Ever since The Godfather II — in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro both star, but do not share scenes together — fans, critics, and the entire cinematic community had been clamoring for a film that would eventually grant the two thespians the space to perform opposite one another, and that time arrived with Michael Mann’s 1995 crime opus Heat. Perhaps the greatest crime drama of the past 25 years, the film bristles with tension and is devoid of the kind of bells and whistles that many contemporary films are drenched in, instead relying on the power of it’s gritty L.A.-based narrative and the performances of two of Hollywood’s finest.
Heat features Pacino as Lt. Vincent Hanna, a cop determined to hunt down and put an end to a group of crafty criminals led by De Niro’s Neil McCauley. Its taut script, pacing, and direction were highlighted by a robust crew of talented actors like Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, and Jon Voight, but it was the diner scene that pitted Pacino and De Niro across a table from each other that helped deliver a moment that will forever be remembered as an on-screen clash of the titans.
Going into production, Michael Mann knew the scene would be a pivotal moment in the film’s structure, as both characters were destined to face-off in a physical battle contested on the opposite ends of a moral and socio-economic plane. What Mann didn’t know, though, was exactly how he would portray Neil and Vincent’s conversation in the final cut. Mann spoke to the Director Guild of America in 2012 about his thoughts approaching the scene with two of the greatest actors in history.
Now Pacino and De Niro are two of the greatest actors on the planet, so I knew they would be completely alive to each other—each one reacting off the other’s slightest gesture, the slightest shift of weight. If De Niro’s right foot sitting in that chair slid backward by so much as an inch, or his right shoulder dropped by just a little bit, I knew Al would be reading that. They’d be scanning each other, like an MRI. Both men recognize that their next encounter will mean certain death for one of them. Gaining an edge is why they’ve chosen to meet. So we read the scene a number of times before shooting—not a lot—just looking at it on the page. I didn’t want it memorized. My goal was to get them past the unfamiliarity of it. But of course these two already knew it impeccably.
On De Niro’s request, the silver screen titans did not rehearse the scene in full together, optioning to allow the unfamiliarity between the rivals to become more palpable.
“In Heat, for the scene with Robert De Niro and me, that was completely scripted,” Pacino told MTV in 2007. “There were no rehearsals. I just met him there. I know him very well — there was no rehearsing there.”
Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, pored over the scene to ensure that even the most minute details were managed with the proper aesthetics, but ultimately he allowed his leads to play off each other’s nuances. The following is a page from the working script with Mann’s annotations:
In order to allow himself options, Mann decided to shoot the scene with three cameras: two over-the-shoulder shots, and one establishing profile shot. In the editing room, the director eschewed the profile shot altogether.
…I found when editing that every time we cut to the profile, the scene lost its one-on-one intensity. I’ll often work with multiple cameras, if they’re needed. In this case, I knew ahead of time that Pacino and De Niro were so highly attuned to each other that each take would have its own organic unity. Whatever one said, and the specific way he’d say it, would spark a specific reaction in the other. I needed to shoot in such a way that I could use the same take from both angles. What’s in the finished film is almost all of take 11—because that has an entirely different integrity and tonality from takes 10, or 9, or 8. All of this begins and ends with scene analysis. It doesn’t matter if it’s two people in a room or two opposing forces taking over a street. Action comes from drama, and drama is conflict: What’s the conflict?
In two separate press junkets, both Mann and De Niro spoke of the choice to eliminate the profile shot from the scene.
The final cut of Neil and Vincent’s conversation, marking the moment when the calm began brewing into a storm, is a riveting piece of film that serves as a psychological delicacy where two dogged hunters reserve their weapons to speak on the methodology of their pursuit. It’s rare that such a simple scene can hold so much power, and truth be told — in this age of visual-effects laden blockbusters — it may be quite awhile before we’re treated to such raw animal magnetism on-screen again.