Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat

This month’s reviews of great movie remakes draws to a close with the film that finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together, face to face. It’s Michael Mann’s remake of his own TV Movie LA Takedown, which six years later became Heat (1995).

A heist organized by a slick team of gangsters goes wrong. An impetuous last-minute recruit kills the three guards without authorization from the gang’s leader Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro) to cover up the gang’s tracks. The gang departs the crime scene, leaving the investigating cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) with little more than the certainty that he’s up against a team with as much dedication to their craft as he to his.

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At the most superficial level, this is a film about cops, robbers, and heists. Hanna is trying to catch McCauley, while McCauley tries to settle the score with the renegade gang-member who screwed up the heist in the opening scene. But just below the surface, there are multiple plotlines that make the movie’s three hours pass by surprisingly quickly. The dénouement of the film isn’t the big shoot-‘em-up that would usually book-end a high-budget film from the same genre; instead, the final scenes are intimate affairs, designed to show how both of the lead characters are shaped by one another.

Mann makes the symmetries and inversions between the two main characters abundantly clear. McCauley lives by a code of detachment, whereby he makes himself free to disappear as soon as he notices the eponymous ‘heat’ around the corner. Nonetheless, he finds himself inexorably drawn toward the charming ingénue Eady (played with admirable sophistication by Amy Brenneman). On the other hand, Hanna can’t seem to muster affection for the people around him even if he wanted to: his third marriage is looking to be about as successful as his previous two, and he barely notices that his stepdaughter is spiraling into a self-destructive pattern of fear and isolation. The parallel is present in their professional lives, too: McCauley commands an air of cool, calculated, precision in just about everything he does – he senses when he’s on the precipice of being made by the cops and correctly orders a strategic withdrawal. Hanna, however, is so bellicose that he alienates his colleagues with his irate and wanton pursuit of McCauley.

Whatever subtleties about the characters’ similarities and differences might have been obscured until the half-way point in the film are explicitly brought to the fore in one of the finest scenes in recent movie history. Hanna, upon realizing that McCauley is aware of his pursuit, invites the latter for a cup of coffee. The two frostily discuss their respective approaches to their work, and reach a common understanding about the obligations of their positions should they encounter one another in less propitious circumstances. Despite the spare choice of wording and the tense shifting in their seats, Hanna and McCauley share the expression that they’ve finally met someone who understands them in a way that others can’t. It’s magnificent.

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Years working on the aesthetic in shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story honed Mann’s stylistic flair. Heat is seriously slick. The clothes, the panache, and the tightly rehearsed action shots make this film cooler to look at than your first iPhone. Even the sounds of the assault rifles have an unusual percussive resonance that brings out your basest I-like-fast-cars-and-big-guns impulse. This is all the more impressive considering that although Heat is nominally a heist film, it’s the most character-driven heist film of which I’m aware. Each member of the long list of secondary characters, played by heavy hitters including Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, and Natalie Portman, has a distinctive and identifiable backstory.

Trivia time! My choices for remake films definitely overlooked some worthwhile contenders. Name some of your favorite remake films that you think deserve an honorable mention! Who’s going to suggest Sex and the City, that superb remake of Tenko? Anyone? No, no-one?

Weekend Film Recommendation: Cape Fear

The second instalment of this month’s series of movie recommendations is sure to set your skin crawling. The theme of the series is ‘remakes,’ and with this film, be warned: it is not for the faint of heart. It took me two efforts before I could bring myself to watch it through to the end! If you have the stomach, treat yourself to Martin Scorsese’s superb 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear.

Robert De Niro, no stranger to playing villains, plays the convicted rapist Max Cady in his penultimate collaboration with Scorsese. Cady has spent the last fourteen years in a prison cell, where he has divided his time between causing mayhem, tattooing biblical verses to his body, and assiduously studying criminal law. He is brutish yet literate, violent yet thoughtful. Above all his complexity he’s utterly petrifying, and he’s determined to exact revenge on the defense counsel who failed to keep him from going to prison all those years ago. 

The defense lawyer in question is Sam Bowden, a family man played by Nick Nolte. When we meet Sam, he is trying to make amends for past indiscretions that nearly compromised his marriage to Leigh, played by Jessica Lange. Their innocent and naïve daughter Danielle, played by Juliette Lewis, completes this upper-middle class North Carolina family. A fragile marriage, an impressionable daughter, and a troubled history with a former client… Sam Bowden has all the vulnerabilities and pressure points Cady needs.

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When Cady is released from prison, he’s well equipped to exploit the procedural ambiguities of law and the frailty of the Bowden family’s lifestyle. He sets to work terrorizing them, but always in ways that preclude Bowden from prosecuting a legal case. It’s not long before the Bowden’s nerves begin to fray, which is exactly according to Cady’s plan.

Scorsese is diligent about citing his influences, which is sure to satisfy those who might think a remake would be redundant. He casts some of the original members from the 1962 version in an eerie play on the symmetry of Bowden and Cady’s characters: Gregory Peck, who played Bowden in the original, now has a cameo playing the sanctimonious lawyer defending Cady from Sam’s predation. Robert Mitchum, who played Cady in the original, plays the cop who tempts Sam away from legal probity.

Scorsese clearly pays homage to Hitchcock, who was also a principal inspiration for Thompson’s direction in the original: there are plenty of Hitchcockian signature ‘double-focus’ shots, in which two characters at different depths remain in simultaneous focus by splicing together footage from multiple cameras post-production. Scorsese is similarly fond of Hitchcock’s use of jarring music throughout the film to elevate even mundane scenes into a perpetual stressor. The most obvious nod to Hitchcock relates to Cady’s clothing choice in one scene, but I won’t give away too many details.

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There are some downright difficult scenes to watch. Unlike Scorsese’s final collaboration with De Niro (Casino [1995]), in which the violence is usually on-screen, in Cape Fear Scorsese relies on the classic Hitchcock gambit of suggestion rather than performance. But it’s not the violence that gets to you as much as the scenes in which Cady manipulates and seduces young Danielle. Her innocent curiosity works horrifyingly in Cady’s favor, as he’s able to conceal his menace underneath feigned tenderness. While Nolte, Mitchum, and (especially) Lange do a fine job, the Academy ultimately nominated both De Niro and Lewis for Oscars for their performances.

Care to be unsettled? Watch Cape Fear, and let us know what you think in the comments!

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Untouchables

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” is fantastic update of old time gangster movies with knockout performances by Robert De Niro and Sean Connery

sean-connery-as-jim-malone-in-the-untouchablesMany classic TV shows have been made into dreadful movies, but Brian De Palma came up aces in 1987 when he made this week’s film recommendation: The Untouchables.

The plot: Naive treasury agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to do battle with bootlegger, murderer and king of the gangsters Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Realizing that the police and politicians are all corrupted by Capone, Ness assembles his own team of “untouchable” agents who can’t be bought. His squad is anchored by a cynical, over-the-hill beat cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who teaches him how the game is played in the Windy City. The two of them and their fellow untouchables embark on an epic confrontation with powerful, violent mobsters and a legal system that is rotten from top to bottom.

The key theme of the film is voiced by Connery, in one of the many scenes where he virtually acts the bland Costner right off the screen: What are you prepared to do? The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold. This adds moral weight to a story that is also packed with thrilling action sequences and powerful dramatic moments.

De Palma often echoes classic films in his movies, and The Untouchables is no exception. A spectacularly executed shoot-out sequence in Union Station is an homage to the equally brilliant Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although I don’t know for sure, I believe the first scene of the movie, in which a terrified barber reacts to having nicked Capone’s face while shaving him, is an echo of one of the opening scenes of a prior RBC recommendation: The Chase. De Palma makes these allusions is such a way that you don’t have to get them to enjoy the film, but if you do it’s even more fun.

This was a big budget Hollywood film and it shows in every scene. The set design and art direction are darbs, and the period cars, clothes and architecture are the cat’s meow. Producer Art Linson is a Chicago native, and clearly knew where to spend money to bring the Prohibition Era alive. To top it all off, Ennio Morricone contributes one of the most memorable and evocative scores of the 1980s.

deniroOther than Costner, who is painfully weak here, the entire cast explodes. But even in that field, Connery and De Niro tower over everyone with powerhouse performances. Capone has been portrayed many times on film, but never in such a scary fashion. In De Niro’s hands, he is a man who can go from mirth and charm to murderous rage with no warning, and the viewer fully appreciates why all of his underlings tiptoe around him.

Connery, who won a long-overdue Oscar for playing Malone, also tears up the screen. His Malone is world-weary and tough yet also capable of wit and even a sort of gentleness (His big brother-little brother relationship to Andy Garcia’s rookie cop is perfectly played by the two actors). Because he became famous playing James Bond, it took Connery a long time to convince people that he really is a fine actor. I have commended his strong performances in RBC recommendations many times, including in The Hill and Outland. He triumphs again in The Untouchables, one of many reasons to see this near-perfect update of classic cops-versus-gangsters television shows and movies.

***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and King of Comedy

Oh my goodness RBCers, do we get a treat this week: Movie recommendations from someone who knows the business from the inside. London-based Ian Jentle had a long and successful career as an actor; Americans are most likely to know him as Josef Goebbels in the epic War and Remembrance television mini-series. I asked Ian to explain from an actor’s point of view what makes a great film performance, and he has kindly agreed to do so using the example of the legendary Robert De Niro. Over to Ian:

When people ask me, as a retired actor, what I think constitutes great acting, I tell them to rent Raging Bull (1980) and King Of Comedy (1983) and watch them back to back. Both are directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro. In the former, De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a man of immensely powerful physical presence who is emotionally unstable, intellectually limited and sadomasochistic. He is huge, lumbering, frightening and yet pathetic. In the latter film, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a small, weasely loser obsessed with other people’s fame, a stage door hangabout whose very presence is sphincter-clenchingly embarassing. If you removed the credits from both films and showed them to somebody who had lived a cinema-free life, I would bet a large sum that they would not believe the same actor played both roles.

First, De Niro has that strange quality known as presence or charisma. Film professionals will say of a particular performer that “the camera loves him/her” and it is true. But screen presence is not always linked with great acting skills: Charlton Heston had tremendous presence, but his acting was rarely better than wooden, and although one could not accuse John Wayne of creating a wide range of characters, he undoubtedly had presence and was always believable and entertaining. De Niro clearly demonstrates his presence in the scene in Raging Bull in which LaMotta is thrown into a prison cell.

But De Niro brings much more to the screen than mere presence. What marks De Niro out as a truly great actor is the integrity of his approach to his characters, the depth of his observation of human behaviour and the skill he brings to the performance of these characters in the context of a film narrative. Two more clips, one from each movie, demonstrate these skills.

In the clip from Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta repeatedly challenges his brother, played by Joe Pesci, to hit him in the face. Here, De Niro gives his character the objective of “control”. He tries several strategies to persuade his brother to hit him in the face: simple request, provocative insult, older brother authority, even slapping. By the end of the clip his brother demands “What are you trying to prove? What does it prove?” De Niro’s triumphant smile and brotherly tap on the face show that he has “won”, which is the whole point. As he does repeatedly throughout the film, Jake LaMotta uses violence, even the receiving of violence, to exercise psychotic control over others.

In the clip from King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin sneaks into a car with his comedy hero Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, to ask for help in becoming a comedian. (The scene in question occurs around the 6 minute mark in this clip.) Once Pupkin invades Langford’s car, he embarks upon non-stop babble with the objectives of impressing Langford with his comedy potential and recruiting his support for his non-existent career. What he reveals is an embarrassing blend of passionate desire to succeed with not a shred of comedic talent. He tries to behave as if Langford is his equal while saying that Langford is his hero. The scene is shot head-and-shoulders but with only his face, shoulders and arms De Niro produces a painfully recognisable character.

For me, these two movies demonstrate De Niro’s ability, flexibility and imaginative range, but don’t take my word for it based on these few clips. Watch the two movies back to back and they will make the argument much better than I can.