Friday, August 15, 2014

THE BIG HEAT

Fritz Lang, 1953
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin

Police officer Tom Duncan kills himself, leaving his wife a mysterious letter. Sergeant Dave Bannion is called in and though he first sees it as an open-and-shut case of suicide, soon comes to realize other forces are at work. Duncan’s girlfriend, Lucy, comes forward, claiming that Duncan was not ill (as his wife stated) and owned a second home he couldn’t have afforded on an officer’s salary. Though Bannion basically dismisses Lucy, she is tortured and murdered that night. He is given the brush off by her employer, a bar owner, and is put off the case by his superior. After he and his wife receive a threatening phone call, Bannion goes straight to the source and confronts corrupt businessman Mike Lagana, beating his body guard in the process. In retaliation, Bannion’s lovely wife is murdered when the car explodes with a bomb meant for Bannion.

A distraught Bannion vows revenge and resigns from the force. He crosses paths with Lagana’s second-in-command, Vince Stone, and Stone’s girlfriend Debby. After Stone mutilates Debby’s face with a pot of boiling coffee – in front of the police commission and other prominent businessmen and politicians – she goes to Bannion for help. He takes in, knowing she has the information and contacts he needs, plus a vendetta of her own…

Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is one of the greatest films in the noir canon and also manages to subvert the genre itself. Glenn Ford is superficially the film’s hero and protagonist, but this is really a film about violence against women and their revenge. While much of the film’s abundance of violence occurs off screen, there is a suicide by gunshot, death by explosion, torture, strangulation, shootings, and more. One of the few on screen deaths is more brutal by comparison – when Debby shoots the corrupt Mrs. Duncan, who must die in order for her husband’s incriminating letter to reach the public. She does this so that Bannion doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. In perhaps a clever twist on Lang’s part, much of the film’s violence involves heat – the cigarette burns, boiling coffee thrown in Debby’s face, and the fiery explosion that kills Mrs. Bannion.

Bannion himself is a vortex for death and every woman he comes into contact without throughout the course of the film (except his daughter and sister-in-law) are killed. This is a reversal of the typical interplay between the tortured, isolated hero and the sexually aggressive femme fatale. While Gloria Grahame is certainly aggressive as Debby, she’s also a unique character. Grahame’s roles in The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place are both brilliant twists on the femme fatale trope. Here, she is not the insidious source of death and destruction for the innocent, but she acts as the avenging angel. Grahame is brilliant in the film and, above all else, is the reason to see it as soon as possible.

There’s a brilliant moment when the police guard for Bannion’s daughter is dismissed from higher-ups (due to an order from the gangsters) and Bannion rushes to the apartment in a panic. It turns out that his brother-in-law has recruited a team of bloodthirsty ex-army buddies who believe that if protecting the little girl means snuffing out a few gangsters, so much the better. It’s the film’s only true scene of masculine bravado (an unexpectedly pokes fun at the violence), though they don’t actually see much action.

The Big Heat is incredibly pessimistic, unsentimental, and strips away the mystique of a number of standard noir roles. In addition to the subversion of the femme fatale, the gangsters, who occasionally feel glamorous in other noir films, are almost obscenely abusive to the women in the film and some of them are openly portrayed as glad-handing cowards. The violent, above/beneath –the-law hero cop never does more than threaten to choke a few people and deliver a few solid punches. He is not tempted by sex or romance – Debby tells him that he’s “about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs” – and does not restore the domestic status quo at the end of the film. Nearly every moment in the first half of The Big Heat show the imminent threat to domestic life, and that violence and criminality will always win out over the family unit. Not only does Bannion not personally get revenge for his wife’s death, but he does not restore the family unit. In the uncomfortable final scene, Bannion is back at his desk and is presumably a hero in the department. His daughter is nowhere to be seen (and is not mentioned) and he tells a subordinate to “keep the coffee hot,” before heading out on another homicide case.

Ford, who is incredibly well cast and does justice to a strange role, and Grahame are bolstered by a strong supporting cast, which includes Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Jeanette Nolan (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and the endearing Jocelyn Brando (sister of Marlon, Mommie Dearest) as Mrs. Bannion. Also keep an eye out for Carolyn Jones (Morticia Adams, House of Wax) as an unfortunate woman Vince Stone burns with a cigarette.

Written by crime reporter Sidney Boehm and based on a novel by William P. McGivern, The Big Heat is, simply put, required viewing. Whether or not you are a big fan of Fritz Lang or film noir, it’s a must-see and comes with the highest possible recommendation. There’s an out of print and thus expensive Blu-ray, though hopefully one day the Fritz Lang film noir box set of my dreams will be released. You can also find it streaming online if you look hard enough.

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