Heat, work and genre - J.A. Lindstrom

Film theory about the role of work, both illegal and legitimate, in Michael Mann's noir Heat.

Submitted by flaneur on August 31, 2012

The publicity campaign regarding the film HEAT (Michael Mann, 1996) focused on Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino's appearing together in the film (playing robber and cop, respectively) and on Michael Mann as an auteur of slickness and style with a talent for capturing the moments ethos and fashion.[1] But reviewers were curiously uncertain as to what the film was about. Janet Maslin of the New York Times said,

"This could be a western, or it could be LES MISERABLES, or it could be (and is) about high-tech gangsters who live in beach houses and covet bearer bonds."

Todd McCarthy of Variety referred to its "classic western-like structure," and pronounced the film "an ambitious study of the relativity of good and evil." Duane Byrge of the Hollywood Reporter called the film a "down-and-dirty noir crime story."' Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times determined the film to be "a classic heist movie." And David Ansen of Newsweek found that Mann "reinvests the genre [the crime movie] with brooding modernist conviction." Michael Mann himself added to the indecision by proclaiming, "HEAT is a drama, not a genre piece." (Fuller)

Although Mann has said he was inspired by a true story from Chicago in the late 1960s, the film is no gritty realist number about desperate thievery. Actually, HEAT eschews both a traditional "low-life milieu," (Byrge) and "the relativity of good and evil." (McCarthy). Rather, HEAT is a high-gloss creature of its time, utilizing the classic "duel between cop and robber," (Schickel) to thematize lifestyle issues in the mid-1990s. Specifically I argue that, for all its slickness and emphasis on style and personality, HEAT is a film about work and its increasing personal costs. For the characters in HEAT, work provides excitement and challenge, but it ultimately excludes any emotional life outside of the demands of the job. I show that in spite of its many referents, HEAT has strong conventional and thematic ties to the gangster film genre. Furthermore, the film's emphasis on the conflict between work and home — for both the criminals and the police — is a timely innovation in the gangster genre, drawing on actual trends in work life in the 1990s. Finally, the apparent triumph of work in HEAT invites a reconsideration of the traditional value system of the genre.


The fact that HEAT directly addresses questions of the relation between one's work, commitment to a profession, and quality of life makes it somewhat unusual. Hollywood generally prefers to have characters spend money that appears to come from nowhere or from the mere suggestion of a profession. In HEAT the criminals (and, to a lesser extent, the cops) have beautiful houses and wear expensive clothes, as we have come to expect, but the film takes pains to show how these lifestyles are won and how tenuously they are held. But their work — what it is, how they go about it, how they like it, what distracts them, and, especially, what they have to sacrifice to keep doing it — takes center stage in the film and in the lives of its characters.


The film's rather complicated narrative tells a story of a gang of high-tech thieves (led by Neil McCauley/Robert DeNiro), the vicissitudes of maintaining their relations and upper-middle class lifestyles, their police pursuers (led by Vincent Hanna/Al Pacino), and three heists. The film opens with the rather spectacular theft of some bearer bonds from an armored car, then attends to the selection, planning, and attempted execution of two more heists, the second of which involves a gun battle that lasts almost ten minutes and spills out of the bank that is its target and into the streets and parking lots of Los Angeles. Along the way we get an attempted revenge killing, the murder of some financial messengers, the police stakeout, a romance, two dinner parties, two failing marriages, two cases of adultery, a sex murder, a lover's betrayal, a professional betrayal, a teen suicide attempt, and countless small scenes of thieves going about their business.

The thieves are very invested in their work and good at it; the police are just as dedicated. The thieves' crew is composed of four men. McCauley chooses the plans and organizes the effort; he also knows something about metallurgy. Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) specializes in explosives and breaking and entering. Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) is the computer person. Trejo (Danny Trejo) is the driver and communications person, although he is replaced for the last job by Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an acquaintance of McCauley's from prison. Detective Hanna spends all of his time and energy tracking the crew, assessing their modus operandi, and trying to anticipate their moves. Hanna also has a police team, but they are not as filly characterized as the criminal gang. Everyone involved is presented as skilled and confident — they are professionals.


The "scores" involve financial assessment, planning and organization, computer programming, reading construction schematics, using explosives and controlled demolition, using radio-communication systems, assessing the market for stolen bonds, and, of course, the strategic utilization of firearms. The police work involves looking for clues regarding the perpetrators, interviewing witnesses and eventually one of the gang, meeting stoolies at all hours of the day, tracking the gang, monitoring the crew's communications, staking out an attempted heist, and, of course, the use of a wide variety of weaponry. The skills of the police must continuously adapt to understand and interpret evidence left by the criminal crew.

Several other skilled workers are crucial to the plot. A fence and, for lack of a better description, heist consultant, Nate (Jon Voight) steers jobs to McCauley. Some of these jobs come from a disabled vet, Kelso (Tom Noonan), who uses computer and digital radio technology to capture radio-wave-transmitted financial information, which he then packages to the crew for a price. Nate also devises a clever plan for fencing the bonds stolen in the opening heist. After pointing out that market value of stolen bearer bonds is only 40% of their face value, and that the owner will get 100% of their face value back from insurance, Nate suggests that they try to sell them back to their owner, VanZant, for 60% of their face value (since — with the proper attitude — he would hardly complain at the prospect of making an extra 40% on the bonds). When McCauley asks Nate whether the owner will deal, Nate responds, "VanZant's a businessman."

An investment broker, VanZant (William Fichtner) is a legal businessman. However, he invests and possibly launders money in off-shore and international accounts belonging to people with too much money to be totally above-board. This, too, is presented as requiring certain skills, especially an understanding of markets and financial instruments, even a knowledge of other languages. He works in an office (like a "normal," legal businessman might) wearing a suit and tie and a telephone headset, conferring with other employees about markets and accounts. Of course, he keeps a security person around in case something goes wrong, which it does after the thieves steal bearer bonds belonging to VanZant.

Others do less skilled kinds of work. Just out of prison, Breedan cleans and works the grill in a diner under the watchful eye of a payroll-skimming boss. Although his job is basically menial, Breedan is presented as a hard worker, trying to do a good job and stay out of trouble. A graphic designer, Eady (Amy Brenneman), works in a bookstore to make ends meet while she builds a clientele for her designs. She sees her day job as temporary, and works at home after-hours on her career in graphic design. Nonetheless, her work life seems to be characterized by alienation, as she has given up meaningful familial ties to seek work in L.A.. Even Waingro (Kevin Gage), least skilled among all of the film's criminals, participates in and messes up the first heist and then looks for work.

Several women face a lack of security and work hard at trying to salvage relationships with men whose careers demand all of their attention.[2] This emotional labor plays a large role in the film. By competing with work life, it sets up the plot's main axis of conflict from the very beginning scenes which intercut Hanna and Justine's bedroom (where they have sex and then discuss breakfast plans) with shots of the criminal crew taking down their first score. In fact, Hanna does not have time to have breakfast with Justine, just as he will miss dinner twice and leave a dinner party early because of his job. The couple have several scenes in which she evaluates their relationship, accusing him of not making time — a refrain for the film. The criminals and the police value their personal relationships but ultimately sacrifice them.


Not only do we see these people working, they frequently discuss their work and its role in their lives. During the initial heist the new guy, Waingro, asks one of the others about how it is to work with a regular crew. McCauley and Eady court by having conversations about day job versus vocation, and moving to L.A. for work while leaving family behind. Kelso explains that he has figured out how to capture information transmitted over the airwaves and thereby develops heist jobs. Breedan discusses his ability to handle his obnoxious, corrupt boss with his girlfriend, Lillian. Everyone talks about work in HEAT — whether they love it or hate it, or why they are doing it and not something else, or how other things distract from it.

The film directly addresses the primacy of work in the criminals' (and everyone else's) life. McCauley, the head of the crew, on two occasions recounts the advice of a prison friend:

"Do not have anything in your life that you are not prepared to walk away from in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."

The first time, he is telling it to Chris, who has slept at McCauley's house after feuding with Charlene. McCauley suggests that Chris's feelings for his wife will eventually put Chris in conflict with his work, but Chris rejects McCauley's dictum and says, "The sun rises and sets with her" — a remark that foreshadows later scenes.

The second time McCauley relays this advice, it takes on even more weight — it is no longer merely jailyard advice but a succinct formulation of the conflicts these characters face. When detective Hanna and criminal McCauley meet in a diner, Hanna asks McCauley about his lack of desire for "a normal-type life." McCauley states that he never wanted that life and turns the question back on Hanna, who confesses that his life is a mess thanks to his work. McCauley repeats his advice and asks how Hanna can expect his life to be normal when he has to be constantly available for his work — to follow his criminal prey.

"Now if you're on me, and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?"

The detective needs to be free of attachments in order to track criminals, who also need to be free of attachments in case the heat is coming; that is to say, everyone must be ready to abandon everything else in their lives at the drop of a hat for their profession. And both the police and the gang prefer it that way.

McCauley: "I do what I do best; I take down scores."
Hanna: "I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block, that's my life."
Hanna: "I don't know how to do anything else."
McCauley: "Me, neither."
Hanna: "I don't much want to either."
McCauley: "Me, neither."

Hanna and McCauley accept work's demands — even as this commitment crowds out everything else in their lives.


As central as work is, the film also dwells on the lifestyles of HEAT's crew, which reflect their position as highly-skilled professionals: they earn, spend, and invest like anyone of their socioeconomic class.[3] The interior of Hanna's home, which Hanna describes as "post-modern," connotes a home that is expensive, architect-designed, and made for the wealthy. It is a space so unusual for a police detective that the exposition indicates that it belongs to Hanna's wife, who got it in a divorce settlement from her previous husband. On the criminal side, the gang has invested in residential real estate and consumer goods. The Shiherlis' home is roomy and open, with a big pool in the backyard; when Chris storms out of his house after arguing with his wife, he drives off in an expensive sports car. McCauley's ocean-front home is all open space and glass with a view looking out over the sea. Even VanZant, the investment broker, also has an expensive-looking beachfront villa, decorated in the rich minimalist style.

The film's interest in the main characters' lifestyles serves to display not only their material assets and purchased social class but also certain shared circumstances. Hanna and McCauley both have expensive homes that they are rarely around to enjoy. In Hanna's case, when he leaves, only the television is his to take. McCauley has hardly any furnishings or decorations at all. His home is basically empty: a kitchen with empty cupboards and countertops and a living room furnished with a single chair and ottoman. Chris asks him, "When are you gonna get some furniture?" and then, "When are you gonna get a woman?" emphasizing McCauley's residential and emotional emptiness.

This similarity between Hanna's and McCauley's emotional lives is further emphasized in parallel scenes of group socializing. The gang and their families are seen eating out at a fancy restaurant; Hanna's police unit has a similar get-together. In both sequences, other needs upstage the socializing, so that both Hanna and McCauley leave their dinner parties. In McCauley's case the family outing makes him (apparently uncharacteristically) want to see Eady again, so he leaves to meet her. Hanna, however, is called away from the police dinner party by work, a murder to investigate.[4]

Later in the film, fearing that the police are onto them, the criminal crew must decide whether to attempt the last heist. Although Chris says that he needs the money in order to rectify his home life, Cheritto's response contains the film's moral:

McCauley: "But Elaine takes good care of you; you've got plenty put away; you have T-bonds, real estate. If I were you I would be smart, I would cut loose of this."
Cheritto: "Well, you know for me, the action is the juice. I'm in."

HEAT'S attention to the lifestyles of its characters sets up their choice between a materially comfortable life and the heist — and why they choose work.


In HEAT none of the police or the gang seems to be the bad guy, and, as Mann says, "we identify with all of them." (Weinraub) How do we then make sense of HEAT as a genre film when the gangsters and the cops share so many characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors? When domestic relations and lifestyle are so strong a part of the film? When even the director disavows its genre affiliation? In fact, the film has strong roots in the gangster genre's past, especially in the genre's attention to criminal labor.


Gangster films have historically addressed criminal work life: the activities to control a territory, the economic context in which professional choices take place, and the business strategies behind various actions. The earliest gangster films featured showdowns over money and reputation between competing, highly structured organizations. By the time of the LITTLE CAESAR-PUBLIC ENEMY-SCARFACE cycle, the competition between different gang-organizations-cum-corporations and the depiction of the daily activities performed by the gang became even more important to the genre. The work of the gangster fascinated audiences because of the exoticism of the gangster life — upscale professional thuggery — as well as its familiarity in stories about the gang wars of the prohibition era.[6]

In the 30s the film production code specifically stated, "Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented," but gangster labor re-appeared in changed form. Several films released after 1934 allow the viewer the pleasures of the criminal at work — the protagonist seeking revenge, outwitting, or at least roughing up, his prey, and engaging in protracted gunplay — by simply replacing the criminal gangs with law enforcement officials. Also, G-MEN (William Keighley, 1935), for example, added an interest in new forensic technologies that would appear in subsequent crime films: new scientific tactics (such as finger-printing and ballistics) were added to the standard repertoire of threats and violence. Thus, these films deftly transformed the gangster as protagonist into lawmen and continued to show an interest in gangster labor — this time on the right side of the law.

Two films from the 1950s that established important genre precedents have connections to HEAT in terms of plot elements. WHITE HEAT (Raoul Walsh, 1950), which brought James Cagney's gangster persona out of retirement, emphasizes three narrative elements: the gangster's mental health, the similarity or empathy between criminal and cop, and the detailed planning and execution of a heist. Cagney's character, Cody Jarrett, who under normal circumstances can barely contain his violent and incestuous impulses, has psychotic episodes that render him immobile and also incapable of love. The film's cop must go undercover and think and act like a criminal in order to gain Jarrett's trust. WHITE HEAT also features Jarrett's purchasing the scheme for a big payroll heist and his planning the job. Significantly WHITE HEAT renews audience interest in police use of technology with a long interlude in which a policeman explains the process of radio-signal triangulation for tracking a moving object. This parallels a scene in HEAT wherein which Kelso explains how technology can be used to capture radio-transmitted financial information for criminal purpose. WHITE HEAT has the hyper-devoted cop, the sociopathic criminal, the payroll heist, and the reliance on technology for crucial information that are all central to HEAT.

THE BIG HEAT (Fritz Lang, 1953) also uses concepts elaborately worked out in HEAT. The film portrays the criminal element's maintaining a façade of upper-middle class respectability and the cop's growing obsession with his search for the bad guys. Assigned to investigate the suicide of a police officer who had ties to the mob, Detective Bannion (Glenn Ford) eventually abandons his personal life-his child, his home, his material possessions, even the official sanction of his department-to concentrate on catching the gang. The crime boss is calm and orderly in comparison to Bannion, whose obsession with catching his wife's murderer alienates his supporters as well as his enemies. Thus, Detective Bannion is an important precursor for the single-mindedness and determination of HEAT's Detective Hanna.


The early 1950s saw the appearance of the heist subgenre. To open his discussion of the caper film in American Film Genres, Stuart Kaminsky cites Manny Farber's review of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (John Huston, 1950) in The Nation:

"Man confronted by a job whose problems must be dealt with point by point, with the combination of personal ingenuity and scientific know-how characterizing the man of action. Robbers dramatically subordinate themselves to their instruments and the job at hand, move with the patient, deadpan éclat of a surgical team drilled by Von Stroheim." (Kaminsky, 100)[7]

The heist him centers on the complex and detailed planning and execution of a caper by a group of thieves. The heist demands the diverse skills and personnel required to carry out various aspects of the theft. Although the heist requires the close cooperation among a skilled group, Kaminsky argues that the heist film can be characterized as anti-social.

"The essential conflict in a big caper film is between man and technology, man and cold, social institutions...In the big caper film there is an attempt at a collective, anti-social response." (103)

In contrast to the barely organized violence of the 1930s gangster, the heist film depicts criminal gangs carefully and quietly applying their skills to crime.[8]

The heist film frequently depicts ambition, work ethic, and use of skills by the criminals that would be valued in the legal world of work, but these qualities are used instead in the service of crime. The effort to develop a detailed plan, gathering of workers with specific and diverse talents, search for financing, meticulous preparation, trial runs, and concentration and precision-timing required for the heist itself — all these sound much like legitimate work, indeed like someone starting a new manufacturing company.[9] Even safebreaking suggests the skills of a mechanic, with particular tools for different phases of the operation and a knowledge of engineering.[10]

Thus, HEAT uses many basic elements of the gangster genre to sustain audience interest — gangsters' labor and day-to-day activities, police use of technology in crime and capture, and detailed execution of the heist. This point of view applied to the genre as a whole, that the gangster is someone who goes about a certain sort of criminal work, also offers a way to think about certain films in the genre in relation to their historical context, a task to which I will return below.


Even the lifestyle scenes in HEAT have origins in conventional genre elements. Gangster films frequently have scenes indicating the criminals' class aspirations or the home life that their crimes support. In the 30s classic gangster cycle, the gangster converts his rising power and status within the criminal underworld into a wealthy lifestyle recognizable outside the gang. Thus Tony Camonte shows his new apartment and jewelry to Poppy for her approval in SCARFACE; Little Caesar affects the manners and hospitality of the Big Boss. Also, in the 50s heist films, domestic scenes often reveal that the criminal wants a regular middle class life. The scenes show that the gang have homes to maintain, wives and children with material needs, family medical bills, etc. Even those without families have benign, even literally bucolic, plans for their share of the take. In THE ASPHALT JINGLE, for example, the main character wants to buy a farm in the country where he can raise horses and "take a bath in the creek to wash the city dirt off me." Another character seeks simply to give his kids a better standard of living. Criminal behavior is a means to entirely "normal" ends. Thus, these domestic scenes are about the anticipated material rewards of criminal activity. HEAT also emphasizes crime's material rewards (like 30s gangster films) and suggests the use of the criminal's earnings to build a "normal" lifestyle (like 50s heist films). McCauley even discusses the desire to save up enough to move to Fiji — his version of a horse farm in the country.

On the other hand, HEIST's domestic scenes emphasize emotional contestation. When Chris brings home his paycheck, he and Charlene fight about their lifestyle. When McCauley learns of Chris and Charlene's marital difficulties — "husband and wife stuff," as Charlene says — he finds himself trying to solve their problems.[11] Repeatedly visiting Eady's house, McCauley struggles with his growing attachment to her.[12] Justine and Hanna fight about his missing dinner and his inability to keep up the relationship. He cannot even escape domestic problems when he leaves Justine; his stepdaughter attempts suicide in his hotel room bathtub. HEAT's domestic scenes constantly insist that work consumes the time and energy that might otherwise go to personal relationships, ones that have value to Hanna and the gang but which they will set aside. Thus HEAT transforms the role of the domestic scene within the genre. It used to function primarily as an opportunity to display the fruits of criminal labor (or anticipation thereof) to mark conflict. To this connection between the work-obsessed criminals and police in HEAT, the conflict between work and personal life, and the contemporary audience I now turn.


If "greed is good" became a pop culture mantra of the 1980s, the 1990s have revealed how much time people spend at work. Citing a flurry of public discussion about overwork, economist Juliet Schorr writes, "The time squeeze has become big news." (17) People in the United States are working longer hours than ever before at jobs outside their home. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that from 1976 to 1993,

"The average employed man added 100 hours to his work year, the equivalent of two-and-a-half hill-time weeks. The average employed woman increased her work year by 233 hours, or nearly six full weeks." [13]

Schorr's study found,

"The rise of work is not confined to a few, selective groups, but has affected the great majority of working Americans. Hours have risen for men as well as women, for those in the working class as well as professionals. They have grown for all marital statuses and income groups. The increase also spans a wide range of industries." (5, 80)

Schorr shows that the recession of the late 1980s sent work hours climbing in two different ways. On the one hand, employers have required longer hours and more productivity; on the other hand, workers have to put in more hours to maintain their standard of living against falling wages.

But it is not simply that people are working longer hours, they are also discussing the phenomena more. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the production of a substantial literature on the longer hours people were spending at work and on the effort to balance work and family or work and leisure. Segments on television news programs developed the theme as did commentary in both the business trade press and in general interest magazines.[14] This interest in overwork also fostered discussions of shorter workweeks (as in western Europe), the creation of a voluntary simplicity movement, and a debate about the possible end of work.

Although many people would like to be able to work fewer hours, many others are not interested in cutting back on their work time. In her study of workers and managers at a midwestern corporation, sociologist Arlie Hochschild observed that many workers find work to be a more rewarding and less stressful environment than home. Hochschild argues that longer work hours not only leave less time for household chores and leisure time, but they also create tension about how to use the diminishing time after work. Thus, not only do people have less time, they argue about how to deal with it.

"In this new model of family and work life, a tired parent flees a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the reliable orderliness, harmony, and managed cheer of work. The emotional magnets beneath home and workplace are in the process of being reversed. In truth, there are many versions of this reversal going on, some more far-reaching than others. Some people find in work a respite from the emotional tangles at home. Others virtually many their work, investing it with an emotional significance once reserved for family, while hesitating to trust loved ones at home." (44-45)[15]

Thus, Hochschild finds that many workers found in their jobs a haven from the unresolved personal and time-management issues at home. She argues that not only are many workers overworked, their response to the situation is to spend more time at work, where problems seem comparatively manageable and where they can avoid irritated spouses and families. "People generally have the urge to spend more time on what they value most and on what they are most valued for," (198) and now the place where many feel most valued is at work.


HEAT's characters display many aspects of "overwork" as described by Schorr and Hochschild. They work all hours of the day and night, leaving no time for personal life. For example, when not at work McCauley finds himself falling in love with Eady, which threatens to violate his own work rules, but at home, Eady either works at her graphic design business or waits for McCauley to call. In the film, home is where their time and energy can be claimed by someone else and problems seem insurmountable. Thus, home equals strife while work is where things are relatively under control.

Neither Hanna nor McCauley complain about the long hours. Work is, indeed, where the criminal crew and the police prefer to be. During planning and execution of the heists the crew remains focused and can work together and manage problems. Similarly, the police work well together and work all the time. Furthermore, the main characters like their jobs. HEAT's version of the traditional gangster film mantra, "This is a business," might well be Cheritto's assessment of the heists: "For me the action is the juice." Work is the excitement and reward.

In addressing these issues, HEAT offers pop cultural evidence of and commentary on overwork and its personal tolls. In this regard, HEAT seems to be another coup for Mann's ability to capture the Zeitgeist. The film thematizes a topic already on the minds of its potential audience: the increasing dominance of work in the 90s over other facets of life. Longer work hours among potential viewers as well as increased media interest in the phenomenon make Hanna and McCauley stand-ins for entire sections of the population. Workers at all levels work longer hours and try to avoid confrontations with family members over their reduced availability at home. Michael Mann describes his characters as anomalous, badly adjusted people:

"One is a highly organized sociopath. The other is...extremely dysfunctional, who invests his emotions and intuitions in working on crimes." (Weinraub)

But, these studies suggest that HEAT in the guise of a gangster film depicts what has become an everyday problem — the incommensurable demands of work and home.


As HIAT sets up several traditional gangster film categories, it invests its characters less traditional combinations of traits and situations: chaotic cop versus orderly robber, good guy cop versus good guy robber, cop and robber versus the real bad guys, work life versus home life. One reviewer of the film argued that

"the basic theme of HEAT — that career criminal and detective share a solitary, obsessive temperament — is a familiar one."[16]

HEAT, however, raises not just the question of shared temperament or shared circumstances but also that of the conventional overlap between the forces of law and order, the cop, and the good guy, on the one hand, and the forces of social disorder, the gangster, and the bad guy, on the other. By the end of the classical genre film the gangster lies dead in the street, he is the bad guy, and social order is restored. In HEAT, however, the gangster and the cop are relatively sympathetic, and the forces of disorder and chaos are parsed out to several characters. As several critics point out, while McCauley is "orderly and calculating," Hanna is "disorderly and incautious." (Schickel) Although Hanna struts and blusters and McCauley makes a fatally incautious decision at the end, the film's real disorder is represented by other characters — HEAT's real "bad guys."

Two characters, Waingro and VanZant, bear the combined weight of being the unsympathetic characters and representing the forces of chaos that must be vanquished. Waingro quickly proves that he does not fit in with the gang, and he turns out to be the least sympathetic character in the film. He has no special skills; indeed, his trigger-happiness botches the first heist. Within the vernacular of the film, he is coded as working class. He doesn't dress well, is comparatively unkempt, and, in case we did not get the idea, he has a swastika tattooed on his chest. He murders a prostitute, which is apparently a serial behavior. He eventually hooks up with VanZant in order to betray McCauley's crew to the police. Most important, his actions are motivated by bloodlust, not by the desire to work and support himself that animates the others. His violence, unnecessary and uncontrolled, brings chaos and murder to the heist. Waingro clearly represents the most disorderly forces in HEAT's society.

While Waingro's activities are clearly illegal and unacceptable even within the canted ethical regime of the crew, VanZant and his employees are presented as unsympathetic even before they plan to do anything illegal. VanZant is the only person in the film who works at a desk in an office, at somewhat regular hours, doing something legal. He moves other people's (possibly dirty) money around between accounts and investments. It is unclear whether VanZant is unsympathetic due to the normality/ legality of his job, or because of his reaction to a moment of crisis.[17] VanZant takes the theft of the bearer bonds personally and tries to have the thieves killed — to refute " the word on the street...that it's ok to steal my stuff." Instead of taking the "businessman's" option and buying back the bonds (making a substantial profit), VanZant directs his security person to set an ambush for the thieves. By acting on his feelings of personal affront, VanZant fails to make the "disciplined" (as McCauley says) business decision; this creates chaos as well. Finally, Waingro and VanZant's collaboration in betraying the crew create the circumstances under which McCauley, too, makes an unreasonable decision: instead of escaping directly, McCauley stops to kill Waingro. Both the rest of the gang and the police express contempt for and target Waingro and VanZant.


The police and the gang share not only our sympathy and a contempt for Waingro and VanZant, but also a love of their jobs that transcends the traditional genre motivation. Unlike in earlier gangster film cycles, work does not come from immigrant striving or revenge for past wrong, or just represent an illegal and lucrative way of applying technical skills. The difference between Detective Hanna and the single-minded Detective Bannion in THE BIG HEAT, for example, reveals the genre's change in character motivation. Detective Bannion sheds his previous life in order to pursue the criminal gang, but his devotion to the job is motivated by his wife's murder. Vincent Hanna's obsession with work does not derive from family circumstance but rather competes with it. When faced with a choice between family and work, Hanna always chooses work — a consistency that Justine announces. The gang (except Chris) make that choice just as plainly. Thus, in HEAT work ("the juice") has become an end in itself. Work's displacement of personal life lends a new set of meanings to the gangsters lying dead in the streets.


Robert Warshow, writing in the 1940s, argues that by depicting the work of the gangster as a "rational enterprise," the genre suggests continuity between the gangster's business and the determination of all capitalist enterprises to succeed:

"In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty..." (133)

The screen gangster is punished for his success as a small comfort to those in the audience who suffer from a lack of economic opportunity. This implicitly suggests moral superiority for those who don't succeed, i.e., most of the audience: if success requires brutality in business practices, then it must be morally questionable.

Jack Shadoian, too, argues that the gangster film is an allegory of business in which the over-achiever gets punished for his striving:

"American films tend to show self-advancement as an explicit or implicit criminal process. The gangster functions as the scapegoat for such desire. The equation of crime and business further supports the view that crime films are often disguised parables of social mobility as a punishable deviation from one's assigned place." (5)

Shadoian argues that in spite of the ideology of the U.S. as a classless society, the lesson of the gangster genre is that those who manage to climb up the social ladder will be punished and will not enjoy the privilege of the wealthy-at least not for long Thus, according to Shadoian and Warshow, one of the lessons of the gangster film is that the costs of success for these social strivers are too high.

Thomas Schatz argues that the gangster and the business person have similar values, but the gangster has gone too far. He writes,

"The urban lone wolf's brutality and anti-social attitudes in Hollywood films are simply components of an essentially positive cultural model — that of the personable and aggressive but somewhat misguided self-made American man." (Hollywood Genres, 84)

This formulation has a radical critical potential, although Schatz's observation is specifically addressed to the personality and self-presentation of the gangster — his need to swagger and assert his authority. The continuity between efforts deemed normal, or even "positive," and the "anti-social" must be redirected to describe not just the gangster's values or his personality, but also his actions. That is to say, it is not only the "perverse alter-ego" of the businessman that is represented, but his job and how he goes about it-whether his job is running his company or an industry or planning the crime that will allow him to retire to the country.

In HEAT, the particular virtue of the profit-minded male that is rendered with such force is the primacy of professional life — that one must evaluate every situation in light of its impact on one's ability to do the job. As we have seen, a high level of commitment to a job, or at least the willingness and even desire of many to work longer hours, is already taken for granted by many employers and employees. Thus, the lack of balance between work and personal life that earlier gangster film cycles critiqued has already become the norm in the contemporary marketplace; HEAT seems to represent only a difference in degree. So in HEAT's society, what is left to be lost through a lopsided devotion to work? For Warshow and Shadoian, the costs of success are a sense of humanity in our (business) dealings and the possible improvement of our material circumstances, respectively. In HEAT (and very likely in many real industries) the former is already irrevocably lost, and the latter is thoroughly taken for granted (even ex-cons become wealthy if they are smart and disciplined, can cooperate, and work hard enough). But, there is still something left to lose in our zeal to do our jobs: a personal life that is its own reward. Thus, HEAT's audience might also draw an altered version of Warshow's and Shadoian's morals: success requires working so much and with such tight focus that one loses everything else.


Schatz writes that the most significant point of the genre film is the

"resolution — that is, its efforts to solve, if only temporarily, the conflicts that have disturbed the community welfare."[18]

At the end of HEAT we get the traditional genre ending: the gangsters lie dead in the streets, parking lots, and airports of L.A. and the lawman is the apparent victor. Yet there is hardly the sense that order is restored. Those left standing at the end of HEAT do not even temporarily resolve the most profound cultural contradictions of the film; indeed the resolution reveals the flaws in the value system of HEAT's "personable and aggressive self-made American man."

The film apparently casts a cold eye on any commitment to a personal life. All but one of the main characters leave their partners. Hanna leaves Justine (and their marriage) at the hospital in order to pursue McCauley. Cheritto chooses work over a financially secure life with his family and dies during the heist. Breedan chooses the big score over his girlfriend and her pride in his effort to go straight. McCauley chooses to kill Waingro rather than head out of town, and as a result he abandons Eady, who is waiting for him in the car. Yet, no one emerges alive from this choice except Hanna. So, choosing work over home ultimately offers no guarantee of success in the profession.

Indeed, only viewed quite narrowly does the outcome represent a triumph for Hanna or for the discipline of these workaholics. Although the bad guys and the most of the gangsters are dead, it was not via an orderly police operation — or any police operation at all in several cases. Waingro and VanZant were killed not by the police, but by McCauley. Trejo (the original driver) was killed not by the police, but by Waingro. Furthermore, the hail of bullets that usually brings down the gangster instead kills more police officers than thieves. Hanna is alive, but he has lost several of his crew and his marriage.

The exception to all of these choices, of course, is Chris, whose "sun rises and sets with" his wife. His participation in the final heist is presented as an attempt to square his situation at home rather than as a job done for the thrill and the challenge. He is the one member of the gang who chose home life over work, and although he is injured, he is not dead. Furthermore, in spite of their past troubles, Charlene cannot bring herself to betray Chris to the police, although her freedom and that of their son is potentially at stake. Although Chris and Charlene value their relationship more than his job or her safety, this does not protect them from the fallout of Chris's profession: they are not physically together in the aftermath of the final heist — although the film allows the possibility that they will reunite.

HEAT'S final twist is that it deploys the classical genre ending in lieu of superficially or temporarily resolving the conflicts that disturb the community. The relocation of the conflict — shared by both police and thieves — to an individual decision to reject personal life in favor of work supplants any effort of HEAT'S community to find balance among competing values. People who are not very different from the audience die, the women are left behind, and the cost of law and order is at least six households. The film's resolution offers us the grim notion that work requires abandoning those we care about; arid then it will probably kill us. Choosing not to sacrifice home life to work will not, however, insulate a relationship from harm. Thus, the accommodation to the status quo that the genre film usually offers to the audience is in HEAT a bitter pill: work rules fatally, and proclaiming the value of our personal lives will not rescue us from professional demands. HEAT leaves the new conflict that it depicts — the place of work itself — unresolved and unresolvable.

Taken from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/Heat.html


1. For the wedding of Carlijn Holtrop and Jos Janssen. Thanks to my indulgent, mostly entertaining students in the winter 1999 gangster films genre seminar at Northwestern University, and also to Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, and Tom Gunning for their helpful comments.

2. Although both men and women do the "work" of relationships in the film, the women are largely defined by it. The gender- and race-based division of labor in the film is not as total or glaring as in many Hollywood productions. Eady is an educated professional and Charlene seems to do the family's financial books, but the primary role of the female characters is to represent domestic attachments and make emotional and other demands on their husbands. Similarly, although everyone in the crew is depicted as skilled, the African-American and Latino characters are less skilled than the rest of the crew — they are the drivers/ communications people. Only Waingro, who is pegged as working class or lumpen, seems to have no work skills.

3. HEAT's rendering of the literal attractiveness of the lifestyle may make it easy to conclude, as one might from many pop-cultural products, that these attractive, hard-working people have a right to the beautiful things they own.

4. Although the audience knows Waingro committed the murder, it is unclear that the police ever figure this out. So the only narrative functions of the scenes of Waingro's murdering a prostitute and Hanna's going to investigate are to make Hanna leave his social group's festivities, prompting his wife to say she only gets the leftovers from his work time, and second, to show Waingro, unlike the other members of the gang, as driven by murderousness rather than clean professional thievery.

5. One of the boss's minions in FORCE OF EVIL says this. (Polonsky, 1948).

6. Interest in the how-to of criminal activities certainly predates prohibition. In fact one of the first elements of the cinema to cause alarm was the appearance of crime films, which reformers felt showed too much detail about committing crimes; see, for example, Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 75-103. Nonetheless, interest in the lifestyles of the gangster increased with Prohibition. (Ruth, 63-86.).

7. c.f. Cohn MeArthur, 53. Kaminsky cites the caper film as a subgenre of the action-process film; however, the heist film has strong thematic ties to the gangster film, especially to the gangster film's perennial interest in issues of the composition and hierarchy of the criminal organization and its relation to more legal ways of being a skilled business person. Although it is a different project, I suggest it may be fruitful to see the heist film as a new cycle in the gangster film.

8. Kaminsky argues that the caper film addresses feared loss of meaningful individuality in the corporate culture of the post-war era, returning to some of the same issues to which the classic gangster films of the early 1930s were responding. Of the 1920s, David Ruth writes,

"With the explosive growth of mass leisure and consumption, critics in the 1920s began to see excessive conformity as a national problem. At the same time, many advertisers detected widespread fears that individuals had become insignificant parts of an undifferentiated crowd." (18-19).

For most people, however, a more pressing problem was probably that of access to these goods in the first place (c.f. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990)). By the 1950s, corporate organizations and mass-produced goods were dominant enough to foster a voluminous literature on concerns about conformity in work and leisure.

Jonathan Mumby makes a related argument about the similar concerns of film noir and the gangster film cycle of the early 1930s:

"The increasingly preponderant fascination with crime on the American screen after World War II was understood in its day not as something new or discontinuous with Hollywood's traditions, but as a rejuvenation of the illicit themes and issues associated with the earlier Depression-era gangster cycle. The postwar crime cycle we now call film noir was received as an awkward reminder of problems whose resolution had been postponed by the need to prosecute the war." (7)

The gangster film continues to engage questions of individuality and individual control over one's world through the present; one of the most prominent examples of this occurs in Martin Scorsese's GOODFELLAS (1990), in which the main character, after going into the witness protection program and moving to suburban America, bemoans finding himself powerless and bored:

"I'm an average nobody; I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook."

The point is then hammered home by Scorsese's ironic use of the Sex Pistols' cover of "My Way" on the soundtrack.

9. This description of the heist film also sounds like planning to make a movie — especially during the demise of the studio system. The heist film's focus on the plan-for-sale, the search for a money man, the composition of a group of people with complementary skills, all for a specific heist resembles the effort to put together a package for a film. This suggests another relevant point about the heist film and its historical context. The heist film hits its stride in the early 1950s, with an archetypal example (Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) released in 1950, during a time when stars and directors were increasingly seeking to become free agents and the studio system was being dismantled by the Department of Justice. Not only were studios relying on independent firms and outside deals for directors and stars for their films, banks were puffing together financing packages on a film-by-film basis. Kaminsky notes that several of the most famous caper films were themselves independently produced by directors who actively sought to work outside Hollywood; among these was Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING (1957). Indeed, when Huston made ASPHALT JUNGLE, he had recently ended his contractual relationship with the Warner Brothers studio and formed his own production company. Thus, the heist film genre, which might be seen as an allegory of producing an independent film, gets going just as independent film production becomes the norm.

10. Popular culture has a long history of reproducing or representing the use of work skills in service of either illegal or anti-productive ends. For example, in discussing the appeal of amusement parks at turn-of-the-century Coney Island, John Kasson points out that often the games reproduced the repetitive physical motions and time pressures of factory work, but in an anti-productive fashion. There are many filmic versions of such parallels between games and work, or apparently unrelated skills. Several Chaplin films offer variations on this theme, as does something so completely different as THE KARATE KID (John Avildsen, 1984), in which the movements involved in various household chores turn out to be practice for karate moves.

11. McCauley takes on a paternal role relative to Chris and Charlene, mediating between them and offering to support Charlene and her child if Chris cannot live up to her demands. This, together with the dinner party scenes, is reminiscent of the gangster genie's depiction of the mob as a surrogate family for its members.

12. Ironically, McCauley's decision to kill Waingro (and therefore leave Eady) is arguably his most uncharacteristic (i.e., irrational and disorderly) act. Killing VanZant might be seen as the unhappy but unsurprising conclusion to a business deal gone wrong, as might the hunt for Waingro. However, by the time that Mccauley goes after Waingro, the risks are too high for the decision to be rational, a fact noted by Nate, who, when telling McCauley where Waingro is hiding, says that it probably doesn't matter anymore. So if McCauley had simply left the country with Eady, he might have lived.

13. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures cited in 'Work work work," Left Business Observer 77 (14 May 1997), 8. Schorr's study of the years 1969-1987 obtained similar numbers, with a slightly higher increase among women.

14. There are several books by academics on this topic, including Schorr's The Overworked American, as well as Patricia Hewitt, About Time: The Revolution in Work and Family Life (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 1993); Arlie Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997); Christine Nippert-Eng, Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Helga Novotny, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience (Cambridge: Polity, 1994). There is also a substantial popular press interest in longer work hours, including, for example: Diane Fassel, Working Ourselves to Death: The High Cost of Work Addiction and the Rewards of Recovery (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990); Anne B. Fisher, "Welcome to the Age of Overwork," Fortune, 30 November 1992; George Gallup and Frank Newport, "Time at a Premium for Many Americans," Gallup Poll Monthly, November 1990,43-56; Cary Goldberg, "The Simple Life Lures Refugees from Stress," New York Times, 21 September 1995; '"It's too much of a good thing,' G.M Workers Say in Protesting Overtime," New York Times, sect. A, p. 10.

15. Although in a different context, Laura Kipnis argues that personal relationships themselves are increasingly understood, talked about, and analyzed as "work." ("Adultery," Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (winter 1998): 289-328)

16. Adam Mars-Jones, "It's a Mann's man's world," The Independent (London), 25 January 1996, 8.

17. Or, perhaps because he has time to watch television: VanZant is also the only character we see having leisure time at home — he is sifting in front of the TV watching hockey. This is just before McCauley arrives to ask after the whereabouts of Waingro and then murders VanZant.

18. Hollywood Genres, 30. Schatz continues,

"If there is anything escapist about these narratives, it is their repeated assertion that these conflicts can be solved."


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