Beyond Cops and Robbers: An Analysis of “HEAT” (1995) Written & Directed by Michael Mann

NEIL

“A guy told me one time: don’t let yourself get attached 
to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds 
flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

(Mann, M., ‘Heat’ 1995)

heat-1995-poster-artwork-al-pacino-robert-de-niro-val-kilmer

Beyond the dollars and guns and women and violence and double crossing and heists is a complex and much analysed story of two men; Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). On a first viewing these two men are protagonists in one of the oldest of story genres, ‘cops and robbers’. As Ari Mattes notes, “…both know, and admire and respect, the other as their nemesis, nullifying, in Mann’s film, any reading in terms of a Manichean structure (that is, good hero versus evil villain).” (Mattes, 2014, Issue 4)

However, while they might cancel each other out Michael Mann has crafted a narrative around the similarities that Hanna and McCauley share while at the same time being on opposite sides of the law; one could easily swap the two characters and they would be equally at home in their opposing roles. Both are perfectionists, both are ruthless, both are professionals. These character traits portray both men as dedicated loners but beyond that, existing in a crowded world yet suffering loneliness.

In this essay I will illustrate how the mise-en-scene techniques and tradecraft employed by Mann and his team to highlight the similarities of these two men who are so identical they even experience the same loneliness.

As Rybin writes, “Heat is a monumental crime film… This monumental style, however, is not magic; it is a product of Mann’s meticulously expressive mise-en-scene and ongoing commitment to sensitive sound-image construction.” (Rybin, 2013, p 129)

Sanders et al note, “Mann’s filmic style coordinates the camera elements (composition, lighting, colour saturation) and built environs and uses them to frame the viewer’s position on the characters and events.” (Sanders, Skoble, Barton Palmer, 2014, p 87).

Mann duplicates two scenarios in Heat with both groups having a night out on the town. Firstly, we see McCauley’s crew of master thieves, each with own special talent, celebrating the success of their recent heist, in one of LA’s finer restaurants; white linen, suited waiters, table flowers, silverware and valet parking give an impression of refinement yet it is a lifestyle stolen, not earned in the traditional manner. Neil’s crew each have their wives or long time girlfriends with them and in the case of two have their children along as well. As we cut from vignette to vignette of each couple, one wife receiving an extraordinarily large diamond from her husband, another couple sharing a very public yet intimate moment, Mann intercuts a medium close-up shot of Neil, framed all by himself, alone, with eye line off to a character from the preceding vignette. Now we start to see that while his other gang members have taken the time to start lives and create families, Neil is the only one still alone. The cuts back to Neil after and during each vignette are shorter and shorter, building tension which is relieved when finally, we see Neil excuse himself from the table and make a phone call to Eady, his one-night stand from the previous evening. As is noted by Sanders et al, “Until McCauley meets Eady, he is isolated from the feelings of ambivalence that would affect any normal person who must be prepared in thirty seconds flat to walk away from any attachments he may have…”, (Sanders, Skoble, Barton Palmer, 2014, p 45). The pain of loneliness in which Neil has isolated himself is now able to be relaxed to some extent but he concurrently has his ‘code’ to live by.

In the opposing scene we are at a dinner in a similar yet different restaurant. The room is darker and the tone a little more raucous. Through a window we can look down on the city. This venue is almost the mirror opposite the one in which McCauley and crew dine. Low lighting instead of bright lighting, dancing instead of subdued conversation, elevated position as opposed to street level. Around the table are Vincent and his wife with his ‘crew’ of detectives and their partners. While they number more in quantity there are no children and we know less about any of them than the members of Neil’s crew. In this scene the focus is on Vincent and his wife, Justine. Just when they start to have fun Vincent receives a page then makes a phone call.  As Vincent listens to the police dispatcher he has been instructed to call describe the details of yet another homicide, his gaze tells us that he has already left the party. At the same instant Justine exits the frame leaving Vincent all alone in the shot. He then departs into the loneliness of Los Angeles’ crime filled darkness.

Throughout the film Mann uses a palette of blue from electric in neon lighting to icy over the ocean. Even the black of the night sky we see from McCauley’s home in the hills over looking the city and his beach house is actually blue-black. The colour blue is most recognised as reflective of a psychological disorder of depression and more generally of melancholia or sadness. Both attributes of humans longing for connection or who are otherwise alone. Contemporary colour theory also tells us that blue is the most oft used colour of corporations; emotionless entities devoid of human interaction. These traits are most evident in both Hanna and McCauley and is representative of their perfectionism, professionalism and cold blooded ruthlessness. And in one of the most densely populated cities in the world the stillness and quiet of the shot from McCauley’s hill top post-modern neo-minimalistic house forces the audience to think how possible it is to live in a city of millions but be alone. With regard to Vincent his loneliness stems from his deteriorating relationship with his wife. We learn that their house is really her home and Vincent’s only worldly possession is a small portable TV.

Interestingly, with regard to costume, Mann flips the stereotypical notion of good guys wear white and bad guys wear black by costuming detective Hanna in black shirts throughout the film and master criminal McCauley in white shirts. This change of form from the ordinary and obvious gives hint to the audience of the underlying machinations that prevail, albeit unseen and most likely not even admitted to, by each protagonist. Hanna in his role of professional policeman and all the significance and preconceived connotations that come with that role, exists in a world far closer to that of which he is trying to prevail over. He deals with on a frequent basis the very people that should not be able to walk the streets. He is far nearer to more criminals than McCauley is for the majority of screen time. His uniform of black shirts helps him blend in with this assortment of criminal element like camouflage. Conversely, McCauley in his designer grey suite and white shirts blends into the world he wants to assimilate with. In his desire to blend in with the masses he has lost himself and succumbed to loneliness. During the restaurant scene Neil was not out of place at all. None of his crew were suspected of being anything other than good friends out for a good time, celebrating a business victory or family occasion.

The post modern architecture is a major influence throughout the film and is highly visible in both Vincent’s wife’s house and the police station office from where he works. Neil’s house in the hills and the other by the beach are equally striking and reflective of their owner’s internal loneliness. Vincent is a tourist or accessory in his wife’s house. With nothing more than a portable TV he is as transient as he is committed to her. He has nothing to tie him down; no investment in the space nor in the relationship. Neil’s houses are devoid of substantive furniture; nothing that can make them possibly be called ‘home’. He has these houses possible because he has to do something with the money amassed from his illegal activities. Aside from the barest essentials such a couch, some crockery and a bed, the houses are barren. Neither has anything that can’t be easily be replaced should they have to give it up, “…in thirty seconds flat.” Mann uses these blank canvases to paint a picture of Neil’s emotional void he has created to maintain his strict code of perfect professionalism. With regard to Vincent, the house in which he resides is as empty of his possessions as Neil’s houses are. While Vincent’s house is full of ‘things’ none except for his non-permanent, easily transportable, little TV actually belong to Vincent. Vincent’s life within another’s life again reinforces the concept that many who live in big cities endure on a daily basis; loneliness. And how it is possible to be lonely within a relationship. Mann’s pervasive use of the post-modern architecture extends to the work environment for Vincent. The office from which he works is concrete and grey slabs. It is more reminiscent of a prison than modern police station. For what it supposed to represent to the public it is another concrete coffin for Vincent to endure the pain of his loneliness on a daily basis.

In conclusion, Mann’s portrait of loneliness possessed by men who for the most part exist in their own common worlds is most devastatingly and poetically depicted in the finale of the film. Renowned as one of the great film scenes, Hanna and McCauley come face to face for the second time in the film; McCauley the hunted and Hanna the hunter. However, in the final frames the scales are tipped back slightly to even as Neil orchestrates and leads Vincent towards a ‘kill field’. Once again Mann ensures that they are surrounded by nothing and everything at once; both seemingly at home in the loneliness that their professional, determined ruthlessness has brought them. In a field near a runway of LA International airport these two men stalk each other like hunted prey. Mann uses tight, fast shots to build to crescendo the tension of life and death, love and hate which has been building throughout. However, like the majority of American cinema, the idea of the ‘bad guy winning’ is a distant thought. In this instance Mann’s use of equal screen time editing, replication of shots between actors that are so tight and close the actor’s skin takes on a character all of it’s own, intercut with wider shots illustrating the danger of the area in which the scene takes place, give the audience hope that the resolution may be more balanced than the carnage and violence that has preceded. In the penultimate series of frames, it is the ‘white hat’, black shirted, good guy that prevails — but only just. As Sharrett writes, “At the end, both Neil and Vincent are alone, less, I think, to showcase the “final showdown” to which the drama has been moving than to emphasise their alienation from domesticity and forms of male organisation alike.” (Sharrett, 2007, Issue 43)

These two men who are so similar in so many ways both internally and externally and equal in their respect for each are finally defined to be different by nothing more than the speed of a bullet. The final shot is so beautifully and starkly framed, and darkly lit to capture the entirety of the film’s theme in one single frame. These adversaries and contemporaries, hand in hand, no victory, the end of a life and the end of mutually respectful relationship are highlighted in Mann’s composition giving both characters equal framing even though they are in very different positions. Mann’s use of swelling orchestral overture highlights the majesty in which these two have ‘played their game of death and destruction’. McCauley has lost his life and Hanna has lost a worthy antagonist. The final frame is a portrait and paints both men against the flickering airport runway lights which we saw earlier in the film as the lights of LA from Neil’s hilltop home. Once more and for the final time Mann demonstrates the loneliness that both men exist within.

 

Bibliography

Arnett, R., 2009, “The American City as Non-Place: Architecture and Narrative in the Crime Films of Michael Mann”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Volume 27, Issue 1

Heat, 1995, motion picture, Warner Bros., Hollywood, California

James, N., Heat, 2002 British Film Institute, London

Mattes, A., 2014, “Action without Regeneration: The Deracination of the American Action Hero in Michael Mann’s Heat” Journal of Popular Film and Television Volume 42Issue 4

Rybin, S., 2013, Michael Mann: Crime Auteur, The Scarecrow Press, London

Sanders, S.M., Skoble, A.J. and Barton Palmer, R., 2014 The Philosophy of Michael Mann The University of Kentucky Press, USA

Sharrett, C., 2007, “Heat” Senses of Cinema, Issue 43, May 2007