‘Heat’ is an American crime-thriller set in Los Angeles, California, A.K.A. ‘City of Angels’, and tells the thrilling story of cat-and-mouse between bank robber Neil McCauley & L.A.P.D. Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, played by Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino respectively, and also based on real-life persons.
Throughout the film, director Michael Mann favours a telephoto camera lens, a long-focus lens typically used in photography for its ability to focus on objects from afar and making them appear closer to the viewer of the finished piece. Once transposed into a broad 23:9 aspect ratio, Mann’s subtle blending of shooting disciplines is a deliberate technique which forces the viewer to see as much information as possible, as clear as possible; which at parts might seem distracting to some viewers who might be overwhelmed by the intimate relationship between the audience and the close-up characters that they are watching, seduced by the blurred L.A. lights that make much of the film’s backdrop. However, this showcasing of the relationship between landscape visuals and the characters that it encases and at times, overshadow, is not uncommon within the film noir genre, which the mood of the film is no stranger to; but what it doesn’t share common grounds with is that ‘Heat is still, in most aspects of the term, a drama.
Displaying the emotional boundaries that the central characters are pushed to go through in their journey of self-absolution, instead of favouring more plot-twists and mystery that film noir claimed, almost exclusive, ownership in its inception and following popularisation in Hollywood films in the 1940s & 1950s. Many audiences have coined the term neo-noir to describe ‘Heat’, and many more of it’s contemporary predecessors and successors, due to Mann’s decision to not only exemplify some of film noir’s classic themes and tropes, but to drop them into a hurricane of modern-day, urban setting with an up-to-date, dream-like visual and musical style.
And boy, does he make it look cool…
From the hypnotic blinding lights of the L.A. Interstate 105 at night, to the surreal bright yellow sulphur mountain establishing the rural Shanty town; the sterility of Grand Avenue where the bank heist takes place, to the ominous final showdown at the L.A. International Airport; Michael Mann has almost perversely utilised L.A. as not just a passive setting to paint each frame with glorious and gritty detail, but also plays a central part to the characters motives.
Robert Deniro’s Neil McCaulney is a man of discipline and lives by the mantra that applies to every aspect of his life.
Don’t let yourself get attached to anything that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.
The implication that his character is not one who deals with emotions or empty human interactions is not only evident in this life-lesson and the choices the character makes throughout the film, but is clearly visually manifested by Mann. His crisp, tailored wardrobe and appearance is one attribute which is accredited to Mann’s vision of a criminal who disguises himself within the 80s yuppie culture in lieu of a traceable and definable individuality, surely a consequence of his aforementioned principle. But how better to tell a character’s inner-self visually than by showing their respective abodes.
In one scene we see Deniro’s McCauley return to this home: a minimalist, bare, cold, seafront apartment; the emptiness and visually bleak setting is the cave to his bat, his home where he lays down his gun. In other words, the perfect location to visually clue the audience into his character, his past, his present and his fate. However it’s not quite enough for Mann to simply display this character in his habitual home.
The quiet yet cutting sound of McCauleys gun being placed onto the glass table is the first and only dominant sound we hear as he enters the open-plan, empty apartment and proceeds to the backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows exposing the dark Miami beachfront, before staring out to the Pacific ocean (a famed visual homage to Alex Cavill’s painting ‘Pacific’). His yearning from his hollow, lonely self-infliction of what might be over the vastness of the ocean is strategically yet, beautifully executed in Mann’s use of location whilst displaying the craft of his artistic calibre.
This is just one example of many that viewers can find in the film’s mammoth 170-minute run time of Mann’s use of location in film. His trademark of highly stylistic visuals, which, early in his television-directing career, had been his downfall when audiences claimed his overtly misguided method of placing ‘style-over-substance’, may have been what people expected in ‘Heat’. However what we see in this film is his craft perfected. The strong and constant utilization of Los Angeles as a beautiful and gritty, glorious and enticing aesthetic to the film, alongside the compelling narrative and masterful performances, is a testament to Michael Mann’s goal to change the mind of the past nay-sayers and show what it means to lack in neither visual marvel and a captivating narrative, so much so that it seems to even rely upon each other. To simply put: ‘style-equals- substance’
Or as Tom Sizemore’s character ‘Michael Cerrito’ perfectly puts it: “The action is the juice.”
Jackie Lam is an actor and screenwriter from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire and is now based in North London. His work extends from West End and international theatre to film and television, and strives to create and tell stories around the British East Asian experience.
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He will appear on the Cities in Cinema podcast next month.