The Stylish Legacy of Michael Mann's Heat

By Robbie Collin

Jul 5, 2024

The Stylish Legacy of Michael Mann's Heat

Thirty years ago, Los Angeles meant colour. It was the home of Bill & Ted and Baywatch, whose population of hot eccentrics and ice-cool disreputables had suggested Short Cuts to Robert Altman, LA Story to Steve Martin, and Pulp Fiction to Quentin Tarantino. On screen it was less of a town than a playground – as zanily vibrant as the rainbow-hued theme parks that had been springing up along its fringes since the 1950s.

This was not the Los Angeles that Michael Mann saw. The city as it appears in his 1995 masterpiece Heat is less a playground than a maze: a grid of warehouses and wasteland, entwined in freeways that all presumably lead somewhere worth going, but never seem to reach it. In every sense, the place is a grey area – acre upon acre of anonymous concrete, lit by an otherworldly cobalt glow when darkness falls.

Mann’s monochrome version of Los Angeles had been seen in the movies before. It was the city that, in the 1940s and 50s, served as film noir’s home turf – a place where weak men in strong suits made bad decisions, and where, beneath the halo of a smog-enwreathed streetlamp, wrong could look unsettlingly like right.

Despite the steely professionalism of both Robert De Niro’s master thief Neil McCauley and Al Pacino’s driven police lieutenant Vincent Hanna, Heat is a story about two weak men – or at least, men who are powerless to resist their own bad choices; a shared character flaw that turns their rivalry into a tragic alliance.

Costume designer Rebecca Lynn Scott even blurs the traditional line between hero and villain in their tailoring. Pacino's Hanna, wild-eyed and prowling, sports stylish dark suits with strong shoulders and a libidinous drape, always paired with a brooding black shirt and understated foulard power tie. This is meant to be our good guy?

De Niro’s sober and controlled McCauley, meanwhile, dresses to suggest he might be any guy at all. His wardrobe consists of double-breasted grey and pin-striped suits with crisp, white open-necked shirts – and that’s it, with none of the louche showboating touches his crew are so fond of, but which also hint at their disreputable backgrounds. (Some of Jon Voight’s shirts are essentially moral turpitude in fabric form.) When McCauley meets Eady (Amy Brennerman), a pretty graphic designer, at a bar, he introduces himself as a salesman – and his clothing helps him sell the line, since ‘professional’ is about all that can be gleaned from it.

Of course he looks inexpressibly sharp. But like the various disguises he adopts in the course of his work, from paramedic's overalls to a hotel security guard’s jacket and trousers, it’s also a uniform. In Mann’s 2004 film Collateral, Tom Cruise’s hitman would wear its noughties update: single-breasted and single-button, with narrow, high-notched lapels – but still elegant, pared-down and crucially, a shade of grey that blends equally well into the shadows and the light.

For McCauley, one suspects the fine fabric and generous cut are less matters of flair than utility – affording breathability and freedom of movement when the wearer is, say, sticking up a bank with a short-barrelled carbine. That’s one of the nice things about an ample drape: not only does it quietly hint at concealed strength, it can actually conceal it, in the form of a tactical vest tricked out with spare rifle magazines.

Cops and robbers, light and dark, style and function, a city’s present and past: Heat is a film in which apparent opposites are constantly being revealed as dualities. And the iconic diner scene, in which Pacino’s Hanna and De Niro’s McCauley sit down face to face, is the nexus of them all: two sworn enemies talking like old friends. 

Mann’s mesmerising staging, camera and costuming choices suggest the two men are somehow looking simultaneously at their own reflections and inversions – McCauley in a white shirt and Hanna a black one, while their suits split the chromatic difference. It’s a subtle echo of an extraordinary moment earlier in the film, when Hanna surveils McCauley at the Precious Metals Depository, and his night-vision camera turns the face of his quarry into a literal negative of his own.

“All I am is what I’m going after,” is how Pacino’s Hanna later explains his job to his wife Justine (Diane Venora) – and back he goes into the Los Angeles night, in pursuit of his nemesis but also himself. Both are lurking out there somewhere in the grey; two sides of an equation this city won’t leave unsolved.

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