The Loneliness Of Los Angeles In Michael Mann's 'Heat'
"Within it was somebody who was involved in some life of aggression and action. And yet the contrast was in the mental state because here was a moment of inner loneliness, and it didn't dictate something instead it posed a question. It didn't inform with a statement, it posed a question: what is this man thinking? What is he imagining? And it said something about his circumstances and his condition—which was a condition of loneliness."
The above quote comes from director Michael Mann from the DVD commentary track of his 1995 crime epic Heat, describing a painting that directly inspired one of the more memorable shots from the film. The work in question is Pacific, a 1967 painting by Canadian painter Alex Colville. In Pacific, Colville bridges the gap between Edward Hopper's Northeast urban psychological unease and David Hockney's antiseptic Southern California moments. Mann takes this same approach in Heat—out Tuesday on Blu-ray in a brand-new edition—staging the pulpy drama of cops and robbers across a huge swath of Los Angeles and its constituent communities.
After pulling off an elaborate heist of an armored truck—one that ends with the unplanned murder of the truck's three guards—professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) returns home to his oceanfront pad in Malibu. McCauley places his handgun and his keys on a glass table in the foreground of the frame, the only visible feature in an otherwise unfurnished pad, and walks towards the window and stares vacantly out at the Pacific Ocean. What is this man thinking? What is he imagining?
Despite pulling off million-dollar heists as his profession, McCauley lives a monk-like existence. He lives by a prison yard mantra: "You wanna be making moves on the street? Have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner." Like his Malibu beach house, McCauley's life is a void. His opposite number on the other side of the law, LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), is burdened by what McCauley explicitly avoids. While he's making his own moves on the street, Hanna's domestic life—a marriage on the rocks, a neglected step-daughter—slowly comes apart. "All I am is what I am going after," Hanna says to his wife Justine. Both men are the Mann archetype: obsessively-driven loners consumed by their own work.
In a metropolitan area of now almost 13 million people, Mann turns the urban landscape that McCauley and Hanna traverse and inhabit into an alienating, isolating environ that reflects their lonesome inner psychology. Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti shun the city's most obvious landmarks, and instead turn their lens on the less charismatic corners of the landscape and the postmodern architecture.
Mann's career has spanned decades and he has dabbled in a variety of genres and formats (his earliest work is an experimental short of documentary footage he shot during the May 1968 protests in Paris) but he'll ultimately be remembered for his tales of cops and robbers. After working on the shows Miami Vice and Crime Story for NBC, Mann and former Chicago cop Chuck Adamson got to work on a new pilot for the network. L.A. Takedown was based on Adamson's own investigation into real-life thief Neil McCauley in the '60s, and his actual encounter with McCauley on the street before later killing him in a shootout.
L.A. Takedown (which you can watch here in poor, VHS-quality) aired as a standalone TV movie in 1989 and ultimately was not picked up for a series. Shot over a span of 19 days (a rushed job, by Mann standards), the movie is a noble failure marred by poor acting and uninspired staging. It would not be a stretch to compare it to one of the plays that Max Fischer directs in Wes Anderson's Rushmore. Mann would resurrect the script for Heat six years later, with an enormous boost from superb Pacino and De Niro performances.
With a bigger budget, better actors, more production time, and without the constraints of the TV format, Mann was able to expand Heat into a melancholic mood piece beyond the crime drama. He sets the noir tone off the bat with an opening shot of McCauley's arrival at Metro's Redondo Beach Green Line station, aided by a conveniently-placed steam pipe and Elliot Goldenthal's ambient score. For the rest of the film, McCauley is linked to L.A.'s transitory spaces and movement. He's a man without a sense of space or home (recall the aforementioned unfurnished Malibu pad). Even the armored truck heist that is Heat's inciting incident takes place underneath the interchange of the 10 and 110 freeways—a space ignored by the thousands of commuters that travel right over it every single day.
On the other hand, the first we see of Hanna is in the most private of all domestic spaces. He's in bed with his wife, but the home he inhabits is a "dead-tech, post-modernistic, bullshit house" of steel railings and glass bricks. It's a post-modern architectural disaster somewhere in the Hills, seemingly inspired by the midcentury modern architects who would give 20th Century Los Angeles their character but without any of Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig's sense of utopic order. His office, which Hanna would probably admit is more of a home to him, is also an unwelcoming place. Hanna would much rather be on the street where the action is instead of suffocating within a concrete tomb embedded within LAPD headquarters.
Even during Heat's much-celebrated bank heist and gun battle, Mann uses downtown's architecture for this effect. It's an odd comparison, but my mind often makes the connection to Jacques Tati's 1968 masterpiece PlayTime. An overhead shot of the bank lobby (Far East Bank at Two California Plaza) right before the mayhem breaks out, with the bank's towering windows and compartmentalized organization, recalls Monseiur Hulot's view as he's startled by the oppressive geometry of an office in a Parisian skyscraper.
To heighten this effect PlayTime, Tati constructed enormous, expensive sets and models to stand in as the offices and lobbies of Paris' towers, using matte gray as a color scheme for all the trimmings. (The film was a commercial failure and left Tati in debt.) Despite the order and efficiency imposed by the hyper-modern buildings of Tati's film, the spaces are cold and frigid. In PlayTime technology and the skyscrapers of a modern Paris have drawn people apart while they have incongruously made the city center more dense.
But despite this dim view of modernity, Tati's PlayTime offers a glimmer of optimism; one where we as individuals can break free from the constraints of modern space to celebrate a shared humanity we have with each other. There is no such possibility for McCauley and Hanna, whose paths converge on the runways of LAX. A lonely, forbidden place of steel machinery and, most importantly, transition and movement. It's a perfect setting for McCauley to finally rest.
Heat: Director's Definitive Edition is out Tuesday on Blu-ray.
Carman Tse is a diehard Giants fan living in Los Angeles as well as a freelance arts and culture writer and former editor-in-chief at LAist. Follow him on Twitter at @CarmanTse.