In the following presentation, we will be looking at the depiction of the contemporary city of the award winning director, screenwriter and producer Michael Man in the film Heat. Before we begin, we would like to introduce you to the story of this impressive director.


Heat is considered to be one of the greatest crime thrillers of all times starring Robert De Niro who plays the role of a thief and Al Pacino who plays the role of a cop. It is a heist film, with a dark and serious narrative following a gang of career criminals attempting to pull off a major score. Although It was filmed in 1995, Michael Mann had the idea for Heat’s story since 1970s, knowing that he would need several years to accomplish it. Having a budget of $60 million and a 107-day shooting schedule, Mann didn’t choose soundstages: he used 95 practical locations more than any film in the history of Los Angeles.

Story Background


The story is based on a real story told by Chuck Adamson, a Chicago police officer who became a television producer co- created one of Michael Mann’s television productions, “Crime Story”.

In 1963, Adamson was tracking a high-line thief, Neil McCauley, waiting for him to make a crucial mistake. Mann was fascinated that one day, by chance, their paths crossed in a neutral manner and the cop, acting on inspiration, invited the thief out for coffee in which the two of them sat and discussed their respective lives. Later, when Adamson responded to an armed robbery call, he discovered it was MacCauley and had to shoot him dead. Mann based the story of Heat in the analysis of this relationship between these two sides. He used the dead man’s name on his leading thief role and based his cop Lt. Vincent Hanna on an unnamed agent in the FBI.

Story Theme

In the initial stages of his filming process, Michal Mann always has an image that represents his vision about the film. In Heat this image is a painting named “Pacific”, created by Alex Colville in 1964. This painting became the inspiration of a scene in which Robert de Niro stares at the Pacific Ocean, a scene bathed in the blue shades of Dante Spinotti, the director of photography. This scene in Neil’s beach house is one of Mann’s most profound examples combining style, architecture and character interiority. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) lives in an empty unfurnished apartment, as he is still imprisoned. He chooses detachment from any materialistic thing that could bind him so that he would be able to leave everything behind in 30 seconds if he feels the “heat around the corner”. Throughout the whole film, Mann picks out the architectural details of Los Angeles, often concentrating on the transportation: the train station at the beginning, the crisscrossing highways and the airport at the end. Places that are detached from identity are similar to Neil’s character.

“Non-Places” – The Theory of Supermodernity

Manns non-place

Mann’s crime films consistently evoke elements of Auge’s theory. Mann uses the camera to frame the perception of space in it the characters in it and how they react to the space. The hospital elaborates the narrative of the dangerous, fragmented world of super-modernity begun with the train station. The space beneath the bridge determines method of robbing the armored truck in Heat and propels the rest of the story.

Mann establishes a visual vocabulary of space which provides a rubric to categorize general non-places: zones of arrival and departure (airports, commuter train stations, bus stations, and within those spaces, doors and windows), zones of transition (roads, parking garages, diners and bars, motels and hotels, the underside of bridges), and zones of stasis (homes, office buildings,  physical and virtual networks, cars). In turning this lexicon back on Mann’s films, a progression of place to non-places emerges.

Although Heat visualises a non-place dominated Los Angeles, it also exemplifies how Mann’s film style reflects character. According to Janice Polley, Heat’s location manager, Mann “was very specific on this film that he wanted it to illustrate a certain look, each character to had an architectural style, and he also wanted it to be filmed at locations which he had never been photographed in Los Angeles before”. The film opens with shots of a commuter train and a train station in order to establish architectural design as a factor which generates the attitude of the characters. In the absence of narrative contest at the film’s outset, the environment and its design frame, the character-commuter buy something different about him. The hospital in the second scene provides another allusion. It alludes to a non-place, the second non place in which inhabiting the space determines the individuals. Neil “inhabits” the space, but his determined movement sets him apart from the other patient’s excess. According to Mark Wildermuth, Neil moves into the hospital – a place of electronics, computer screens, and antiseptic whiteness, until Neil glances in one room and we see a bleeding victim’s body in close up, first sign of what these all means: anything can be invaded, nothing is secure, and nothing is sacred in this fragmented world of incongruities. The hospital elaborates the narrative of the dangerous, fragmented world of super-modernity begun with the train station. Mann’s film style uses the camera to frame the perception of space to “manage” the characters inhabiting and re-acting to the space. The space beneath the bridge determines method of robbing the armoured truck in Heat and propels the rest of the story.

Los Angeles in Films

A vast number of American/Hollywood crime films are shot in Los Angeles including Heat, Drive (2011), L.A confidential, Collateral and Nightcrawler. Directors seems to have a fascination with the night scenery of the City of Angels: Los Angeles is usually depicted rainy at night and the people living in the city are illustrated violent and morally corrupted. Crime based films heighten the alienated urban space of the city. That has been created by postmodern architecture that evolved as a response to International architecture. The international and post-modernistic styles that resulted in the creation of massive buildings, skyscrapers, supermarkets lead to super modernity and the non-places.


Michael Mann’s Thief, filmed in 1981, contains much “places” which shape the identity of Chicago in contrary to Heat which depicts contains no “places” (we know it’s Los Angeles because the characters mention that this is Los Angeles). In the decade of 00s, Collateral and Miami Vice took place entirely within non-places (Miami looks no different than Los Angeles). Mann’s film style does not change, but his architectural representations reflect the growing sameness of Auge’s supermodernity. Michael Mann’s work have shifted from filming places to filming the non-place. This is seen in his film Thief which was released in 1981 and shot in Chicago. The skyline shots that show the iconic structures of the city make it easy for the viewer to identify it. On the other hand,  in Heat Mann doesn’t focus on landmarks and we know that the film is placed in Los Angeles because it is mentioned by the characters of the film. Similarly, in Collateral, there is a line that Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hit man who just moved to Los Angeles describes the city as “too sprawled out… 17 million people…This is got to be the fifth biggest economy in the world and nobody knows each other. I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.” These films show us how Mann is playing with Auge ‘s theory of the “non-place” in an interesting way by integrating the characters, the story line and the architecture of the city.

Neil’s beach house frames the beach from the interior, shows the glass wall facing the ocean, with the ocean horizon line neatly dividing the composition into equal halves. Thoret sees a metaphor of separation in these fragmented glass surfaces in Mann’s films, forming “a glass jar, but also setting up a place of confrontation between a feeling of enclosure, or claustrophobia even, and that of an infinite openness”.

The modernist style with its bright, clean, airy spaces appeals to Neil, the ex-convict. Neil’s beach house displays the opposite. Windows facing the ocean constitute an entire wall made of glass, resulting in an airy interior awashed in bluish lighting. The ocean dominates this scene: it feels as if it is an extension of the house, making the house expansive, not, as Thoret suggests, an enclosure. Neil’s beach house, as a result of the glass wall, contains direction to the ocean, so it becomes instrumental in visualizing the connection between Neil and the ocean. Water signs follow Neil throughout the film and his inner-motivation becomes tied to crossing the ocean with Eady to a new life. The excesses of supermodernity (non place) drive Neil’s interior narrative and his existential crisis. The interaction of Mann’s film style and architectural representation makes his identity visual in some meaning-filled space across the ocean (place).

Mon Oncle – Koyaanisqatsi – Blade Runner – City of God

Mon Oncle is a 1958 ‘s comedy film by French filmmaker Jacques Tati and there is a common depiction of the architecture space that both Heat and Mon Oncle are trying to portray. Even though it is presented in a comedic way, the modern house in Mon Oncle follows the definition of a non-place, a space that is has no relational, or historical or concerned with identity. Even though it is a home which is a place that people should identify most with, yet the people living in the house seem to be detached from their home.


Koyaanisqatsi, a film directed by Godfrey Reggio, is another film that criticizes supermodernism using a different storytelling technique. The director shows us the transformation humans made on earth shifting from a place that is connected with nature to an industrial society which is alienated from the landscape and the natural environment that it once was. As the films progresses, we enter to the world of modernism and supermodernism in which we see the birth of Auge’s “non-place” within people moves massively in streets, shops, station and public spaces in general.

Blade Runner, a film released in 1982 directed by Ridley Scott, the film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles. If it wasn’t for the Bonaventure Hotel’s towers peeking through the skyline, it would have been difficult to know that this is LA. Blade runner depicts LA in an interesting and unique way that has not been caught in a novel or film before. “Not only it is 40 years into the future but it is also 40 years in the past” in terms of the political power that is ruling the city.

On the other hand, City of God moves us away from metropolis cities, crowed cities and takes us to the suburbs of Rio de Janeriro. Unlike the big cities the City of God is a slum area with no significant land marks. The houses are small and built close to each other. Unlike the fast moving cars cashes that we are used to see in crime films, in this film the action is taking place within the town and the camera is close and intimate with the characters making the viewer feel that they are part of the scene. The place in these contexts plays a major role in defining or influencing the characters in the film, as opposed to the detachment of place that is being portrayed in Michael Mann’s films.

Films influenced by Michael Manns cinematography


These are several films that have similar techniques to Michael Mann’s crime cinema. Training Day is an L.A. film that comes straight from the streets. It depicts a product of the match-up between screenwriter David Ayer, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and director Antoine Fuqua. Both men are intimately familiar with the daily, potentially explosive face-offs between cops and criminals in urban America. As the production designer Naomi Shohan attests, in Training Day “All the locations are real. All the interiors done on stage were taken from the locations and researched in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles with the help of the residents. We sort of became urban anthropologists. The colors and textures change throughout the journey of the film, but everything we used was taken directly from the neighborhoods that you find yourself in throughout the film. “

Few films in recent memory traverse the urban terrain of Los Angeles as memorably as Nicolas Winding Refn‘ s new-noir crime drama “Drive”, the stylish, sublime and ultra-violent “fairy-tale” starring Ryan Gosling as a soft-spoken taxi driver who gets mixed up with vicious gangsters in the city of angels. Using practical locations from downtown to the Valley, Refn paints a portrait of L.A. seldom seen in even the best L.A. stories — and with nary a glimpse of glitzy Hollywood in sight.

Finally, Christopher Nolan, a huge Michael Mann’ admirer, has admitted that Heat is his favourite film ever. According to his words, in Memento filmed by him in 2000, he set the story in Los Angeles because he wanted his setting to have an anonymous familiarity, a world of nondescript bars and impersonal motels that was “quint-essentially American”, dependent on being located in a vast country that had a homogeneous culture. In The Dark Knight, he wanted to begin with a bold, memorable heist sequence, so he took his inspiration from the best. Christopher Nolan discussed the influence in relation to the opening sequence in The Dark Knight, which involves a big bank heist committed by the Joker and his crew.  Nolan took inspiration for this scene, including trying to make it innovative and fun to watch while also attempting to maintain a strong sense of realism (usually he goes for illusionary realism, but for this opening he wanted a more directly realistic feel), from the big heist sequence in Heat. We might also note that both films are overall serious urban crime thrillers and are very frequently cast in blue tones. They both maintain a relationship between the criminals and cops/heroes that’s at once adversarial but also familiar to the point of almost feeling intimate at times. The city plays a recurring role throughout the film, visually and as a presence you can often see reflected in the personalities of key players.



 Michael Mann’s films represent an alternative convergence of architecture space and film. His crime films move architecture from the background to the foreground. Most crime films rely on temporal elements to move the story, and relegate architectural space to the background. At most, space accentuates a feeling or enhances the ambiance. Time, in most crime films, drives the conventional crime narrative and, ultimately, produces conventional results: affirming identity and place.

Mann’s crime films are different because the heroes do not win their confrontations with the modern urban spaces, non-place triumphs over place. Heat provides an operatic culmination of the spatially driven narrative: Vincent (Al Pacino), the cop, kills Neil, the robber, at the end of a runway at LAX (zone of arrival and exit) with jets (zones of transition) full of passengers flying in and out over the ocean. As Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Ocean” rises on the soundtrack, further enhancing the water/ocean imagery associated with Neil, Vincent, facing inland to the airport and city (non-place) takes Neil’s hand as he dies facing the ocean (place). Mann’s crime films form a microcosm of the American city and his recent films have arrived at the central concept of Auge’s supermodernity: the excess of the American city has created a prison of supermodernity.