Paul Thomas Anderson once remarked that: “you should never let the audience get ahead of you for a second”. The art of good writing is not to be found in the number of action scenes included, nor the complexity of the plot, but rather the way in which the screenplay can constantly confound the expectations of its audience. In doing so, a film is invested with a momentum and sense of tension which sweeps the audience out of the comfort of their theatre seats and into the heat of the plot.
Few films written in the past thirty years are as effective at this than Michael Mann’s Heat. Released in 1995, and boasting an all-star cast featuring, among others, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, and John Vought, the film follows the cat-and-mouse chase between LAPD detective Vincent Hana (Pacino) and career criminal Neil McCauley (De Niro) across the streets of Los Angeles. It tantalizes you with one thing before taking it away, the audience always being left guessing as expectations are established before being demolished. The film edges its way towards its finish, only heightening the effect of its climax.
Take the scene where Hana and McCauley speak to one another in the café, about halfway through the film. On its own it is a fairly unremarkable scene, though one written with razor-sharp dialogue. There is no shooting, action, or imminent sense of danger, yet the audience is invested in every word the two men say. This is due to Mann’s expert writing which builds tension throughout the first half of the film, constantly making the audience wait for the two men to finally meet.
Three times we are tantalized with possible interaction. First, when Hana watches McCauley and his crew leave dinner through binoculars from an adjacent roof. Secondly, when Hana stalks McCauley as he is robbing a metal works; and thirdly, when McCauley watches Hana in the container port.
Importantly, in each of these scenes McCauley and Hana get closer to finally meeting one another, meaning that the tension is gradually ratcheted up. In the first of them, only Hana is aware of the other being there, though doesn’t know who McCauley is as he doesn’t feature on any FBI database. By the second of the above scenes, Hana is again the only person who is aware of the other, though this time he knows exactly who he is dealing with. By the end of this scene, however, when a police officer makes a noise in the lorry from which Hana is conducting surveillance, McCauley finally starts to become aware of the heat which is sneaking up on his shoulder, even if he cannot yet glimpse its visage. This has changed by the third scene at the container port, where McCauley can now observe his hunter. The tension having thus been built, Mann may now hit the audience with the scene in the café, knowing full well that it will land.
Mann’s cinematic direction works particularly well to enhance the screenplay in this regard
The last of the above scenes is particularly effective in upsetting audience expectations surrounding the power dynamic between the two characters. Going into the scene, it seems as if Hana is in control. He has watched McCauley and his crew discuss and plan their operation, supposedly without knowing they were being watched. Mann’s cinematic direction works particularly well to enhance the screenplay in this regard. The detectives march in a strong line, with purposeful strides, talking quickly to try to ascertain McCauley’s plan. Soon, however, this purpose and cohesion evaporates. From a strong line, the detectives wonder and disperse, their conversation breaking down. Eventually, Hana figures out what is happening: they have been played. Cut to a shot of McCauley taking photographs of the unsuspecting detectives, caught in a trap like bees in a honeypot. The power-relationship has thus been reversed over the course of the scene. Crucially, this reverse is revealed to the audience in real-time, who have no prior knowledge of McCauley’s intentions.
A later scene involving Val Kilmer’s character Chris and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) is also important in upsetting audience expectations regarding the power-relationship between law-enforcement and criminals. Following the bank-heist, Chris decides to go back and collect Charlene. Unbeknownst to him, however, Charlene has been taken by LAPD officers, who have convinced her to call Chris so they can arrest him. Just as it seems Charlene is about to betray her husband; she signals from the balcony that the police are there and that he should make his escape. From a position of power, expectations are subverted, and the criminals gain the ascendancy. Once again, the audience has no prior knowledge of this, and experiences it in real-time, making the scene brilliantly effective.
All this means that by the time of the film’s showdown between Hana and McCauley, the audience is completely unable to predict what is about to unfold. Like in the lead-up to the café scene, the showdown has been constantly postponed and put into question. The bank heist tantalized us with the showdown, before these expectations were let-down as McCauley made his escape, and it was only a late decision by McCauley to seek revenge against Waingro (Kevin Gage), his betrayer in the aforementioned heist, that set up the dramatic conclusion in the first place. Even as the two men run into the maze of concrete cubes, and it becomes apparent that only one will make it out alive, the audience cannot know which one it will be. The power-relationship has been upset too many times.
Even at the death, Mann still has time for one last dance with audience expectations. As Hana chases McCauley into the cubes, the landing lights of the airfield erupt in luminescence. Open and vulnerable, Hana has gone from hunter to hunted, the power-relationship has reversed. Yet nothing happens. The lights fade and Hana remains in the field. The tension is allowed to ratchet up to boiling point.
A couple of minutes later, the lights come on once again, yet this time there is a conclusion. Hana spots McCauley’s shadow in the grass, turns, and unloads his pistol into the criminal’s chest. The power-relationship is thus upended for a second time, at a point at which audience expectations had already been let-down following the last time the lights came on. It is genius writing, which toys with its audience and leaves them guessing right up until the end.
At the end, as McCauley lays dying, the two men hold one another’s hand. A moment of poignant catharsis, they can finally take a moment to stop and breath, even as McCauley breathes his last. They, like their audience, can stop to contemplate a story which neither could have foreseen. After all: “you should never let your audience get ahead of you even for a second”.