I watch a ton of genre films, but unfortunately none of the sites I write for allow me a platform to gush about one of my favorite genres: noir and crime in general. Might as well do it here. I’m going to try to write a few noir reviews a week – covering my favorites and ones I’m just discovering. It’s a dark, morally ambiguous cinematic landscape out there, guys. I hope you dig.
“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.”
When a film kicks off with a cop shooting himself in the head, buckle up. Direct by Austrian wunderkind Fritz Lang, The Big Heat (1953) is an 89 minute visceral sting that subverts the noir tradition of the femme fatale by making its wounded hero the harbinger of death for every female he encounters. Lang destroys the wall between the swellness of America life and the underworld – gauging what it takes to defend our little houses in the suburbs and the nuclear families within. Namely, it takes violence.
Lang was the treasure of German Expressionist cinema leading up to World War II. His dark masterpieces Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) caught the attention of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who banned Mabuse in fear that it would incite disorder. He was so impressed, however, that he offered Lang a position as head of Universum Film AG (UFA), the principal film studio in Germany at the time. Lang, whose mother was a Jewish-born Catholic convert, replied by getting the hell outta Germany, first to France and then to Tinsel Town.
In the 21 years following his move to Hollywood, Lang made 21 films, including the noir classics The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and Clash By Night (1952). It’s a remarkable oeuvre, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment – not to mention arguably one of the greatest noirs of all time – is The Big Heat.
Although the story sounds conventional, the film is anything but. Rough-edged cutie pie Glenn Ford stars as Sgt. Bannion, a homicide detective investigating the alleged suicide of fellow officer Tim Duncan. Mrs. Duncan insists that he killed himself due to an illness – a pain in his side, she says, because that’s surely enough to drive a grown ass man to suicide.
Bannion doesn’t buy her bologna either, so he starts digging deeper, to the chagrin of local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Sourby). Lagana has his suave little fingers in all the right pockets in their idyllic town of Kenport. He lives in a police-protected mansion, where he allows his teen daughter to throw sock hops will he sucks down schnapps beneath a massive portrait of his mom in the parlor. The illusion he throws up of decency is so thorough it’s sickening. When Bannion comes calling after someone in the Lagana camp makes a threatening call to his wife, Lagana maintains his facade of a model citizen. “This is my home, and I don’t like dirt tracked in.” he says.
Lagana’s top henchman is Vince, played by Lee Marvin. He’s downright psychotic in this role – none more so than in a later scene of cinema infamy. I love me some Lee Marvin, but the film’s biggest psychopath has got to be Bannion. He is a man so completely obsessed with “goodness” that he ironically becomes a bastion of moral ambiguity who abandons his principals in favor of justice. Glenn Ford looks like a Puritan who shits red, white, and blue while blowing away anyone who dares stand up to his idea of integrity. Most of these obstacles just happen to be women.
Flipping the noir femme fatale on its head, Bannion becomes The Big Heat‘s messenger of death. With the exception of an elderly woman he puts into danger so she can identify a hood, every woman that Bannion talks to winds up in a casket. There’s Lucy Chapman, Duncan’s mistress who disputes the suicide claims. After talking to Bannion, she turns up dead in a ditch, her body riddled with cigarette burns. The female corpses start piling up from there.
Despite being bad for women’s well-being, Bannion has a surprisingly normal home life – a rarity in film noir. He enjoys sexually suggestive banter with his wife Katie (played with sultriness to spare by Marlon Brando’s older sister Jocelyn), who seems to get off on cooking him enormous steaks. I swear, she makes him the largest steak ever (medium rare) sided with a baked potato that could choke a donkey. If you threw that potato at someone’s head, I bet they’d die.
Another stepping stone of Bannion is Vince’s smart-mouthed girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame). He uses her to take out Duncan’s widow, who holds the lynchpin to Lagana’s empire. Just for talking to Bannion, Vince hurls boiling hot coffee into Debby’s face. It’s a brutal act of revenge that leaves half of her face hideously scarred – reflecting her life on the fence between the underworld and domesticity. She can’t walk past a mirror without checking herself out, so having a disfigured face is a nightmare for poor Debby. And it’s all Bannion’s fault. Hero my ass. It’s Debby who deserves the medal of honor.
After Debby takes out Duncan’s widow and Vince, Bannion gets promoted. Great job, Bannion, you psychopath. He received his promotion climbing over the corpses of dead women. Congratulations, ya slob.
The film closes with Bannion heading out of the station, telling one of his underlings to “keep the coffee hot.” This request basically affirms that Bannion is now comfortable with the idea that misconduct, corruption, and violence go hand-in-hand. To stick the knife in deeper, Lang lingers on a police station poster that reads “Give Blood Now” – like the women who died so Bannion could get his man.
The Big Heat is one mean little film that’s as powerful as it is morally ugly. Debby is one of noir’s greatest martyrs, while Bannion is nothing but a self-righteous bozo who’s probably polishing his badge right now. Fritz Lang directed a lot of films in his career, but this mother has got to be his angriest.