Despite Michael Mann’s seeming fixation with the urban and its unnatural light, Heat is literally a modern day Western.
Pacino’s Vincent and Deniro’s Neil are the Sheriff and the Outlaw, their paths fated to cross in the literal Wild West, albeit after decades of development and modernisation.
The film opens with a classic Western motif, a train pulling into town as smoke billows across the tracks, only now the ‘town’ is present day L.A. and the train is a smaller, more delicate relation to the iron horses of the old West. Mann’s use of little seen locations also invoke the old West at times, a remarkable achievement in the urban sprawl of the city, with the scene where Neil’s crew trick Vincent’s team into being themselves surveyed using the wide open space surrounded by industrial works and cargo containers standing in for the mountains and valleys of the genre.
In the Old West of cowboys and indians, men were defined by their jobs, the role of the sheriff, the outlaw or the ranch hand being that man’s life, but in the modern West, as with that of what we refer to as the Western world, the separation between work and life has become much more pronounced with leisure time and relationships receiving a keener focus than in the centuries gone by.
This is reflected in Heat with the conflict in both men’s lives between work and the rest. Our introduction to Vincent is him making love with his wife, whilst Neil’s mantra is a piece of wisdom passed onto him by outlaws past – that you should have nothing in your life that you are not prepared to walk out on in thirty seconds should you feel the Heat around the corner.
Our first sight of Neil is as he leaves that train, walking into town with a one-track mind, the score. His efficiency is remarkable as he infiltrates a hospital in order to secure an ambulance for the job, quickly striding through the corridors with the air of an employee who has paced the same trail a thousand times, and a scene echoed at the end of the film in his pursuit of Waingro at the hotel. This second time is Neil’s undoing – throughout the film we see him falter at his dedication to the score, giving in to the desire to have a life outside work like the world around him. At the hotel he is motivated by revenge and is more subtle indication that he has violated his own code than the girlfriend waiting in the car outside. Not being able to sever connections to his friends is his undoing, leaving the sheriff and the side of ‘good’ to succeed, although Vincent doesn’t win.
Despite opening with the love scene and hints that he is a better father to his step-daughter than her flesh and blood, followed by the brief domestic staple of the husband rushing off to work at breakfast, the sheriff’s work rules over his life. His third wife Justine finds the opportunity more than once to deliver a speech about how, even though he is with her in body, his mind is with the dead of his cases.
Pacino’s performance in Heat is famous for his barking, eye-bulging delivery in a many scenes, his face contorting on a number of occasions in a way much more frightening than when he was called on to play the devil. But many seem to miss that this bombast is entirely fitting with this entirely driven character, a man totally focused on the chase, or more aptly the hunt. Like Neil, Vincent strides around fuelled with purpose, sometimes chewing vigorously, impatient with seemingly time-wasting informants and abrupt even with his own men (though clearly with no disrespect). The scene that encapsulates his passion comes toward the end of the film, comforting his wife after her daughter’s suicide attempt; he confirms that they as a couple are not going to work and she reluctantly releases him back to his work. He speeds down the stairs out of the hospital and you can practically see the scent of hunt in his nose.
After three failed marriages Vincent has accepted that his will not be a normal life, that his role is his life as it was in the Old West, whereas Neil has spent the majority of his life assuming that was how it should be for him, and only now is realising that he has a void, that there is something missing that he needs. But this does not fit with his role and breaking from his code means doom. As with the act of revenge, his reactions at having to abandon his new love Eady don’t fit with the code, and there are several cuts between Neil watching Vincent approach, but not easily processing the idea that he has to leave Eady behind.
It is now too late for him, and he is not undone by the light of the airport runway – as he pulls from cover a smile plays across his face – Vincent is in his sights and so is his freedom. But this emotion of pride or joy betrays his attitude earlier in the film, when during their single conversation Neil tells Vincent that he will not hesitate to put him down if that’s the way it plays. In the event, it is Vincent who does not hesitate – whirling and firing instantly on seeing Neil’s shadow, and despite the first shot disarming the outlaw the sheriff drills him in the chest.
But in the same way Vincent feels release in acceptance that the normal life is not his life, knowing that he lives for the hunt isn’t necessarily a good thing. The sheriff may have got his man, but he knows that nobody wins.