Friday, July 27, 2007

The Big Heat (1953)

By Eddie Muller

Since I wrote the following words in 1998 I've seen The Big Heat maybe 5 more times. That makes it probably fourteen or fifteen viewings, total. Astoundingly, it never disappoints. I might now, from a thematic standpoint, question its noir credentials -- are "vengeful cop" movies really noir? -- but no one can question its greatness. This and Scarlet Street stand as Lang's finest Hollywood films, in my opinion.

Editor's note: The following is from Eddie Muller's book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir

The Big Heat
(Columbia, 1953) is the ultimate angry cop noir, its tale of vengeance rendered with almost tantalizing perfection. Uptown critics dismissed it at the time as just another crime potboiler, signifying Fritz Lang's demise as an A-list director. They missed the cold brilliance that electrified genre conventions, and the exhilarating union of brooding Germanic fatalism and Wild West ass-kicking.

Seconds after the fade-in, corrupt cop Tom Duncan blows his brains out. His suicide not exposes the death-grip gangster Mike Lagana (Alex Scourby) has on the city's power elite. Duncan's wife finds the body and stashes the note, safekeeping it to blackmail Lagana and keep herself in a style she never enjoyed as a cop's wife. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a blue-collar bulldog, gets suspicious and turns up Duncan's mistress, Lucy Chapman, a B-girl who knows where the bodies are buried. Next thing Bannion knows, Lucy's one of those bodies.

Despite warnings from his bosses to back off, Bannion barges into Lagana's palatial mansion. There's art, servants, music: it sickens Bannion. “Cops have homes, too. Only sometimes there isn't enough money to pay the rent, because an honest cop gets hounded off the force by you thievin' cockroaches for tryin' to do an honest job.” He personally vows to bring the big heat down on Lagana.

Insulted, Lagana returns to his roots: His thug plants a bomb in Bannion's car, which kills the cop's wife, Katie. When his boss doesn't pursue Lagana, Bannion flips off his badge and loads up his .38; “That doesn't belong to the department,” he seethes. “I bought it.”

Locked and loaded, The Big Heat gallops into the concrete frontier: there are showdowns in saloons, rustlers biding time with endless hands of poker, a robber baron devouring territory while tin stars look the other way. And most critically, there's the whore with the heart of gold.

Debbie marsh (Gloria Grahame) is the moll of Lagana's troglodyte torpedo, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). She's a sexy, smart-mouthed material woman, hopelessly lost amid the macho posturing and power plays. After Vince, in a jealous rage, scars her face with a pot of boiling coffee, Debbie throws in her lot with the honest cop. Bannion, true to his moral superiority, never gives in to his murderous temptations. But Debbie, already in the gutter, redeems herself by laying waste to their tormentors. First she blows the lid off Lagana's empire by blasting Mrs. Duncan - allowing Bannion to retrieve the incriminating suicide note. Feeling her oats, Debbie settles up with Vince, administering her own hot java facial.

Debbie dies in the climatic shoot-out. As she longingly looks to Bannion for love and approval, he eulogizes his dead wife. In the epilogue, Bannion is back on the force, frontier marshal in Metropolis, waiting for the next Lagana to ride into town.

The film's power is mainly due to the talents of two men: screenwriter Sydney Boehm, a former crime reporter responsible for more crackerjack noir scripts than anyone else, and Lang, whose work is almost synonymous with noir. His early German films, Metropolis and M, etched the first blueprints of Dark City: omnipotent external forces dictating the fate of innocent people, and uncontrollable internal urges leading to self-destruction.

Lang himself fostered the legend that he had stared the demon in the face in 1933, when Hitler and Goebbles anointed him as the “man who will give us the big Nazi pictures.” He claimed o have immediately fled Germany, his riches later repatriated by the Reich. Later research revealed Lang to be a master of embellishment: he had, in truth, displayed little resistance to the Nazis during their rise to power. It was the promise of Hollywood opportunity - mixed with a nagging fear that the Nazis would betray him due to his mother's Jewish heritage - that lead Lang to surrender his preeminence in the German film industry. Ensconced on Hollywood production lines, Lang became the movie industry's official Minister of Fear, almost gleefully dusting his studio confections with the doom he felt was at the heart of the universe.

With The Big Heat, Lang shook off several desultory years, inspired by the crisp geometry of Boehm's script - and perhaps by its ferocious outrage. Accounting for the film's popularity, Lang said, uncharacteristically, that “Deep down... in ever human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in [Bannion] a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity, and the H-bomb?”

Only Fritz Lang could extract equal dread from government taxation and nuclear annihilation.


  1. In a post on my blog FilmsNoir.Net, I discuss The Big Heat as a socio-political critique of 50’s America. The mobsters kill Bannion’s wife and threaten his child, with the police and politicians actively complicit. Justice is won only at a terrible cost and with no assistance from the ruling order. There are no femme fatales in this movie, only strong women, who do the dirty work required to bring a male-owned system of oppression and corruption to account: Debbie, the b-girl, and the car-wrecker's clerk, all act existentially. Bannion does not "turn up" the b-girl, she asks to meet Bannion. The clerk acts on her own initiative, when she calls Bannion back through the fence of the wrecker's yard, and Debbie picks up the gun thrown on the hotel bed by Bannion.

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  2. Great write-up for a great film!

  3. Eddie:

    Thanks again for this. I know how busy you are.

    Watched The Big Heat over the weekend and was amazed by Gloria Grahame. She and Marvin should have made 100 movies together.

  4. hey Eddie
    your the best..just listen to the commentary on crimewave with James Ellroy...wooooow that was a classic I think you two should do commentaries on all noir films ...didn't know he was sooo funny loved the panting and your great two had great humor and knowledge of the film...hope you two team up soon..

    ps also like how you picked my new gal ella raines as your back in time date to james julie london

  5. An amazing noir. Gloria Grahame's death scene is one of the best, and she is a star throughout. I think Ford is also at his best in this film, which gives play to both his toughness and his boyish tenderness. Lee Marvin is solid, wonderful as always. But Grahame has some of the best lines in the film, including the comic relief of when she comes into Bannion's hotel room and exclaims, "I like it. Early nothing." The script is full of delights. It is a true noir because it looks deeply into the dark side of human nature, including Bannion's, and it reminds us that while the system is always corrupt it can be temporarily redeemed by peoples' moral choices.

  6. Woozsa, what a sexualized poster, hello hummer.


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