The code at work in Michael Mann’s Heat is two-fold. There surely appears to be a code of mutual respect, perhaps even admiration, between the cop (Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna) and the main robber (Robert De Niro’s Neal McCauley). As Roger Ebert writes in his review, “these cops and robbers need each other: They occupy the same space, sealed off from the mainstream of society, defined by its own rules. They are enemies, but in a sense they are more intimate, more involved with each other than with those who are supposed to be their friends – their women, for example.” On the other hand, the “rules” which define this society would seem to include the code of honor among thieves – a relatively common concept in movies about robbers, in existence going back to films by Jean-Pierre Melville (Le cercle rouge, Le samourai) all the way up to Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and the Ocean’s trilogy (2001-2007).
This notion of what is permissible and impermissible in the world of the criminal comes into conflict between McCauley and a psychopathic crewman-for-hire called Waingro (Kevin Gage). From the moment Waingro decides to kill an innocent victim during the opening armored car heist sequence, McCauley gets something of an itch he can’t scratch (it was literally overkill to murder someone during a heist when everyone was wearing masks; this isn’t even including the fact that Waingro then murders a black hooker in his hotel room, which McCauley is unaware of). It is nevertheless a further breach of the honor among thieves code that Waingro breaks which causes McCauley to seek vengeance. There does indeed seem to be the argument to be made that McCauley, by righting a big wrong, is courting Biblical interpretation – although it’s hiding beneath a lot of slick, modern style and a plot that doesn’t appear to have even a scintilla of overt Biblical reference in it. However, McCauley seems more driven by the fact that Waingro betrays his employers.
An interesting difference in the motivation for this action on the part of McCauley between Heat and the original TV movie version L.A. Takedown (1989) is cited by author Steven Rybin in The Cinema of Michael Mann: “And while McLaren searches for his antagonist Waingro (Xander Berkeley) in much the same manner as Robert De Niro’s McCauley does in Heat, his decision, unlike the purely psychological motivation driving the same character in Heat, is influenced by the refusal of Eady (Laura Harrington) to fly out of the country with him; in the later big-screen version, Eady eventually agrees to leave with him while McCauley’s revenge is seen to extend from his own psychological dispensation.” In other words, in the original Mann teleplay, the character eventually portrayed by De Niro has a kneejerk reaction to his inability to have a domestic life and goes on something of an immature rampage, whereas in Heat, the more psychologically complex version of this scenario, De Niro willfully risks the forsaking of his own domestic happiness in order to right the wrong of Waingro having gotten away with betraying the honor among thieves code.
Curiously, in this instance, Mann seems to be suggesting that McCauley’s crew is the corporation and Waingro is the unassimilated individual who goes against the grain. Yet McCauley himself is such an individualist, what with his “don’t get involved in anything you can’t abandon in 15 seconds flat” (nihilistic) philosophy of life and work. Although he works with professionals, he ultimately can only truly trust himself and, like Frank and others in Mann’s oeuvre, letting people in will ultimately be his undoing.