The noir detective thriller doesn’t get much grittier than Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953); an unrelentingly bleak urban landscape populated by a rogue’s gallery of despicable hypocrites. Even our hero, Sergeant Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) succumbs to the dark side, becoming an ignominious crusader whose ‘win at all costs’ mentality becomes a destructive force of nature to all the adult women with whom he crosses paths. The one untarnished love in Bannion’s life therefore remains his daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett). It is through their brief scenes together that we occasionally share her glimpse of this otherwise cruel, self-destructive man as an ever-faithful father figure. Bannion’s not bad. He’s just surrounded by an all pervasive and consuming evil that has begun to leave its impression on his emotional psyche.
Directors of film noir often treat the underbelly of high-powered criminal activity at the crux of their stories with an affinity for uber-glamour that curiously aligns sin and corruption with bare human sexuality. This equates to self-destruction. But Lang’s vision isn’t that at all. It’s just frank and unusually very sinister – perhaps truer to the reality of its subject matter rather than guided by the Hollywood conventions of the genre. Sidney Boehm’s screenplay stays relatively close to William P. McGivern’s source material, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.
With only a scant 89min. to unravel its yarn, we open on a close up of a gun, and moments later, a suicide. Officer Tom Duncan has just blow his brains out. His widow, Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) rushes to his side moments after the fatal shot. But she is immediately more interested in the sealed letter addressed to the district attorney that Tom has left behind. Inside the envelope is a confession and a complete dossier of files that could send local mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) to prison for life.
Bertha telephones Mike with the evidence she now holds in her hand, taking precautions to ensure that the information will be sent to the press should anything happen to her. But the unscrupulous widow also uses her late husband’s dossier to blackmail Lagana into affording her a very plush lifestyle. Unable to see his way around her, Mike reluctantly agrees to Bertha’s demands.
Sgt. Det. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in to investigate the suicide. And although he concurs with the facts – that Tom took his own life – he is perhaps a bit more apprehensive about dismissing the tear-stained widow’s statement, that her husband killed himself due to ill health, as the ironclad motive.
Dave returns to his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando – yes, Marlon’s elder sister) and that idyllic depiction of middle-class America where the traditional white picket fence and neatly trimmed lawn suggests sublime domesticity as the perfect picture of a happy home. Only Katie’s not exactly the little women, even if she is all aproned up and cooking up a storm inside the kitchen. No, she’s also a smart cookie with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to life and a keen mind. She doesn’t mind sharing a drag of her husband’s cigarette or a swig from the same glass of beer.
However, the Bannions dinner plans are interrupted by a cryptic phone call from one Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), an over the hill B-girl who tells Dave to meet her at ‘The Retreat’ – a swinger’s spot in the city. Reluctantly, Dave agrees. Arriving at the club, Dave asks the proprietor, Tierney (Peter Whitney) to point him in the right direction. Unbeknownst to Bannion he is being spied on by Larry Gordon (Adam Williams); a two bit stoolie working for Lagana, and his plaything, Doris (Carolyn Jones) who enjoys playing poker with loaded dice.
Lucy reveals to Dave that she was Tom’s mistress. She further debunks Bertha’s claim that Tom was in ill health and demands that Dave look into the matter further. But Dave sees no reason to reopen the investigation – none, that is, until Lucy Chapman is found face down on a lonely road with cigarette burns studding her severely tortured body.
Dave returns to The Retreat for a little Q&A with Tierney, who blows a lot of smoke to divert his suspicions, before telephoning Lagana with the news that Bannion’s back on the case. Dave shows up at Lagana’s home – a palatial estate with an above board surface sheen that only money can buy.
He confronts the mob kingpin with the specifics of Tom’s case and even goes so far as to accuse Lagana of some involvement in Lucy Chapman’s murder, though he has zero evidence – apart from a very vague hunch. Lagana orders Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) to handle the situation and Higgins does just that by asking for Dave’s resignation from the force.
Now Lagana turns to his number one assassin, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), a cold killing machine who treats all humanity – even his gun moll, Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame) - as if they were disposable garbage. Lagana tells Vince to ‘take care’ of Bannion. But Vince pawns off this assignment on Larry who plants a bomb in Dave’s car. Unhappy chance, that Katie decides to take it for a spin first. The car blows up, killing Katie and leaving Dave with a score he becomes obsessively driven to settle.
After witnessing Vince maim Doris with a cigarette for dealing loaded dice at The Retreat, Dave becomes convinced that Vince is also responsible for Lucy Chapman’s murder. Calmly, he tells Vince to get lost, and Vince – hoping to simply walk away from the heat – does just that, leaving Debbie behind, who follows Dave back to his rented apartment. But she is entirely unaware that her actions are being observed by Larry Gordon. Dave tells Debbie that he finds the thought of possessing anyone who belongs to Vince Stone repulsive.
So Debbie goes home to the penthouse where Higgins, Larry and Vince are all engaged in a friendly game of poker. Having learned of Debbie’s whereabouts from Larry, Vince casually inquires where she has been all this time. But she lies to him, incurring his sadistic wrath. Vince scalds Debbie with a boiling pot of coffee; then orders Higgins to drive her to the hospital. Lagana tells Vince to get rid of Debbie. But she escapes from the hospital, returning to Dave’s room in the middle of the night to beg for his protection.
The next day Dave investigates a used car lot known as a front for Vince’s operations. The new proprietor, Baldy (Rick Roman) tells Dave that the old owner met with an untimely end, but that he knows nothing of the lot’s reputation as a hub for organized crime. Later, however, the lot’s crippled secretary, Selma Parker (Edith Evanson) tells Dave that she remembers Larry Gordon frequenting the lot and later identifies Larry for Dave at his hotel suite.
Dave bursts in on Larry and threatens him with strangulation unless he talks. Gutless and terrified, Larry spills the beans on Vince and Lagana, but Dave – who had intended to kill Larry afterward – restrains himself at the last possible moment. Instead, he spreads the word around town that Larry is a snitch forcing Lagana to have Larry killed.
Meanwhile, Dave opens up to Debbie back at his apartment, explaining to her that he has reached an impasse in his investigation that can only be resolved if Bertha Duncan dies. Debbie takes this revelation to heart, and after Dave has gone out, steals his gun and goes over to Bertha’s home where she savagely shoots the devious dowager dead. Returning to Vince’s penthouse to settle another score, Debbie avenges her disfigurement by dousing Vince with a pot of boiling hot water.
She reveals her own scar to Vince before he shoots her. Dave bursts in on the scene, confronting Vince in a shootout that ends with Vince’s arrest. Tom’s letter goes public and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted for fraud, murder and racketeering. The film ends with Dave, his fragile faith in humanity restored, assuming his old job once more and heading out to investigate another unsolved homicide.
The Big Heat is hard hitting entertainment, but with a morally ambiguous center that occasionally proves problematic. The equivocal ethics of our hero unbalance our overall expectations for the inevitable conclusion. Even though Bannion’s righteousness triumphs in the end, the means by which he has brought about this positive result is very Machiavellian and therefore somewhat blunts our satisfaction of the achievement on its own merit. Perhaps imperfect worlds by their very design demand imperfect justice, but they do not absolve our cinematic heroes from defying the conventional and time honoured wisdom of their genre’s construction and clichés.
The film’s standout performance belongs to Lee Marvin, and it is a bizarre and telling bit of Fritz Lang’s exposition that, as the audience, we tend to find this diabolical and unrepentant thug more interesting – and perhaps, even more sympathetic – than our flawed hero. Vince Stone is all bad all the time. Yet, reduced to Debbie and Dave’s fatality - two avenging angels who arguably have lost both their halos and their wings – Vince becomes the tragic figure of the final act, caught in a web of their brutal retribution.
That is an unsettling predicament for the audience to digest: the killer as victim. We don’t get the same sort of ‘crime must pay’ gloss over that accompanies so many like-minded film noirs; rather a sort of vacuous denouement that does not appeal to our ethical satisfaction so much as it reluctantly provides for the obligatory finale. As filmic art, The Big Heat undoubtedly works – just not as one might expect.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray justifies many a sin from the abysmal DVD incarnation minted all the way back in 1999. The full frame image has undergone considerable clean up and some restoration to eradicate age related artefacts. The visuals take a quantum leap forward in both sharpness and exposing fine details. Film grain looks very natural.
Still, there are certain scenes that appear to suffer from slightly blown out contrast levels and a soft haze that obscures details, particularly in faces that are photographed in medium long shot. Perhaps the original film elements are simply beyond repair here, because I see no other evidence to suggest that Twilight Time has been remiss in doing the absolute best with the source materials at their disposal. The audio is mono and very well represented. The only extras are a theatrical trailer and isolated score. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)