October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.
Today’s suggestion by ryanleegilmore.
Hunters and their prey–Neil and his professional criminal crew hunt to score big money targets (banks, vaults, armored cars) and are, in turn, hunted by Lt. Vincent Hanna and his team of cops in the Robbery/Homicide police division. A botched job puts Hanna onto their trail while they regroup and try to put together one last big ‘retirement’ score. Neil and Vincent are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. At a crucial moment in his life, Neil disobeys the dictum taught to him long ago by his criminal mentor–‘Never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds flat, if you spot the heat coming around the corner’–as he falls in love. Thus the stage is set for the suspenseful ending….
Hanna is played by Al Pacino. Robert DeNiro portrays Neil. In this great scene, the two meet for the one and only time in the movie – and as far as I know, it’s the only time they’ve ever shared the screen at the same time in their entire acting careers.
The dialogue drips with subtext, but what is perhaps most interesting is the journey the scene takes. They start off with a bit of cat-and-mouse, prodding and probing each other. Then they strip away the veneer and take a good honest look at each other – and realize they’re really quite similar in terms of their place in life. Then it feels like they’re truly trying to see if there’s a way out of a confrontation. But it ends up pretty much where it started – they know they’re going to be at each other down the road.
Here’s the scene:
Some background on the scene:
* In an interview with Al Pacino on the DVD Special Edition, Pacino revealed that for the scene in the restaurant between Hanna and McCauley, Robert De Niro felt that the scene should not be rehearsed so that the unfamiliarity between the two characters would seem more genuine. Michael Mann agreed, and shot the scene with no practice rehearsals.
* For the restaurant sequence where McCauley and Hanna finally meet, Michael Mann ran two cameras simultaneously in order to generate a greater level of fluidity between both rivals. Since there were no rehearsals for the scene, this approach afforded both men a more generous margin for improvisational experimentation.
* Although this is the second film on which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have shared top billing, in The Godfather: Part II (1974), they didn’t have a single scene together. In this movie, they only have two scenes together, for a total of less than 10 minutes.
* Many viewers claim that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino never (or hardly ever) actually share screen time during the film, despite the hype surrounding the films release as showcasing their first screen appearance. In most Pan and Scan versions of the film, and TV broadcasts, it does appear that during the “diner scene” the two never actually share the screen, but viewing the film in correct letterbox format, as the director Michael Mann intended, clearly shows the two actors sitting at the table, though only in wide shots.
* The meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino over coffee was shot at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. The restaurant recently closed.
If you watch the movie version and compare it to the script, you’ll note that there is a middle section, presumably added by Michael Mann. And that dialogue exchange is this:
HANNA: You know I have this recurring dream. I’m sitting at this big banquet table and all the victims of all the murders I ever worked are sitting at this table and they’re staring at me with these black eyeballs because they got 8-ball hemorrhages from the head wounds. And there they are, these big balloon people, because I found them two weeks after they’ve been under the bed. The neighbors reported the smell. And there they are, all of ’em, just sitting there.
NEIL: Whadda they say?
NEIL: No talk?
HANNA: No. Just… they don’t have anything to say. They just look at each other. They look at me. And that’s it, that’s the dream. (snaps fingers)
NEIL: I have one where I’m drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I’ll die in my sleep.
HANNA: You know what that’s about?
NEIL: Yeah. Havin’ enough time.
HANNA: Enough time? To do what you wanna do?
NEIL: That’s right.
HANNA: You doin’ it now?
NEIL: Nah, not yet.
And that segues into “You know we’re sitting here like a coupla of regular fellahs.” It’s interesting to conjecture: Why did Mann add these two ‘confessions,’ both men sharing a secret about their recurring dreams? I’ve got a couple of ideas, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say, so please feel free to weigh in with your comments. Just in general, why do you think this scene works? If anybody cares to do a structural analysis of the scene, breaking it down, that would be groovy.
If you’d like to read the scripted version of the scene, check out my Script To Screen post here.
To read the entire script, go here.
In any event, I think I’m not diving off the deep end to assert that this is a great scene.
Thanks for the suggestion, Ryan! If you have a suggestion for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!
[Originally posted October 1, 2014]