Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Almost fifty years separate Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), but these classic Los Angeles crime dramas share far more than even their genre and near-identical titles suggest. Structural, thematic, visual and other similarities abound, suggesting the persisting tropes of film noir have a relevance across the decades.
Both works explore the parallel yet opposed worlds of the armed robber, continually seeking the next big score to further his dream, and the law enforcer, sworn to prevent him and protect the public. In screen time terms equal weighting is given to each, and in character construction a certain blurring of the lines between antagonist and protagonist occurs.
Though Vincent Hanna sits firmly at the moral centre of Mann’s pairing, we are clearly invited to empathise with his opponent Neil McCauley despite his utter brutality. McCauley’s brotherly devotion to his crew and late discovery of love aids this, as does his wry smile on hearing the admiration Hanna has for him. Cody Jarrett generates a degree of compassion notwithstanding his callousness, principally through his delicately-played psychosis. Simultaneously driving and undermining his ruthlessness, it allows Jarrett to also reveal a moment of humanity when he acknowledges the help of the man he knows as Pardo during a debilitating mental fugue.
The camera is omniscient in both films, allowing the audience to see each side of this struggle, and in both the criminal is unsettled by treachery of a sort. Only in White Heat, however, are we aware from the outset that ‘Pardo’ is in fact an undercover Treasury agent; in Heat, not only is it another robber – the sadistic and volatile Waingro – who will bring about McCauley’s eventual fall, but his efforts occur largely outside the audience’s apprehension.
Walsh and Mann are fully aware that the painstaking preparation of a bank job or other crime has its own delicious tang, and whether it is Jarrett’s conversion of an oil tanker into his “Trojan Horse” or McCauley’s co-optiing of a wrecking truck for an armoured car robbery, the ingenuity and sheer level of dedication impresses.
To combat Jarrett’s gang, Federal agent Philip Evans deploys the full range of technology available to the lawman of the post-war era. Crime scenes are matched via forensic use of a light analyser, here rendered as a “spectorgraph” but probably intended to evoke the real-world spectrograph; a car is tailed using a complex system of shadowing vehicles and geographical references, the whole coordinated by two-way radio; and updates are shared by teleprinter. Homing devices attached to vehicles feature in both films. Decades later equipment has of course advanced yet the use of thermal imagers, helicopters and electronic surveillance only just about keeps Hanna ahead of McCauley. Both, too, have idiosyncratic middle men, fixers or fences who set up deals and handle the proceeds. Strikingly, the Trader’s matter-of-fact references to earning a percentage on cash laundered is reflected almost exactly in Nate’s suggestion of a buy-back from Van Zant.
This perpetual dance occurs in the urban jungle of LA, identifiably so in both instances with real locations playing themselves in many cases. With a very few exceptions, these are resolutely unglamorous places, since the city these men operate in is not that of tourist landmarks but one of tunnels and shacks, motels and dockyards. The films feature notable night sequences, shot against neon backdrops, and both stage key moments at drive-in theatres.
Walsh experienced actual combat as a film-maker in Mexico, and served in the US Army; Mann filmed the Paris student riots and befriended policemen and criminals alike. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts may have been influenced by any number of true crime stories from Depression-era America when scripting White Heat; Mann ibased Heat on the life and death of the real McCauley, whilst it is impossible to imagine him ignorant of the appalling FBI Miami shootout of 1986. From this fascination with the real flowed the relative verisimilitude of both directors’ films, then, which includes the dialogue. Broadly naturalistic and almost always convincing, its acidic qualities appear in the mordant humour within Jarrett’s gang, with its knowing riffs on the word ‘dead’ or ‘death’, and the dark camaraderie of McCauley’s.
For all their careful planning, though, chance and co-incidence affect these characters. Irrespective of how intentionally Jarrett and McCauley live their lives, it is fate that brings them down, no matter that each snatches a tiny fragment of self-determination at the very end.
This seems quite right for the merciless, unforgiving world of the American noir, where both Walsh and Mann know that you can never go back and crime can never pay.
This piece also appears as a blog post on 6 March 2017
White/Heat: Raoul Walsh and Michael Mann