It’s known for its brash violence and heavyweight star leads – so what makes heist movie Heat a story about love?
What is Heat about?
A gang of ex-cons pulls off a series of slick heists, drawing the attention of cops and criminals alike. Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and gang leader Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) tail each other across L.A., driving up the stakes as each man tries to outmanoeuvre the other. Meanwhile, what starts as a daring but precise bank robbery turns explosively sour as others crave a piece of the action.
Director Michael Mann first crafted this story as 1989 movie L.A. Takedown before refining and releasing it as Heat six years later.
Heat’s visual storytelling
Heat conveys much of its storytelling through imagery – but is that unusual for a visual medium like cinema?
Films don’t tell stories through pictures alone, of course. Signs uses symbol and suggestion to talk about grief. The Departed mirrors characters and plots. Reservoir Dogs contrasts labels [“Mr White”] with uniforms [everyone looks the same] to mask betrayal.
Many of Heat’s significant moments are visual. In fact, from its hyper-real gunfight to the final scenes some parts of the movie have no dialogue.
Lieutenant Hanna lives among the dead by virtue of his job as homicide detective. As a result, he can’t easily return to the living (his wife and step daughter). The horrors he sees, plus the requirements of the job – to be as heavy handed and inscrutable as any gangster – take a toll on those close to him.
Yet despite his emotional rigidity, one scene reveals an entirely different aspect of Hanna’s character.
After Waingrow kills a young sex worker, Hanna stops the girl’s mother seeing the body. He goes further, holding her close as she sobs – surely one of the strongest ways we can show humanity.
This scene repeats almost identically at the end of the movie, when Hanna finds his own step daughter nearly dead from suicide. He holds wife Justine close, finally giving her emotional availability she’s been demanding, and which he claims not to have.
Visual echoes like this one are scattered throughout the film. They contextualise or contradict the main plot, foreshadow events and even reveal the love story – of sorts – between Hanna and Neil McCauley.
Cops and criminals
Crime thriller The Departed blurs the line between cops and criminals: sometimes, it’s just too close to call.
Heat’s lead characters are chasing different ends (justice Vs money) in similar ways (stealth and bullets). It’s the personalities of Hanna and McCauley that blur together.
These men can’t belong to the world they inhabit. Like the undercover cops and criminals in Infernal Affairs, each is trapped on a path that society and circumstance thrusts on them.
Both shun attachment because it leaves them vulnerable to – and detracts – from their obsessions. Hanna is emotionally detached despite being married, while McCauley shuns love (and furniture):
“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.”
This comes to underline how their fates are tangled together. McCauley asks: “if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?” In fact, neither man expects to keep a marriage; each is already wed to his own obsessions.
Their similarity of outlook and fate draws the men to each other with mutual respect instead. Moreover, they’re so similar that when Hanna surveys the aftermath of the armoured car hold-up he describes what went down better than any witness.
Hanna respects McCauley as a sharp operator, too. When they meet in the coffee shop it’s as equals; they chat about relationships and how they may have to kill each other – and hey, it’s not personal. Heck, when one finally kills the other they shake hands like you might after a match.
Contrast the coffee meet with the diner scene after that first hold-up, when the way the crew shift seats subtly unmasks the top dog. Consequently, when McCauley batters subordinate Waingrow it’s a signal he’s not his equal.
The mirrored scenes
So the cops are copping and the robbers are robbing, and what unites them is single-mindedness of pursuit – like two tribes locked in war. Again, this is underlined by mirrored scenes and events.
The scene in which McCauley’s crew have dinner with their families – while the LAPD watches from a distance – is replicated by the detectives themselves (right down to the way McCauley and then Hanna ducks out halfway through).
Later on the LAPD eavesdrops when the crew stake out a refinery, only for McCauley to flip the scenario: he’s out there watching the detectives. McCauley knows Hanna, and Hanna knows McCauley – and like any loved-up couple they can finish each other’s sentences.
When Hanna realises he’s been played he’s more awestruck than annoyed. And his response reiterates the similarities between the two gangs; how they think the same and move the same and are fighting for the same thing: control.
A movie about love and family
Heat is notable for it’s all-guns-blazing bank robbery and yet the big battle falls just over halfway into the movie, suggesting this story is about more than just the score.
So if it’s not about the swag, and the getaway is bungled, what’s left? Well, maybe it’s about love.
The big tension – the ‘heat’ of the title – is the pressure from the police. Yet many characters face greater stress (heat) in trying to balance ego with family and emotional needs.
- McCauley brags about being free of the world … then he falls for Eady and understands loneliness and doubt for the first time.
- Justine demands Hanna be emotionally present for the family – something Hanna is vehement he can’t do (until the end of the film, at least).
- Trejo betrays the crew to save his wife, and then can’t live without her.
- Chris Shiherlis won’t leave without wife Charlene. And while she agrees to hand him over to the police, she can’t go through with it.
If this all sounds wonderfully romantic, keep in mind none of them are particularly deserving characters. They’re serial cheaters and gamblers, emotionally vacant and self-interested.
Yet however much they push love away, it’s what they’re all running towards. The love in Heat is unsayable – because that would mean being vulnerable.
They talk tough, finding it easier to show anger than honesty, but their actions give them away. The gang even mimics the language of family, calling each other “brother”. And McCauley’s role is part patriarch, part human resources manager; he keeps the tribe together, even bullying Charlene to stay with Chris like some scowling, gun-toting Cupid.
Foreshadowing and fate
So, how do we know what lies in store for characters like McCauley and Hanna before they do?
Justine accuses Hanna of living among the dead – no great revelation given his job. Later, he reinforces the idea that he’s a man trapped among ghosts:
“I have this recurring dream. I’m sitting at this big banquet table: all of the victims of all the murders I’ve ever worked are sitting at this table and they’re staring at me.”
With Hanna and McCauley squaring off against each other, it feels like McCauley doesn’t realise what cosmic odds he’s up against.
Eventually the odds coincide with McCauley’s promise of never going back to jail – the twist being he’s never going anywhere once Hanna guns him down.
Ironically, McCauley – the free spirit – is undone by attachment: not to Eady, but to revenge. On the way to the airport he tells her they’re “home free” – and calling it this early is never a good sign. We see them bathed in the bright but eerie lights of the tunnel; a split second later McCauley turns back for Waingrow, sealing his fate.
McCauley’s journey towards humanity is interesting to watch. But is his love for Eady credible – and does he leave her at the hotel to save her from a gun battle, or to sacrifice her?
Here, at least, McCauley lives up to his creed: “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.” How long between McCauley clocking Hanna outside the hotel and leaving Eady? Some 30 seconds.
There’s extra burn to this if you consider that despite considerable heat during the bank heist McCauley goes back for wounded Chris Shiherlis.
A metaphor for love
Hanna and McCauley may be two sides of a similar coin but their paths diverge the closer they get to each other.
The film ends with the two predators stalking each other in the long grass. Appropriately enough, this final section after the hotel is all visual and almost entirely without words.
Those bright tunnel lights – a metaphor for passing into the afterlife – are back. This time it’s runway lights, and the irony that this could have been McCauley’s great escape. Perhaps it still is, just not in the way he expects.
Heat isn’t a story of romantic love so much as a metaphor for it; its characters are lonely and reaching out to belong. Perhaps that’s why Hanna sheds a tear for McCauley: that’s McCauley the cold-blooded killer, by the way, and the Hanna who stays dry-eyed when his own stepdaughter tries to die.
It’s an ambivalent message about love, for sure, though not without some reprieve. McCauley turns back for revenge and to save his own skin; Hanna at least turns back – at last – to his family.
And yet the tragic, romantic and operatic ending is between cop and the killer, the soul mates who match intellectually and emotionally. Heat is the story of their violent courtship and, when it’s over it ends, like orgasm, in a little death. What’s left to do now but
hold shake hands, while the stars shine down on L.A.
Heat (1995), directed by Michael Mann
What to read or watch next
- Collateral (Michael Mann, doubled characters, twisted romance, L.A.)
- Reservoir Dogs, The Killing, The Usual Suspects (heists)
- The Departed, Infernal Affairs (the blurred line between cops and robbers)
- Gattaca (cops, cons, heist-like)
- The Great Escape, Inception (not heists but similar)
- The Mosquito Coast (doubled characters)
- Blade Runner (Vangelis, similar mood)
- Films about summer extremes
Picture credit: Austin Laser