Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Michael Mann's "Heat" ranks right up there with the best of the crime genre from "Rififi" to "The Godfather". In fact, it is in my opinion the single greatest Los Angeles crime epic of all time, for it encompasses themes and visuals rarely achieved by productions. "Heat" is very ambitious and the end result is nothing short of a larger-than-life epic grandeur of a film.
Much of the film is based on a real life confrontation between a Chicago detective by the name of Chuck Adamson and the real Neil McCauley. Adamson worked with Mann as an advisor in many of his films including "Thief". When this detective friend of his told Mann about his once obsession to catch McCauley and how both Adamson and McCauley met under non-violent circumstances, Mann was inspired. Besides the scene between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley in the coffee shop, the real life tale of McCauley inspired many other parts of the film. The warehouse sting where McCauley calls it off when one of the cops makes a noise actually happened in real life.
Mann was bowled over by this story and the fact that a criminal was intelligent enough to pull back even after investing tens of thousands of dollars in a heist - risk versus reward. The duality and respect Adamson had for this criminal as well as the question of what if it was the other way around and Adamson was the criminal hit a note with the director. The real Neil McCauley was killed during a heist by Adamson's team who like in the film were tipped off to the robbery. However, Michael Mann didn't want to stick to the simplicity of this true story and went for a bigger more ambitious project.
He combined this storyline with other unrelated real life characters such as Waingro who ratted out a crew of criminals and was later found dead. Nate played by Jon Voight is based on career criminal Edward Bunker. Even though Mann first directed this material in "L.A. Takedown", it was only a rough draft with less than half the content of the much more polished remake, "Heat". Michael Mann is probably the most knowledgeable director when it comes to crime. Most of his body of work revolves around the crime world. His connections and friendships with real life police detectives helped him develop a real understanding of true crime. And "Heat" is the result of twenty years of research. Everything that interests him and us about the dark human nature of criminals and cops is encapsulated in this three hour contemporary classic.
What makes "Heat" great isn't the reality of it, but how Mann handled the material to express the loneliness of cops and criminals through their personal lives (or the lack of). Any man or woman dedicated to their job can and most probably will relate to this theme. Mann essentially brings that to life by bringing the best out of his working crew. Everyone involved from the cinematographer, the actors, writers and producers did their job with precision and through this desired understanding of material, the audience ends up with a perfect example of faultless mise-en-scene.
Some films are great primarily because of the visuals, others we appreciate for the rich characters, good dialogue or entertaining story. Rarely do we get a combination of textual and visceral elements fitting the same grand theme of a film, which in this case is loneliness. Both Neil and Vincent are lonely even though they interact with people on a daily basis. The same goes for Mann's portrayal of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is an overpopulated city, yet it's depicted as a silent milieu of isolation. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti provides us with a canvas of the great city, only one we've never laid eyes on before. A car driving in an empty highway, flickering city lights of a silent night, an empty apartment reflecting an endless ocean, airport runway lights fading to complete darkness, it's all there to inject the viewer with a mood much similar to what the characters feel throughout this tragic journey.
Visually, "Heat" is treated like a film noir and so we wind up with a neo-noir. The conventions and elements of that genre are crystal clear from the hard-boiled detective to the urban setting, the interplay of lights and shadows in the final scene to the neon lights of the dark corners of the city. However, there's certain uniqueness to the mood and feel of the film due to the icy-blue palette apparent in the atmospheric tone. Michael Mann used many paintings as inspirations to the look of the film, most notably with the shot of Neil facing the ocean in the background with a gun on a table in the foreground which is strikingly identical to Alex Colville's 1967 painting "Pacific".
This striking style is accompanied by depth of content, because "Heat" is more of a sad opera set up as a chess game than a flat-out action picture. When I say it's like a chess game, I mean every move the soldiers on the board make has a cause and effect pattern to it. All the characters are decision makers in "Heat". Each and every character of this large 'Robert Altman' like cast gets his own little storyline and somehow all the threads tie up in the end contributing to a bigger scope of this Greek tragedy like tale of ethics, morals, and principles. It all starts with Waingro, a last minute replacement in Neil's crew, who kills a cop during their initial robbery, leaving behind a track of evidence. We later learn that he's a prostitute killer; again his sloppy work is apparent in the matching semen mentioned during the investigation. Thanks to his careless method of crime, Vincent fixes his eyes on the crew.
Spoilers ahead. Another storyline is that of Van Zandt. In the armored car robbery, Neil's crew steals an envelope of barrier bonds. Since Van Zandt already has insurance on these bonds, Neil attempts to sell him the bonds for 60% of its value which would result in a gain both ways. Later, Van Zandt sends his henchmen to kill McCauley. The deal goes wrong and McCauley's gang walks out of the shoot-out with a bag full of paper. Neil's following phone call to Van Zandt triggers a series of events.
Van Zant: What are you doing?
Neil McCauley: What am I doing? I'm talking to an empty telephone.
Van Zant: I don't understand.
Neil McCauley: 'Cause there is a dead man on the other end of this fuckin' line!
This threat eventually leads to the scared business man trying to kill before getting killed and so he unites with another enemy of Neil McCauley, Waingro. Together they follow Trejo, torture him and get the details of the big heist. They tip the clueless cops with the time and bank location, and the shootout is the result. I'll mention the shootout after I lay out how all these threads or story lines eventually merge. Trejo's last minute no-show is when Donald Breedan's heartbreaking struggle to adapt to a normal life ties in. After, the Waingro situation, Neil no longer trusts the inclusion of strangers and after spotting Breedan, a former cell mate, he proposes the job offer. Breedan's storyline is both heartbreaking and sad in that we witness how life after prison isn't that easy. The system is corrupt, which leads to many criminals sticking to what they know best rather than being treated like animals in a normal life. Breedan ends up dead driving in the getaway car.
Vincent's step daughter, Lauren Gustafson, is in a depressive state leading to a suicide attempt. She chooses to end her life and more importantly chooses to do it in Vincent's bathtub after the parent separation. This is when Vincent first realizes that he should focus on his family not just his job for life and death situations are not limited to crime.
Through Michael Cheritto aka "Slick" we learn how close and "tight" Neil's crew really is. Instead of taking advantage of his skills, Neil tells him "I got plans. I'm going away after. So for me the reward is maybe worth the stretch. But Elaine takes good care of you. You got plenty put away. You got T-bonds, real estate. If I were you, I would be smart. I would cut loose of this." To which Slick replies "Well, you know, to me the action is the juice". He's addicted to adrenaline rush, the same way Chris is hooked on gambling, and Vincent and Neil are obsessed with their tasks.
When all these storylines connect, it all explodes in the shoot-out scene. Everything leads up to that scene and when we finally reach the climax, the result is one of the most well executed heist scenes of all time. Many have called it the best shoot-out scene in film history and the truth is there isn't much I can say that hasn't been said already. The fact that real life criminals once imitated the robbery and that new Marines recruits are required to study it speaks for itself.
When Vincent gets tipped by Van Zandt's people, Neil is in the midst of the heist. Elliot Goldenthal magnificent avant-garde score kicks in, and then Mann builds up the tension through Dov Hoenig's editing. While Neil and Chris slowly walk out of the bank carrying bags full of cash, we simultaneously get shots of Vincent running out of the police department and his team preparing weapons in a speeding car. This use of montage editing between slow pace, in conjunction with fast pace, builds up the viewer's tension and eventually the stored intensity is released through the shoot-out. Masterful editing.
We then enter the final act of the epic. Both Neil and Vincent are frustrated and angry by the outcome of the heist, for both were unprepared for the shoot-out resulting in many deaths in both sides of the law. Vincent releases his anger by going to the "fucking rat" and beating up the guys who gave him the big heist heads up. Neil releases his anger by killing Van Zandt even though he initially thought of the task as a "luxury". The Waingro murder bears more significance as it marks the only time Neil breaking his own rule.
"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."
Through Neil's actions, we learn how his entire life is dedicated to that rule. He lives by it and in return is successful at what he does. Neil mentions the "30 seconds" rule twice. Once to Chris and a second time to Vincent, the two characters he cares for most. However, we see him apply this rule in three key scenes. The first is when he hears a suspicious noise during a robbery. His facial reaction is concentrated as Vincent's crew wait for his reaction. It literally takes him less than 30 seconds to walk out of the job.
The second time is when he gets the call about Waingro's whereabouts. As he drives through a white tunnel, we see through De Niro's excellent acting another decision making process. Without any dialogue, in less than thirty seconds, he breaks his own rule and takes a turn. This thirst for revenge eventually leads to his death. When he breaks his rule, he carries the consequences, and even though Vincent put three bullets in him, Neil was dying the moment he ventured off his philosophy of life. The third and last "30 seconds" scene comes after he kills Waingro. He walks to Eady when suddenly his eyes are fixed on those of Vincent running against the panicking crowd. Same as the other two scenes, no dialogue is used, "Heat" features some of De Niro's best work. Like great silent actors facial expressions is all that is needed. He looks at Eady, then at Vincent and back at Eady. Thirty seconds later he lets go and runs to keep his girl out of the mess. This is probably De Niro's most romantic moment in film. He's back to his senses and follows his rule, but it's too late.
Robert De Niro manages to portray Nail McCauley with such intensity; we can't help but root for him. He's smart, successful, hard working, and always researches everything before planning ahead using a business-like approach with a clear head. In other words, he's everything a man aspires to be. In fact, Neil would have been successful at pretty much anything in any other line of work.
One scene is a testament to how good both Neil and Vincent are at what they do. Since the cops keep McCauley's crew under 24 hour surveillance, they follow them to an isolated area. Neil points to key escape routes of their supposed plan. After they leave, Vincent and his men stand at the same place trying to figure out what the thieves will go after. While McCauley takes pictures of Vincent on one of the surrounding roofs. The situation is reversed, as the man under the microscope becomes the observer. One aspect that is often overlooked is how Vincent responds. Yes, Neil is a mastermind, but so is Vincent. While the rest of the cops stand there clueless of the situation, Vincent finally gets it. "I mean - is this guy something, or is he something?" He laughs hysterically as he tells his men that they are being watched. The scene cuts to Neil taking pictures and smiling. Both men are enjoying the cat-and-mouse game.
Another smile curves Neil's face when his boss tells him this dedicated detective has taken a liking of him. "He thinks you're some kind of star. You do this sharp, you do that sharp.Look how sharp this guy is to figure that...the man is one of those guys out there prowling around all night, dedicated." Vincent is no different than Neil. The genius of Mann's literate screenplay is the developing chemistry between both main characters without the sharing of screen-time.
With most films the criminal and the cop is all there is to the opposing main characters. "Heat" isn't "most film". It's a film that takes its time to develop each and every character. The criminal and the cop are just labels, professions or the surface on multilayered individuals.
We get three key scenes that give us glimpses at the men behind the professions. Mann structures these scenes as dinner conversations. The first of which is Neil enjoying a night out at a classy restaurant with the rest of his crew and their families. If you observe the interplay between De Niro's acting and the camera movement, you'll understand the purpose of that scene. The camera shows mostly fake reactions of De Niro smiling in conjunction with eye-lining shots of his friends or co-workers interacting with their wives and children. Suddenly, it's like a sudden wave of sadness eclipses De Niro's face. He realizes that these people aren't as lonely as him. He longs for what they have- the sharing of happiness and glory.
Moments later, Neil excuses himself and calls Eady. What was at first a one-night stand is no longer and becomes a more serious relationship. Dinner scene #2 mirrors the first dinner scene in that this time, Vincent and his crew are out partying. They seem to be enjoying the night when like in the other scene a phone call concludes the social gathering. Only now, Vincent receives the call as opposed to Neil making the call. Vincent then pardons himself for his job requires his expertise. While Neil moves closer to his woman drifting away from his focused attitude of life, Vincent glides away from his personal life to focus on his profession.
The third dinner scene or the third exposure to the men behind the professions scene is the intimate scene when Neil and Vincent lay it all out on the table. Through the sharing of emotions, feelings and dreams, they realize that both are very much alike. In another life and under different circumstances, they could've been as close as brothers. The importance of that scene is the fact that now they know what us viewers knew all along, the overlapping similarity of the first two dinner scenes. The common ground between both professionals is finally out in the open. "I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me."
It gets to the point that Vincent attempts to talk him out of taking down scores:
Vincent: So you never wanted a regular type life?
Neil: What the fuck is that? Barbecues and ballgames?
"Barbecues and ballgames" Michael Mann is an auteur for his Kubrick like control over everything from the dialogue to the visuals. Later on, during the downtown shoot-out, Neil rescues Chris who is shot. As Neil desperately tries to shoot his way out of the chaos, we get shots of Vincent and his police force under fire. In the background, barbecue grills and bags of coal get showered with bullets.
This detailed approach is manifested in another line from that scene "You see me doing thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a 'Born to Lose' tattoo on my chest?" Neil does have a tattoo, only it's a Marine Corps logo on his left shoulder. Slick, on the other hand, does have somewhat a 'Born to Lose' like sleeve of tattoos, which explains why he didn't make it out of the ambush. Neil and Chris are professionals, we see them work together in the heist using a tactical approach; therefore, they survive. Another tattooed character is Waingro. Michael Mann attention to detail is marvelous, for he uses tattoos as body art to express who these people are. On Waingro's chest there's a Nazi symbol tattoo. If Waingro is the black, and Vincent is the white, then Neil is the shade of grey in between.
"I have one where I'm drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I'll die in my sleep." Neil says in sharing a recurring dream. When Vincent asks him what he thinks it means, he tells him it's about "having enough time". In the final act of the film, Neil makes time to kill Waingro. He shoots him in the chest, causing him to desperately gasp for air. He finishes him off, after a few seconds of "drowning". Unfortunately the fact that he broke his own rule doesn't provide him with "enough time" and he ends up dead.
This final showdown between Vincent Hannah and Neil McCauley is something the audience subconsciously expects. In the key dinner scene Vincent says: "You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell you, if it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down."
"I won't like it". He talked the talk and at the end we see him walk the walk. After shooting down the only man he respects, admires, and understands, he isn't happy about it and it's beautifully heartbreaking. "Told you I'm never going back..." Vincent slowly moves over "Yeah.", they hold hands, it cuts to a close-up shot of Vincent mournfully looking into the night. It's a great moment for Pacino as a simple look into his eyes injects us with his sad emotions. This isn't what he wanted. Vincent Hannah wanted to catch Neil McCauley not kill him. But Neil would rather die than go back to prison. It's a tragic ending for both characters. The final two-shot of them holding hands at the center of the frame is so deep, it's as close as you'll ever get to witnessing visual poetry.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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