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Why Neil McCauley is Robert De Niro’s Best Character

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Why The Iconic Actor's Greatest Role Is A Bank Robber Looking For One Last Score

Travis Bickle’s crazy unstable and freakish double life in Taxi Driver. Max Cady’s wild southern accent and bloodlust in Cape Fear. Jimmy Conway’s terrifying willingness and ease to murder in Goodfellas. Jack Byrnes’ comedic torment of Gaylord Focker in Meet the Parents. A Vito Corleone that even rivals Brando’s in The Godfather II. These are just some of the iconic roles that have made Robert De Niro a household name for the past 50 years. But none of those roles quite match up to De Niro’s role as the main antagonist Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime thriller Heat

Always Checking

There are many things to admire about De Niro’s performance as Neil McCauley in Heat, like his coolness, his steadiness, or his swagger. If we know one thing about De Niro, it’s that he’s always prepared for a role. Along with co-star Val Kilmer, the two went through intense training to master their movements with rifles for the film’s infamous shootout scene with police, and De Niro even studied the real-life bank robber Mann based McCauley on as well. You can see his preparedness for this role in his ever-so-subtle movements and changes in eyeline in the film. Whenever he walks into a room, he checks his shoulder and cases the room for cameras. If McCauley is stationary, he scans the area around him, watching, waiting, listening. He becomes a master thief subtly before our eyes, without any big blow-ups or big speeches; we know from his demeanor and eyes that he is in charge. You cannot take your eyes off him as he commands a bank or simply sips a cup of coffee. 

Sympathy for McCauley

De Niro’s McCauley is unlike his most famous characters. He is a very patient, meticulous, and cold-hardened criminal who winds up wanting love and a life outside of “what he’s after.” He doesn’t bring that unruly crazed energy of Bickle or Cady; he is controlled and calculated. McCauley doesn’t have a thirst for violence or have fits of rage like Jake LaMotta or Jimmy Conway. While he is a criminal, he is a criminal who, in all honesty, we can root for. He is a unique De Niro in that we sense that this is something that we have seen him do before, but by the end of the film, we realize we have witnessed De Niro do what he hasn’t done before. When McCauley feels the heat around the corner, we, as an audience, feel it too, and we hope that he can get out of it. You want him to make it out; you want him to have his dream. In De Niro’s other roles, you can enjoy his character, but there is a very clear right and wrong and good and evil attached to most of his famous roles. Goodfellas, Casino, Cape Fear, Godfather, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver

These are not what we would call sympathetic characters, but for some reason, with McCauley, even as a criminal, we are sympathetic towards him and his cause, regardless of his actions. The way De Niro plays it, we see a man doing his job, and this is his job, just like Pacino is a cop because it’s all he’s good at. That, above all his other characters, is the most intriguing. 

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Star Power vs. Star Power

When Heat came out, one of the biggest sellers of the movie in 1995 was the heavyweight bout between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, with the legendary actors sharing a scene for the first time in both of their storied careers. It was also a renaissance for De Niro. The 90’s had been good to him before Heat, with Cape Fear and GoodFellas. But Cape Fear wasn’t a huge Hollywood mega film, and Goodfellas came out right at the turn of the decade. Heat was De Niro’s first huge movie in a while, and pairing him next to the great Al Pacino made it all the more exciting. During their seven-minute diner scene, we are experiencing two masters at work. De Niro shifting and Pacino shifting with him. De Niro’s eyes look for exits as he explains himself to Pacino, Pacino trying to control the environment. It is one of the best scenes in movie history, with two of its greatest stars, and De Niro comes out on top, not only in this scene but in the film itself. Pacino brings his usual raw energy that is forceful and commanding. Still, De Niro commands his space and the attention of the audience so much more subtly through the quiet use of his eyes and demeanor. As Vince Hanna, Pacino means business as he moves and talks like a lit fuse for the film’s two hours and fifty minutes. As McCauley, De Niro means business because it simply oozes off of him; it is effortless. And while Pacino seems like he’s playing Pacino in Heat, De Niro becomes McCauley, one of the most impressive things a megastar like him can do. 

His Best?

While there is no definitive answer to De Niro’s best role, Neil McCauley is the closest we can ever get to it. To outshine such a force like Pacino and fade into a character so well and so opposite to what we have seen him do before. Following Heat and De Niro’s performance, we have seen so many heist movies and crime thrillers try to copy even a crumb of the heat the film brings, but they are all unsuccessful. De Niro’s McCauley is already a legend, and it remains to be seen if he will top this performance. 

Heat is available to stream on Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, or Apple TV. 


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Heat (1995) Warner Bros. Official Trailer

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Leonard studied English at Loyola Marymount University where his short story "Hero in Blue" was published in the 2022 edition of LA Miscellany. He hopes to one day write and direct his own feature films.