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Michael Mann's "Heat" in One Shot

Michael Mann's magnum opus encapsulated in one shot.
James Slaymaker
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. Michael Mann's Heat (1995) is showing on MUBI starting February 5, 2021 in the UK and other countries.
LAPD agent Vincent Hanna finds himself in a cargo container situated in the parking lot of a precious metals depository, tracking the actions of master thief Neil McCauley and his crew as they disarm the building’s alarm system through a thermal vision monitor. A member of Hanna’s team accidentally hits the wall of the vehicle with the side of his weapon, causing a slight thud that is audible from the outside. McCauley’s suspicion is aroused. He freezes in place and intuitively looks into the lens of the cops’ hidden surveillance camera. Hanna and McCauley stare at each other for an extended period, marking the first time they share the same visual space in the film. Mann alternates between a centered one-shot of McCauley, positioned frontally, straining to determine whether he is being watched, and a rhyming close-up of Hanna, straining to determine whether McCauley is watching him. This moment encapsulates the paradoxical sense of intimacy and distance which binds these two men together. Mann frames and edits the sequence as if the two men are engaged in a close dialogue, but they are physically separated, and unable to figure out whether their gaze is being reciprocated. Heat is structured as a dual character study, devoting equal narrative weight to the experiences of both Hanna and McCauley as they circle, evade, and track one another. Gradually, it becomes clear that these men from the opposite sides of the law are not opposites but mirror images: they are both driven by an existential guiding ethic which takes precedence over every other aspect of their lives; they are both beset by feelings of disconnection and alienation; they both attempt to transcend their loneliness through romantic/familial relationships, but ultimately they both end up victims of self-sabotage. The more time McCauley and Hanna spend studying each other’s behavior, the more they begin to regard each other with a sense of mutual admiration—they recognize that the deep similarities in their dispositions and situations, even though the Manichean structures of the society they are entrapped within means that they are forced to regard each other as opponents. When Hanna and McCauley come into contact with one another, the socially constructed roles of “cop” and “criminal” disintegrate, as Mann’s protagonists realize that they are both swept up in the greater currents of passing time, technological development, and capitalist expansion. Yet, within the dehumanizing urban landscape of Mann’s Los Angeles, genuine emotional connections are rare and fleeting. So Heat ends as it must. Hanna guns down McCauley on the tarmac of Los Angeles International Airport, fulfilling his earlier promise that, despite their evident kinship, he would not hesitate to take McCauley down if it was necessary. As he bleeds out, McCauley looks Hanna in the eye and offers, without any trace of anger, the simple statement of recognition: “you do what you gotta do.”

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One ShotMichael MannNow ShowingColumnsQuick Reads
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