Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, professional armed robber
Los Angeles, Spring 1995
Release Date: December 15, 1995
Director: Michael Mann
Costume Designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
De Niro’s Costumer: Marsha Bozeman
My last post looked at a bank robber who relied on his wits and a team of burglars to carry out a job. Neil McCauley is far more ruthless and traditional kind of cinematic bank robber; one that you would expect a no-nonsense great like Robert De Niro to portray. After months of planning and double-crosses, McCauley’s team is ready to take down a major bank in downtown L.A.
Although Heat is often considered to be Mann’s masterpiece, it wasn’t his first go at the storyline. In fact, he’d been perfecting the story in his mind for more than 15 years. Mann was well-acquainted with former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson, who told him the story of a professional robber he was investigating in 1963. The robber’s name was Neil McCauley. As Mann describes: “one day they simply bumped into one another. [Adamson] didn’t know what to do: arrest him, shoot him or have a cup of coffee.” A failed robbery by McCauley later led to a standoff where Adamson killed him. Sound familiar?
Mann had his first screenplay drafted in 1979. He directed his first feature, Thief, in 1981 and continued reworking the script throughout the decade. When NBC commissioned him to produce a new TV series, Mann took his magnum opus, shortened it from 180 to 90 pages to make an acceptable pilot, and filmed L.A. Takedown in 19 days. The 92-minute film aired on NBC on August 27, 1989. Although it didn’t lead to a series, Mann stuck with his dream to film the entire sprawling story he had developed and, after directing The Last of the Mohicans in 1992, he finally managed to gather the massive talent and $60 million budget he needed to make Heat a reality.
The film is a perfect crime drama, weaving in each character’s personal lives and motives until archetypes are abandoned in favor of three-dimensional characters. However, the part that sticks out in the minds of most fans is the Far East Bank robbery and its fatal aftermath. After entering the bank with his two most reliable comrades, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), McCauley takes immediate command of the situation:
We want to hurt no one! We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government, you’re not gonna lose a dime! Think of your families, don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a hero!
What’d He Wear?
It’s well-documented that Michael Mann likes to dress his professional criminals in gray suits and white shirts, giving them a look that can range from anonymous to deadly efficient as needed. Neil McCauley is no different, wearing four different gray suits throughout the film, always with a white shirt.
For the bank robbery, McCauley wears a charcoal gray wool suit with a subtle fine pinstripe. Apropos to the mid-1990s, the suit has a very large, baggy fit that – while definitely dated – also serves a practical purpose for a heavily-armed bank robber.
McCauley’s double-breasted jacket allows him to totally cover the tactical vest beneath it when closed. The front has a long 6×1 button layout, although we primarily see the suit coat worn totally open. The peak lapels have slanted gorges with a low stance at mid-chest. The welted breast pocket is even lower on the chest, implying that the jacket is at least one size too big for De Niro. Although unflattering on its own, Heat deserves credit for not glamorizing its star by placing him in a better-fitting suit when he wouldn’t practically be wearing one. Since he needs the larger jacket to fit over his tactical vest and long gun during the robbery, it makes sense that he wouldn’t waste time by changing out of it during the robbery’s hurried aftermath.
The suit coat also has heavily padded shoulders that extend far beyond De Niro’s natural shoulders, another sign that the jacket is sized too large for De Niro. Other details include a single rear vent, flapped hip pockets that often have the flaps tucked in, and 4-button cuffs with the buttons stitched very close to the edge.
A CU shot of McCauley donning his head mask for the robbery clearly shows 3-button cuffs, a continuity error that suggests another suit jacket was used for that shot only as every other appearance seems to show the jacket with 4-button cuffs.
The suit’s matching trousers also have a very generous fit, but it’s less noticeable than the jacket and likely just a result of ’90s styling rather than a practical choice since he isn’t hiding any guns in his pants… that we know of. The trousers have a low rise with single reverse pleats, and the bottoms are plain-hemmed.
In addition to the straight on-seam side pockets, McCauley’s suit pants also have jetted rear pockets that close through buttons. McCauley wears a black leather belt – with a gold squared single-claw buckle – through the trousers’ belt loops.
When in the bank, McCauley wears a lightweight mesh tactical vest with eight black velcro loops for his carbine magazines. The outer trim of the vest is also black, including the short zipper over his abdomen.
I’ve never seen a shooting vest that exactly resembles McCauley’s, but similar black mesh shooting vests are available from companies like Bob Allen and H2H. A very helpful follower named Justin F. emailed me a link to TGC’s replica of the “Heat Tactical Vest”, designed for airsoft shooters. TGC’s version is described as “a super light net-fabric vest with [Velcro] straps and elastic loops to accommodate up to eight M4 magazines” as well as one pistol magazine.
McCauley’s tie, also worn only during the bank robbery, is black with a slanted gray shadow grid check. Ties like these are a dime a dozen: easy to match with a simple outfit like McCauley’s and very inconspicuous.
After taking the wounded Shiherlis to Dr. Bob (Jeremy Piven) for treatment, McCauley loses the vest and watches over his buddy in his shirt, tie, and trousers. The shirt is a McCauley standard for the film: white cotton with a long-pointed spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
McCauley realizes he can’t be inconspicuous in his bloodied shirt, so he quickly flips from concerned pal to ruthless commander in a second:
McCauley: Take off your shirt.
Dr. Bob: What?
McCauley: Take off your shirt.
Dr. Bob: My… my God, my daughter gave it to me for Father’s Day-
McCauley: I don’t give a shit who gave it to you, take it off!
From at point until the end of the film, McCauley wears Dr. Bob’s similarly-styled blue striped shirt, without a tie.
McCauley’s shoes are a pair of black leather plain-toe oxfords with heavy black soles, worn with black dress socks. An efficient and monochromatic thief like McCauley isn’t going to draw attention to himself with the fashionable alternative of brown footwear with a gray suit.
Also eschewing fashion standards, McCauley wears a black digital wristwatch that allows him to run his team of crooks with precision, able to measure the exact time down to the second.
While he may not care about fashion when it comes to the rest of his clothing, McCauley does spring for a pair of snazzy sunglasses. Thanks to commenter Alex, we now know that these are Revo 1402 033 sunglasses with brushed gold etched frames and amber anti-glare lenses.
[For those who heard Armani provided the sunglasses in Heat: McCauley definitely wears a pair of gunmetal-framed Giorgio Armani 634 sunglasses in the earlier scene where he tracks down Charlene Shirherlis (Ashley Judd) to a motel, but this is clearly a different pair.]
Other robbery-specific accessories worn by McCauley are the plain black skin-tight balaclava, worn to conceal all but his eyes, and the black nylon tactical gloves that close with velcro over the elasticized wrists.
DON’T Go Big or Go Home
Apparently, many aspiring crooks around the world didn’t learn the lesson from Heat that crime doesn’t pay, with copycat robbery attempts on armored cars, banks, and stores showing up everywhere from Colombia to Norway after the film’s release. The most notable copycat attempt was the famous 1997 North Hollywood shootout when Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu marched into a North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America on February 28, 1997. Much like the Heat criminals, the two had previously robbed an armored car that resulted in the death of a guard. They had some experience with bank robbery in the past few years, but they supposedly delayed their robbery three days until they could get their hands on the exact money-carrying bags used by Val Kilmer in the film.
The LAPD – not led by Al Pacino, I should mention – cornered Phillips and Mătăsăreanu as they exited the bank, engaging them with their Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers, 9mm Beretta pistols, and 12-gauge shotguns. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fired back with illegally-modified, fully-automatic rifles while trying to escape in their ’87 Chevy Celebrity getaway car. Eleven police officers and seven civilians were wounded in the shootout, although the only two fatalities were Phillips and Mătăsăreanu.
There is some irony in the fact that one of the few criticisms of Heat was that people called the post-bank robbery gunfight unrealistic. When two wannabe McCauleys tried to pull off the same job, they met with just as much police resistance and fared just as poorly. What did they expect??
How to Get the Look
Stripping away the aspects of his outfit that were needed for a bank robbery (including the excessive bagginess!), McCauley actually wears a fine example of a ’90s business suit.
- Charcoal pinstripe wool suit, consisting of:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with low-gorge peak lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and single rear vent
- Single reverse-pleated low rise trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, button-through jetted rear pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton dress shirt with long-pointed spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Black and gray-shadow grid-patterned necktie
- Black leather belt with gold square single-claw buckle
- Black leather plain-toe oxfords
- Black dress socks
- Revo 1403 033 brushed gold-framed sunglasses with amber anti-glare lenses
- Black digital wristwatch
I’m hoping you won’t need a breakdown of the shooting vest, ski mask, and gloves.
In addition to his trusty .45-caliber SIG-Sauer P220 pistol, Neil McCauley arms himself with a deadly efficient Colt Model 733 “Commando” fully-automatic carbine. This is also the long arm of choice for Chris Shiherlis, who had also carried one during the opening armored car robbery (when McCauley was armed with the similar but longer-barreled Colt Model 654, predecessor to the M4).
The Colt Commando was developed from the CAR-15 family of M16-based rifles sold by Colt on the civilian market during the Vietnam War era. Since the AR-15 name originally stood for ArmaLite Rifle, the original manufacturer, the CAR-15 was Colt’s attempt to re-associate the rifle with its own brand as the “Colt Automatic Rifle-15”. Now, the CAR-15 is a more generic name for any carbine-length variants of the M16 or AR-15 developed before the M4 Carbine was introduced in 1994. While the M16 line of rifles have 20″ barrels and the M4 has a 14.5″ barrel, the Colt Commando and XM177 versions of the rifle have remained popular for their compact size with 11.5″ barrels.
In its early years, the Colt Model 733 “Commando” was literally pulled together from scraps and spare parts of both M16A1 rifles and M16A2 rifles. It fires the same 5.56×45 mm NATO round as its longer M16 and M4 variants, although the shorter barrel and lighter weight means reduced accuracy, muzzle velocity, and range.
The Colt Model 733 is a smart, professional choice for the urban bank robbery shown in the film due to the close-to-medium distance fighting. In addition to the compact size, the greater muzzle flash from the shorter barrel would also increase the intimidation factor when fired, and the rifle round means greater accuracy and power than a submachine gun would offer. Val Kilmer was supposedly so proficient with quickly reloading the Model 733 that American Special Forces instructors show this sequence to their trainees for educational purposes (according to IMFDB.)
The actors’ proficiency with their weapons means much credit should be given to Andy McNab, the Special Forces soldier and Persian Gulf War veteran who served as a technical advisor on Heat and spent two months training the cast with firearms. McNab used a tape of L.A. Takedown to get a feel for the style of shootout that Mann desired, then extensively worked with the actors, even working with De Niro to teach him how he would carry an appropriately weighted bag full of money and a wounded Val Kilmer while still firing his automatic carbine one-handed with relative precision.
Of course, McCauley always has his .45 handy. In this case, it’s a blued SIG-Sauer P220 pistol with an 8-round magazine of .45 ACP.
Interestingly, McCauley always carries his pistol in the front of his waistband. This type of carry, known in non-PC circles as “Mexican carry”, isn’t recommended by firearms experts as it doesn’t firmly secure the weapon and it unsafely keeps it pointing in the direction of man’s most prized possession.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie. And please don’t rob a bank.
Although, you can and should listen to “Force Marker”, the Brian Eno track that underlines the McCauley gang’s efficient takeover of the Far East Bank.
He knew the risks, he didn’t have to be there. It rains… you get wet.