Analysis of Michael Mann's Heat
By Carl Tashian

Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann, is an epic film set in Los Angeles in the mid-90ís. In classical style, it details the battle between an LAPD detective and an organized criminal. Al Pacino plays the detective, Vincent Hanna, and the leader of the organized crime group is Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro.

The movie begins with Neil and his gang holding up an armored car and stealing an envelope of bearer bonds worth $2 million dollars. The owner of the bonds is Roger Van Zant, an off-short drug money launderer. Rather than selling the bonds on the street for 40% of their value, Neilís group decides to try selling them back to Van Zant for 60%. Since Van Zant has already collected insurance on the bonds, he stands to make another 40% by buying them back. In the scene being analyzed, Neil is meeting with one of Van Zantís men at an old drive-in movie theater to collect the money. The deal goes bad and turns into a gun battle between Neilís gang and Van Zantís henchmen. After Neil finds only shreds of blank paper in the package, he makes a telephone call to Van Zant and threatens to kill him.

Photography and Mise en Scéne

The scene starts out with an establishing shot showing an empty drive-in movie lot, giving the viewer a sense of the locale. Since Heat is an epic movie, there are many establishing shots, including some aerial shots.

After the establishing shot, most scenes are long or medium shots shot with a wide angle lens. The depth of field is generally deepósince this scene is shot outside with big subjects (cars), itís important to show background details so the spatial relationships are maintained between shots.

The conversation between Neil and Van Zantís deliveryman is shot with the characters at a social distance. They are conducting impersonal business, but we still want to see expressions on their faces. The social distance is as close as the characters ever get; they do not trust each other and they need a lot of space.

Once the action sequence begins, there are many high angle shots with Chris Shiherlis, Neilís gunman, shooting a rifle at Van Zantís henchmen below. The high angle emphasizes that they have nowhere to runótheyíre being shot at from above. Neilís gang has control of the situation from the start.

The dominant in this scene is usually moving and centered in the frame. Most shots have little density, making the dominant even more obvious. The dominants also stand out due to the neutral gray and green pavement that often serves as a background. All characters in the scene wear black, the truck is a shiny, bright white, and Neilís car is dark blue.

Color and lighting key play important roles in the telephone conversation. Neil is in a cafe, under high key white lighting. Van Zant is in a dark office with only blue low key lighting from one side and a little light coming through an open door behind him. As soon as Van Zant realizes that his life is in danger, someone closes the door behind him. And he is left with only cold blue lighting on one side of his face. By the end of the scene, as Van Zant hangs up the telephone, most of the frame is blackóhe is consumed by the darkness. Meanwhile, Neil is still under high key lighting in the cafe. The dramatic difference in color and lighting key strongly emphasize the danger that Van Zant faces.

In the telephone conversation, a typical two shot cannot be used. Instead, both characters are shown in full front or profile positions at medium or close-up range. We can fully see the emotion on both charactersí faces as they talk. Neil means business and Van Zant is visibly shaken.

The shots of Van Zant also go from loosely framed to tightly framed during the conversation. He shifts from being free (taking up only a quarter of the frame) to being trapped. By the end of the conversation, the camera shows only close-ups of Van Zantóhe has nowhere to run.

These close-ups are also used to show facial expressions in the telephone conversation. After Van Zant slowly hangs up the phone, a close-up of his face shows his intense fear and cold eyes staring far into the distance. He is very aware that his life is in danger, as is the audience.


Camera movement is fluid for the first part of the scene. Pans show the movement of the truck as it pulls into the drive-in lot, and most shots last only a few seconds, emphasizing the movement.

The most noticeable movement in the scene is the jerky vertical movements of the cars and camera during the action sequence. Because the old pavement of the drive-in lot has big waves in it, a vehicle on the lot bounces as it moves. These shots disorient the viewer, and when combined with fast cutting, make a typical fast-paced action sequence.

When Van Zantís gunman is first shown, he has just been hit by Neilís car and is not a threat. He is shown at eye-level in a long shot. When the gunman gets control of his weapon again, the camera gets closer to him and the angles get lower. The final shot of the gunman is a close-up of his face from low angle, with his gun in a corner of the frame.

Movement toward and away from the camera plays an important role in the action sequence, as well. When Neil is being shot at, he starts to drive toward the gunman. We see the front of his car barreling toward the gunman. Psychologically, this has a very intimidating effect.

The same movement is shown of the truck as it tries to escape unscathed. The first shot shows the truck heading toward the camera. Then we see a shaky point of view shot from inside the truck, showing its movement toward the exit. Next, Michael is shown shooting at the truck, and as the truck passes the camera, Michael hits the driver. The final shot shows the truck heading away from the camera and running into a wallóits drive is now dead and it is no longer a threat.


The scene starts out slow, with 5-7 second shots for the establishment of the scene and original dialog. Once the action starts, the shots last less than 1 second on average. Things slow down again after the gun battle is over. The use of fast cutting speeds up the action tremendously. Over 40 separate shots are shown during the action sequence alone.

Much of the editing in this scene creates a fast cause-effect relationship for events, as well. For example, we see Chris Shiherlis aim his gun toward the gunmna below, then a shot of the gunman getting hit. We automatically assume that Shiherlis fired the shot, even though both characters arenít on the screen at the same time. A second later, it happens again. Looking through the shattered windshield of his car, we see Neil with his gun. The next shot is of the gunman getting hit again, then a point of view shot from inside the car shows Neil running into the gunman and sending him flying over the windshield. We assume that Neil fired the second shot.

In some shots during the action, the editing cuts back and forth between two conflicting subjects. For example, when the truck is trying to escape from the lot, we see a shot of it, then a shot of Michael Cheritto with a shotgun, and finally a shot of both as Cheritto fires at the truck. The final shot that brings two subjects together is always the climax of the action.

Parallel editing is utilized in the telephone conversation. Sound ties the pictures together and brings them into context. Since the two people in a telephone conversation cannot be in the room at the same time, there are two separate stage sets for the scene.


The first part of the scene is almost silent. Only city sounds (highway traffic) and music can be heard, and both are mixed very far back. Van Zantís delivery person arrives in a truck pulls up to Neilís car, and rolls down the window. As the guy gets out of the back of the truck, the music volume is increased, and we hear an electric guitar buzz.

During the dialog between Neil and the truckís driver, a separate shot shows the gunman getting out of the back of the truck and crawling between the two cars. The volume of the dialog is decreased when the gunman is shown, since he is a few feet away from the conversation. Decreasing the volume has two purposes: it lets the viewer to follow the conversation without seeing the characters and it gives the viewer an idea of where the gunman is relative to the conversation.

As soon as Chris says, "Behind you, on the right!," the car screeches into reverse and the action music kicks in.


Though Robert De Niro has played a very wide variety of characters, he is more of a personality star than an actor star. He often plays a tough guyóa gangster, boxer, ex-cop, fire detective, or casino owner, for example. De Niro was most likely cast for Heat due to his talent and ability to play the role exceptionally well. He represents the guy who will stop at nothing to do what he loves to do, even if it is against the law. He means business and is very direct.

Al Pacino is similar to De Niro in many respects. Though his usual character is a gangster or cop, he is still a very versatile actor. In the most general sense, he is a personality star. A tough but somewhat devilish person shows up in almost any role he plays. Pacino represents the best criminal and detective in the movies.

The pairing of Pacino with De Niro makes HeatI a very well cast movie. Two stars with such strong personalities are brought together in the roles that they play best. The movie is a complex cops and robbers story, but with De Niro and Pacino, it becomes a battle of superhuman. Both are obsessed with continuing their lifestyle, but only one can survive in the end.


Michael Mann has been writing and directing crime movies and TV series for nearly twenty years. He began in the late 1970ís as a writer for TVís Starsky & Hutch, but he didnít hit it big until he created and produced the Miami Vice TV series in 1984. On the big screen, Mann is most famous for writing and directing The Keep, The Last of the Mohicans, and Heat.

The following is an analysis of one of the sets in Heat. In this scene, Vincent is paying an unexpected visit to Albert Torena, an informant who runs a chop shop:

  1. Exterior or Interior. This is an exterior set.
  2. Style. This set is realistic; the ground is dirt, and the air is hazy. The tin roofed buildings are dilapidated. The scene shows a darker, low-income side of Los Angeles.
  3. Studio or Location. This scene was shot on location in a chop shop, presumably built specifically for the movie. The shanty town look suggests the lack of legitimacy of the entire operation. The owners of the chop shop canít move to a better location because they would draw too much attention to themselves.
  4. Period. The movie is set during the mid-1990s.
  5. Class. Though the set is run-down, the owners are probably making at least a middle-class income. Car thieves need little money to keep their shops running, so most of the revenue goes directly into their pockets.
  6. Size. This is a large, open-air set. Cars and car parts take up much of the space on the set.
  7. Decoration. In the background, there are tires, partly disassembled cars, large car parts, tool chests, and more corrugated tin enclosures. In the foreground, Albert sits at a card table, eating lunch from a take-out container. From the long shot range, another tool chest is visible between Albert and the camera. Ironically, a brand new red Porsche is parked on the far left of the set.
  8. Symbolic Function. The set suggests that Albertís operation is temporaryóit could easily be moved if necessary. Functionality is important in this set, but style is of no concern. Thereís no need to have a fancy looking chop shop.

The following is a costume analysis of the suit that Neil McCauley wears throughout the movie:

  1. Period. The costume is a standard 20th century suit.
  2. Class. High class. This is an expensive suit, and it makes Neil appear to be wealthy and important.
  3. Sex. Male. The suit is masculine. It emphasizes Neilís toughness. Neil is a force to be reckoned with, and it shows.
  4. Age. This costume fits Neilís age and character appropriately.
  5. Fabric. The suit is coarse wool and the button-up shirt is cotton.
  6. Accessories. Regarding Neilís costume, the emphasis is on which accessories are missing. He rarely wears a tie with his suit, giving the costume a more relaxed look.
  7. Color. The suit is dark gray, with a white button-up shirt underneath.
  8. Function. Neilís suit is meant for work, and since he never stops working, itís his only costume. As a result, the suit can work well in both relaxed conversations and serious business transactions.
  9. Image. The image evoked by Neilís costume is of a professional organized criminal. He looks smart, slick, and successful at what he does.


Heat fits into the organized crime genre, and though it isnít solely driven by suspense, its narrative does hold back information on purpose. When information is withheld from the LAPD, itís also withheld from the viewer. For example, when Vincent returns from having coffee with Neil, he is told that Neil and his gang dropped all of the LAPDís surveillance. The viewer knows that Neilís gang is going to proceed with a bank heist, but is not told when. As a result, the loss of surveillance is as much of a surprise to the viewer as it is to Vincent.

As an organized crime movie, Heat is revisionist. It contains all of the aspects of a classical "cops and robbers" style movie, but it has a more complex plot that questions some of the original values of the classical cycle. Heat doesnít make a clear-cut distinction between who is good and who is bad. The cafe confrontation scene shows that, Neil and Vincent are both doing what they do best. The basis of the narrative is that only one of them can survive.

Like most American films, Heat falls into the classical paradigm for narrative structure. It begins by introducing the characters and showing the challenge the protagonist faces. The continual chase builds the action until the climatic scene, which takes place in the last few minutes of the movie. The movie ends with the antagonistís death.

The viewer sees the story unfold from all perspectives. For example, the movie begins as Neilís gang prepares to steal the bearer bonds from an armored car. Neil steals an ambulance, Chris Shiherlis buys explosives, and Michael Cheritto steals a truck. Next, we watch the successful hold-up of the armored car, and finally, we see Vincent examining the crime scene.

These parallel stories run until Neil and Vincent meet face to face in a cafe. After the pivotal cafe scene, the movie continues in parallel until Neil and Vincent confront each other in the final scenes. These two confrontations are the most significant points in the narrative.


When writing the screenplay for Heat, Mann took time to develop characters and relationships between action sequencesóin some cases there are 10 or 15 minutes of dialog between each action-driven event. Characters say what they mean. For example, when Vincentís wife, Justine, outlines their failing relationship from her perspective, the dialog is blunt yet poetic: "You donít live with me," she says, "You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus. You read the terrain. You search for signs of passing, for the scent of your pray, and then you hunt them down. Thatís the only thing youíre committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through."

Mannís screenplay gives the viewer a window into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. He shows that there isnít much of a difference between cop and criminal, and he emphasizes that they need each other, and no one else, in order to survive.


The ideology of Heat is explicit, and it manifests itself through dialog. The characters continually express their feelings. Even the antagonist and protagonist sit and discuss the basis of their conflict. There is no need to guess what they believeóitís all laid out on the table.

In addition, Heat is relative in its judgements of characters. It asks us to question the actions of Neil and Vincent. Vincent is a great detective, helping to rid the streets of criminals, but he fails as a father or husband. Similarly, Neil appears benevolent relative to Waingro, who is the only true villain of this movie. Neil kills for business while Waingro rapes and murders for pleasure.

Neil and Vincent are driven by competition, and though they are outsiders, they are the best of the outsiders. Neil and his gang are professionals in the crime world, rejecting the laws and moral values of society. Even money isnít important to these criminals. "For me, the action is the juice," says Cheritto, Neilís right-hand man.

When depicting women, Heat takes a traditional approach with a modern-day spin. All of the women are puppy dogs, waiting for their husbands to come home at night. These women have no part in the central plot of the movieóthey are not powerful characters. Drugs and love affairs replace their husbands, and they are left at home to raise the children alone.

Overall, Heat is leftist in its expression of values. Extreme discipline is required to live by the unconventional values of the characters. Neil gives the viewer insight into his basic values when he says, "Donít get into anything you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner." If this means walking out on a relationship, so be it. For Neil and Vincent, all ties must be disposable.


Perhaps because of its length (almost three hours) or complex plot, Heat was not enormously successful in the United States. Americans tend to like John Woo-style action movies with a relatively simple plot; Heat had too much dialog and not enough action for the broadest mainstream audience.

At the same time, any movie with Pacino, De Niro, and Val Kilmer is bound to be a commercial success. Heat had a budget of $60 million, and ended up grossing over $170 million worldwide. $107 million of the box office revenues came from non-US audiences, as the movie was particularly successful in France, where 1.3 million tickets were sold.

With Mann as director, writer, and producer, Heat could be considered an auteur film. When De Niro and Pacino add their own talents, however, the film becomes a collaboration. These three artists are masters of the crime genre; De Niro and Pacino have set the standard in the genre since the 1970s, and Mann has written and directed many crime stories since his career began twenty years ago.