The noir detective thriller does not get much grittier than Fritz Lang’s derisive ball-beater, The Big Heat (1953); an unrelentingly bleak urban landscape populated by a rogue’s gallery of despicable reprobates, hypocrites, and one kept woman with the proverbial heart of gold – slightly tainted, but otherwise unscathed. Even our hero, Sergeant Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) succumbs to the dark side, becoming an ignominious crusader whose ‘win at all costs’ ruthlessness festers into a destructive force of nature, particularly for the adult women with whom he crosses paths. While most noir thrillers function best with a femme fatale, Ford’s embittered and hard-edged widower with nothing to lose functions almost as an homme fatale; unstoppably cruel and streamlined in his steamrolling pursuit of mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby); the man responsible for the death of his young wife. The one innocent of the piece is Bannion’s young daughter, Joyce (Linda Bennett). In their brief scenes together we witness the sort of guy Bannion ought to have been – and probably was before the wall fell in on his family; now made over as the antithesis of the ever-faithful and kindly father figure. Okay, Bannion’s not bad. He’s just drawn that way by Ford, who knows his way around this irreproachable and scornful avenging angel, surrounded by an all pervasive and consuming evil that has begun to leave its own lasting impression on his emotional psyche. Prone to pressure, Ford illustrates just how easily a good guy can go wrong with only a few turns of the screw.
Directors of film noir often mistreat the underbelly of high-powered criminal activity with an affinity for uber-glamour that curiously aligns sin and corruption with raw human sexuality. Inevitably, money and eroticism equate to death. But Lang’s vision isn’t that at all. It’s just frank and unusually sinister – perhaps truer to the reality of its subject matter than guided by the clichéd ‘crime doesn’t pay’ Hollywood conventions of either the detective story or noir genre. Sidney Boehm’s screenplay stays relatively close to William P. McGivern’s source material, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. We get McGivern’s prose ever so slightly tweaked and recomposed for the fifties goon squad; slicksters with silencers and very hot women on the side, untouchable gambling rackets infiltrating the social fiber of every city that never sleeps, and using their sheer weight and power of corruption to crush any Johnny Valiant who endeavors to stand in their way. Under such awe-inspiring duress, Bannion makes the only viable decision to crack the mob wide open. He becomes just as vial, independent and resolved to clamp down like a pit bull on their illegal activities. The criminals are going down. Whether or not Bannion has to engage in criminal coercion to achieve an end to his means is his own affair.
With only a scant 89min. to unravel this hellacious 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 envelope addressed to the district attorney Tom has left behind. Inside, a confession and a complete dossier of files that could send local mob boss, Mike Lagana to prison for life. Bertha telephones Mike with this evidence, taking precautions to ensure the information will be sent to the press should anything happen to her. But the unscrupulous widow also uses it to blackmail Lagana, affording her a very plush lifestyle. Unable to see his way around her, Mike reluctantly agrees to Bertha’s demands. Meanwhile, Sgt. Det. Dave Bannion 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 seemingly irreproachable statement, that her husband killed himself due to ill health.
Dave returns to his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando – yes, Marlon’s elder sister) and that oft recreated and idyllic depiction of middle-class Americana circa Eisenhower’s conservative fifties; just a modest ‘every man’s’ bungalow, trimmed in box hedges and the proverbial white picket fence. Only Katie’s not exactly the little women, even if she is all aproned and cooking up a storm inside the kitchen. No, she is one smart cookie with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to life and a very keen mind. One can clearly see the attraction for Bannion: his gal Friday on so many levels and the mother of his perfect little offspring, Joyce. But Katie’s a free spirit, not above taking a drag from her husband’s cigarette or swig from his glass of beer. It’s the perfect Friday night. But 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 Lucy out. 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 she was Tom’s mistress. She further debunks Bertha’s claim Tom was in ill health and demands Bannion look into the matter further. But Dave sees no reason to reopen an ‘open and shut’ 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 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 demise, even going 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. It’s a miscalculation on Lagana’s part. Deprived of his livelihood and the rules that go with it, Bannion is even more of a threat. 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 the assignment on Larry who stupidly thinks a simple car bomb will fix things. Unhappy chance, Katie decides to take the family sedan for a spin first. The car blows up, killing Katie and leaving Dave with an even bigger 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 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 as told, leaving Debbie behind. She follows Dave back to his rented apartment. But Debbie is entirely unaware her actions are being observed by Larry Gordon. Dave tells Debbie he finds the thought of possessing anyone who belongs to Vince Stone repulsive. Okay, so Deb’s tainted goods. So she goes home to the penthouse where Higgins, Larry and Vince are 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. She lies to him, incurring his sadistic wrath. Now, Vince scalds Debbie with a boiling pot of coffee, before ordering 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. Initially, he wants no part of her. However, 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 the former 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 business’ crippled secretary, Selma Parker (Edith Evanson) tells Dave 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 take out a hit. Smelling blood in the water, Bannion opens up to Debbie back at his apartment, explaining 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 he has gone out, she steals his gun and goes over to Bertha’s home where she savagely shoots the devious dowager to death. Returning to Vince’s penthouse to settle another score, Debbie reveals her hideous disfigurement to Vince before dousing him with a pot of boiling hot water. The two former flames struggle for the gun and Vince shoots Debbie. Bannion bursts in, comforting Debbie before she dies. He confronts Vince in a shootout that ends with Vince’s arrest rather than his murder. Tom’s letter of confession goes public and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted for fraud, murder and racketeering. Just before the final fade out, Bannion’s fragile faith in humanity is restored. He is given back his badge and returns to his old job, prepared to launch into the next unsolved homicide.
No two ways about it, The Big Heat packs a wallop; as hard-hitting as anything Hollywood has yet to give us, infused with a morally ambiguity that occasionally proves problematic. The equivocal ‘ethics’ of our hero unbalance the heroic resolve he exercises just before the end. Even though Bannion’s righteousness triumphs, the means by which he has brought about his positive result is very Machiavellian at its core and therefore somewhat blunts our satisfaction with 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-honored wisdom – at least, of their own genre, construction and societal clichés. Glenn Ford is a delicious brute; the epitome of ‘the noble’ – if ever-so-slightly tainted – man of virtue, driven to extremes. The other revelation is Gloria Grahame. Just think; here is the gal who gave us the addlepated idiot child, Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1955) and sultry rival love interest, ‘Angel’ in de Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). I cannot think of another actress so readily able to adopt the chameleon’s skin, seemingly with ease. Of course, it’s a ruse. Acting of Grahame’s caliber is a lot of hard work.
Her Debbie Marsh herein almost seems like a cakewalk beside either of the aforementioned performances, one Grahame acquits herself quite nicely of, doling out equal portions of pathos and venom as propriety and the role itself demands. But the picture’s standout is Lee Marvin; a telling bit about Fritz Lang’s verve and focus that we tend to find Marvin’s diabolical and unrepentant thug muscle far more interesting – and perhaps, even more sympathetic – than our flawed hero. Vince Stone is all bad all the time. Yet, reduced to spar with Debbie and Dave’s fatalism - two avenging angels, having misplaced both their halos and their wings – Vince becomes the tragic figure in The Big Heat’s final act, caught in a web of their brutal retribution. And Marvin gives us much more than mere abject fear. Stone never devolves into cowardice. But he does slip in and out of a genuine sense of fear teetering on remorse – like the thief, not at all sorry he stole, yet, terribly made aware of the ramifications now that he has been caught in the act. But what a fascinating, and thoroughly unsettling predicament for the audience to digest: assassin as victim? Because of this moral quagmire, Lang doesn’t give us the same tired ole sort of ‘crime must pay’, vacuous gloss-over, obligatory and shameless, tacked onto so many other film noirs. As such, and more importantly, as film art, The Big Heat excels. It remains in a class apart.
This is Twilight Time’s second bite at the hi-def apple; a reissue of a disc that sold out in just a little over 24 hrs. the first time; this time, with different cover art and new extras. The old TT Blu-ray released just a little over three years ago. Same stunning transfer this time around, the recipient of Sony’s impeccable mastering efforts, sporting superior grain, stunning tonality and sumptuous fine detail: lots to admire. The audio is mono and very solid, with no perceivable hiss or pop. An A-list effort from Grover Crisp and his minions over at Sony, this time fleshed out with stellar extras that, frankly, ought to have been a part of the original Blu-ray release. We get the same isolated score track for which TT is known, only now augmented with a much deserved, and equally as fascinating audio commentary from Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo; the latter, having done her usual bang-up job on providing liner notes that read more like mini-essays and odes of love to each movie released via Twilight Time. Michael Mann contributes a 10 min. tribute/reflection on the movie; Martin Scorsese does the same in just under five. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)