what makes the two scenes that Hanna and McCauley actually share so good. The second is of course the shoot-out, but the first, the famous coffee shop scene, is the film's midpoint and a great resolution all of its own; after 90 minutes of back-and-forth, the dueling stories of "Heat" finally intersect. Once they're face-to-face, Hanna and McCauley practically lay bare their souls to each other. The two discuss their dreams, relationships, and what drives them. Still, they make a promise that if it's one or the other, then only one of them will be walking away alive. The final scene of "Heat" is Hanna keeping his end of that promise.