The Big Heat
With ”The Big Heat” we are back in noir-land with murder, sinister bandits, trench coats and beautiful women of dubious reputation. That also means that I am pre-disposed to like this movie. Thankfully I was not let down, although Fritz Lang has his own take on it and that deviates some from the prescribed model.
Fritz Lang had his heyday in the twenties and early thirties when he worked out of Germany. Since he moved to Hollywood he had some difficulty finding the high notes again. The best is sort of okay, but not memorable. In that context “The Big Heat” was a positive surprise. Lang delivers a tight story that reminds of his glory days but also points forward as it seeks to develop the noir genre in a modern direction.
“The Big Heat” may seem very familiar today. It is the story of a single policeman, who finds himself fighting alone against not just the criminals, but against the system itself as the corruption has infected the police all the way to the top. Dave Bannion’s (Glenn Ford) struggle becomes personal when his wife is killed to the extent that it is more a personal vendetta than professional police work. Does this ring any bells?
Today we are talking one of the most beaten to death plots, but in 1953 I dare say this was a novelty and a gutsy one at that. My guess is that suggesting that the police was deeply corrupt at the highest level was not exactly patriotic talk. Instead it reflects a pessimism, which was much more at home in the seventies, but that actually fits Lang very well. He was always best we he was ahead of his time at when he was most suspicious of authorities (M, Metropolis).
On the other hand his one man on his own plot is also a classic American story as well as the idea that the quality of men is more important than the system, so maybe than convinced censors and reviewers that it was okay after all.
I was quite surprised with the darkness and brutality of the movie. People die like flies and most of them seem to be women. Most shockingly when Bannion’s own wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando) is blown up. As opposed to practically everybody else Bannion lives a content, but modest and normal family life. He has a lovely daughter, who I guess is around 6 years old and his wife is ordinary in the best meaning of the word. It is very clear that they are a happy family and it is just as clear that honesty is not making them rich. That Katie should die almost has the same effect as when Brad Pitt’s characters wife in “Seven” gets killed. It is a violation against her and Dave Bannion and very much against their little daughter and just the thought is making me feel sick. Hitchcock famously did it in “Sabotage”, but later admitted it was probably a mistake. In “The Big Heat” there is no accident about it. Well, the gangsters were aiming at Dave, but Lang uses it to transform Dave Bannion and set us up against, not just the gangsters, but the system that protects them. A low shot maybe, but damn effective.
The story has a fascinating puzzle element like any good police plot. Why did Tom Duncan kill himself and why is there something very off about his widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan)? Adding the girl (prostitute?) Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) and her allegations of foul play makes it even more suspicious, especially when she suddenly dies, and all the while Bannion is getting told by his boss, Lt. Wilks (Willis Bouchey) to lay off the case. Many threads, many characters and a very murky picture. Exactly how we like a good noir.
After the bomb it is a different movie. The mystery is evaporating as we see the criminals in action and the opening mystery is now only of minor importance. There is no hiding the rottenness. Tough guy Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), gangster boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and henchman Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) is talking openly about their dirty business and we see Commissioner Higgins (Adam Williams), Bannion’s top boss play poker in Vince’s lair. This is now a personal battle between Bannion and the bad guys. That struggle reaches a climax when Lagana and Vince reach for Bannion’s weakest point, his daughter. This really upset me. They had just done away with his wife. Would Lang also let the little girl, innocence itself, be killed? Nothing distresses me more than violence against children and this thread felt as bad for me as it did Bannion. Talk about having a motive for bringing down the bad guys!
In a noir there is usually a femme fatale and while “The Big Heat” suffers no lack of dubious women their roles are almost reversed. Chapman goes to the police and gets killed for it and Vince’s girl Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) first flirt with Bannion and then turn on Vince when he punishes such flirtation with a hot coffee shower. It is the pretty “femme fatales” that redeem themselves by doing the right thing while the respectable types like the police commissioner, the matronly widow Duncan or the wannabe respectable gangster boss Lagana commit the villainy.
Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin are top-billed on my DVD together with Glenn Ford and I think that mostly is due to their later fame, at least in Marvin’s case. Although it was fun watching him as a heavy I did not find him that memorable and Grahame I think was not entirely convincing. That maybe because I could not figure out her sudden interest in Bannion. Boredom seems the only explanation and that is just not good enough. However a big nod to the make-up department for her disfigured face. That was awesome.
The big tear-jerker is at the very end when Bannion finally is able to talk about his wife to the dying Debby. He describes not her beauty or wit or using any form of poetry, but says that she was a sampler. She had to taste his food and his wine and have a puff on his cigarette and that is just about the most endearing and romantic thing I ever heard. Seriously.
“The Big Heat” gets a good recommendation from me. It is solid work from Lang. Brutal and effective and way ahead of its time.