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In and Of the World: The Textures of Michael’s Mann’s "Heat"

Michael Mann's modern crime masterpiece is a visceral rendering of a city, its people, and the textures that bond and extricate the two.
Michael Mann's Heat (1995) is showing November 11 - December 11, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) emerges from a train with unassuming poise, mingling seamlessly with the other disembarking passengers. As they recede into the background, however, congealing into airy circular blurs of out-of-focus features, Neil becomes the obvious point of attention, even more so as the camera pulls back and follows his journey from a comparative distance. In the guise of a medic, he makes his way to a hospital and coasts through its thoroughfares, passing oblivious employees and patients, until he arrives at his destination: an ambulance, which he steals. Neil’s anonymity enabled the theft and it allowed for his inconspicuous progress. He fit in. He seemed natural. Wherever he went, he had the perceptible appearance of belonging.
This is key to what distinguishes Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 contemporary crime masterpiece. Capitalizing on the director’s extraordinary capacity for scenic rendering, and playing host to a geographic bounty of Los Angeles locales, the film is a vivid portrait of a city, of the people who reside there, and of the varied textures that bond and extricate the two. Mann infuses and reflects the resulting relationships, developing visual and aural accents to construct and extrapolate character identity.
In his introductory route, Neil embodies not only anonymity, but agility and proficiency. One of his cohorts, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), appears in a following scene as the sun-kissed purchaser of assorted construction supplies. He, too, is unflappable, and knowing what we soon find out—that both men are part of a daring felonious team—these initial impressions are based on expert fabrications, secret lives in the service of a criminal enterprise. An adopted veneer is part of the texture: the texture of concealment and the texture of transgression.
That’s why Neil and his crew implement an additional layer of disguise when actually enacting their crimes (bare, plastic hockey masks—disguises that are themselves featureless), and that’s why, from the moment he enters the picture, wildcard Waingro (Kevin Gage) spells trouble. His wiry hair and grizzled stubble, his visible neck tattoos, his devilish grin (devilish though he later likens himself to the Grim Reaper): all portent an individual who stands out, one who is not meticulous and restrained, one who does not belong. He calls attention to himself. He will not be like the others—in terms of pure imagery, his place in the city, in the scheme, and in the film, is abnormal.
Based on the tales of a Chicago police officer, who in the 1960s embarked on a thrilling cat and mouse with a first-rate offender, Heat started its fictional life as a television series developed by Mann in the late 1980s (the pilot aired as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown in 1989). The big-screen version was subsequently and suitably heightened for a theatrical rendition. This formal/technical/financial enhancement pays off, in the film’s attuned Dolby sound—fragile and balanced, like the faint echo of delicate young Lauren Gustafson (Natalie Portman) as she panics about her misplaced barrettes, or reverberating and piercing, like a barrage of automatic gunfire—and in the extended action set-pieces, spectacularly choregraphed and comprised of assaulting sights and sonic punctuations. The audio-visual qualities coalesce when Neil’s team performs the first major score of the picture, an armored truck robbery that bursts forth with the mechanical roar of a barreling big-rig, the crashing, buckling, skidding of a metal-on-metal collision, the siren of a getaway ambulance, and the fiery squall of a torrential explosion.
Later, at the scene of the crime, as Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) surveys the miscalculated massacre, pools of blood glisten under the luminous L.A. light and the phosphorescent flashbulbs, snapping and blinding, developing a tangible record of the incident. As Heat continues, Mann peppers his film with an incessant mix of visceral dynamism, giving graphic constitution to the violence: bullet-riddled windshields, shattered and doused in arterial spray; the pulp of a mumbling, tortured face; and the sudden gaping wounds of an unwavering execution. This is the impact of death; this is what it looks and sounds and feels like.
The intensity is extreme, but Heat is just as remarkable for its lingering vision of the mundane, of the life and lives that continue in the background and on the sidelines, even in times of bedlam—traffic flows during a holdup and grocery stores remain operational during a blistering firefight. In this combative city symphony, whether they are directly involved or not, the casual bystander is inexorably associated with the peripheral carnage, merged in the frame and forming the depth of Mann’s realistic tapestry.
Less dramatically, this perception of authentic space and external ambiance comes through in the ceaselessly inconsequential chatter of a police station, its ringing phones and bodies in ambivalent motion, and in the tracking rows of diner patrons, a bustling wall around Neil as he settles for some coffee; between the babble of voices and the clanging of dishes, he is again fluent amongst the multitude, if for no other reason than with Heat, the multitude is ubiquitous.
Shooting entirely on location (at about 160 different sites), Mann expresses the multifaceted nature of Heat’s sprawling urban hub: the dusty, sandy outskirts, where the other half lives and where feral Pacino revels no-holds-barred eruptions; the hilltop hideaway of Kelso (Tom Noonan), the man with the plan who conscripts bank schematics while a unknowing freeway hums behind his conspiratorial sanctuary; and the sleek, modern office of businessman Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), his corporate composure a sign of outsider sleaze.
It’s a cinematic milieu thriving with up-front interactions, tell-tale surfaces, and revelatory backdrops. The sizzling grill in a greasy kitchen is the next to last best hope for recently released convict Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert); it is soiled and noisy and demeaning, providing daily impetus for his return to crime. A drive-in rendezvous conveys instant tension; it is too open to be controlled, too peculiar to be secure. And after a botched stake-out and foiled provision, the mild morning light suggests chilly trepidation in the air; overcast skies similarly threaten Neil’s accomplice, Trejo (Danny Trejo), as the noose tightens on the whole operation.
A large safehouse window shows the outside world, but the pane is murky and mocking; escape is possible, for a price. Meanwhile, obscuring smoke connects opaque interiors (steam from a shower) with hazy exteriors (traffic congestion and billowing factory conduits). To be sure, for men like Neil and Vincent, there is a persistently cohesive overlap between public and private space, one underscored by Mann and ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
Providing further points of tactile juxtaposition, as natural elements engage with the urban façades, in Heat they are typically warped and ironic: in the middle of free-flowing ferns, Neil pins Eady (Amy Brenneman) to the ground; elemental metal meets elemental wood, but only to disable an alarm; Neil is home free, but is blinded by the light of vengeance; and the suicidal blood of an innocent seeps into to supposedly cleansing bathwater.
Mann’s quest for realism led many involved in Heat to assume their own allegiance to authenticity. Nate (Jon Voight), Neil’s unlawful confidant, is based on ex-con-turned-novelist Eddie Bunker, who was brought on as a technical consultant for the picture. L.A. County range masters were enlisted, as were members of the British Special Air Service. Weapons training and bank robber consultations were par for the course. To compliment the narrative legitimacy, Mann opted for a corresponding devotion to extant surroundings, and a judicious implementation of pointed motifs. And this interplay of illustrative technique and plot purpose would at times result in a fortuitous alliance. Utilizing available light whenever possible, for example, though occasionally augmenting it “for dramatic reasons,” Mann points to a scene with De Niro and Voight as “one of the most naturalistically lit scenes—but I think one of the most perfectly lit scenes as well.” “They’re sitting in a car,” he remarks, “two men with documents, and just the way the light falls onto the pieces of paper is warning that this guy’s got three marriages, what does that tell you? It tells you he doesn't stay home. It means he’s out working all day and all night. With this guy around, there’s too much heat. So you should pass.”
Light, or the lack thereof, repeatedly informs the visual texture of Heat, and is essential to the presentation of character psychology. At night, the concentrated blacks and blues of Neil’s home indicate a waterfront residence that is symbolically cold and detached; and by day, even as its finish connotes wealth and liberty, it is hollow and sparse. This is a space one might inhabit, but it is not where one lives.
Into this steely alienation, Eady is a welcome, cozy contrast, with an effusive physical softness, from the comfortable knit of her sweater to her curled pillow of hair. Her normality and homey decency overwhelms Neil. Disconnected from the light of the city, the light of his life, the faraway sparkles dance on the horizon and induce Neil to unaccustomed conversation, concerning his family and the iridescent algae of Fiji. Feeding off a moderate, amenable impression—one visibly generated by Mann’s design and Brenneman’s performance—he is contemplative and thoughtful, gentle and open. Materially mirroring crinkled post-coital bedsheets, Neil is later seen in a loosened white shirt (no jacket); it’s part of his standard uniform of obscurity, but now it is unbuttoned, casual, and rumpled—his guard is down. The surface is disorderly and confused, just as he begins to second-guess his adamant resistance to attachment.
Precarious domesticity likewise envelops Chris and his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd). Their superficially hospitable residence—earth tones, well-appointed, orderly, looking and feeling like a home (unlike Neil’s)—is merely a mocking representation of comfort and familial warmth. Similarly, the seeming intimacy of Vincent and Justine (Diane Venora), best suggested in the prefatory scene of their early-morning lovemaking, is a deceptive, shallow front. At first, their proximity yields an amorous commingling of flesh and hair and fabric, but later, when reality sets in, their relationship proves to be vacant and unnatural. Vincent tries his hand at conventional home life, but as evinced in his posture over a countertop of dirty dishes—a subtle indication of the average kitchen in the average home, the discarded remnants of a meal he didn’t have—it is an area to which he will never fully surrender.
Where Vincent belongs is where Neil belongs: under the saturating artificial light of a parking garage, driving through the shifting hues of a California night, or beneath the spotlight of a hovering helicopter. The nocturnal bedrock of crime and punishment is secretive, ambiguous, familiar, and connective. Already linked by their appearance—perfectly groomed with sharply-defined facial features, upscale suits and an assured swagger—the unifying night swallows Neil and Vincent, enlivens them, coats them in amalgamated shades of moonlight and neon. There is a hesitancy to their eventual encounter, though, teased as part of Heat’s star-studded selling point and frequently realized in sequences of measured engagement. They are cross-cut face to face to infrared face, eye-to-eye but segregated, or they are seen observing one another from fluctuating degrees of analogous surveillance, aware but withdrawn. There is always a screen, or a lens, between them.
Finally, after headlights and taillights cut through the night, shredding, mile by mile, this prior mediation, the two protagonists (and as Mann has noted, they are both protagonists) are at last united. For the famous coffee shop confrontation, Neil and Vincent are meticulously situated in another location emphasizing regularity and outward insignificance. But the weight of the meeting is something exceptional. No longer are these two moving on singular paths. So, as they converse and their relationship curiously intensifies, Mann stresses the association and the appreciative understanding. Background clatter dissipates, shots tighten. Outlying textures evaporate—visually and aurally, the focus is on them, front and center.
As an inevitable extension of their personal-professional aptitude, by film’s end, these two characters are again removed and isolated. On the margins of an airport (a site of pronounced social and sensory-structural resonance), their predatory sight—and that of Mann’s camera—is fixed, fixated on nothing but each other. So vital to their environment, so receptive and yet so detached, so emblematic and yet so distinct; in a way, they ultimately exemplify the city itself. They are movement and noise, they are shadowy vestiges and brilliant ruptures of light, they are distant and they are in frame-filling close-up. They are good and bad, and in a closing tableau of reciprocal identity, they are striking monuments to the best of both worlds.
Simply, one of the greatest crime movies ever. Superb.
Fantastic write-up for one of my favourite pieces of cinema of all time. Bravo!

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