Big Heat, The: Fritz Lang’s Best American Noir? Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin

One of Fritz Lang’s best American movies, the quintessentially noir crimer, The Big Heat is both impressively stylized and brutally realistic.

Lang’s harshest and most violent film, which tells the story of an obsessive cop determined to fight the city’s crime ring at all costs, is a seminal expose of organized crimes, a theme of a cycle of films made in the post WWII.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

The Big Heat
The Big Heat (1953 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Dave Bannion may be one of the first avenging angels in American film, a role that would become popular in the 1970s in a series of revenge thrillers, such as “Dirty Harry” with Clint Eastwood and “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson. This film noir, masterly shot by Charles Lang, helped established the cop thriller as one of the most popular genres in American films.

In one of his best roles, Glenn Ford plays Dave Bannion, is a homicide sergeant investigating the suicide of police officer Duncan. He is told by higher-ups to “lay off the case,” but he refuses, particularly after hearing detailed from Duncan’s girlfriend, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green). Lucy believes that Duncan’s widow is blackmailing gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) with a hidden suicide confession note. When Lucy’s tortured body is discovered by the side of the road, Bannion is convinced that he should pursue the investigation at all costs.

The police force is in the grip of syndicate chief Lagana, and the sergeant confronts the hoodlum. When Bannion accuses Lagana of stifling the investigation and threatens to tie him to the murder of Lucy, Lagana retaliates by planting a bomb in Bannion’s car, which accidentally kills Bannion’s wife (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon Brando’s sister).

Getting no answers from his lieutenant about the investigation of his wife’s murder, Bannion accuses the commissioner of intentional foot-dragging and cooperation with Lagana’s gang. After losing his job, Bannion hides his threatened child with his in-laws. He becomes a lone wolf whose single purpose is to wreak vengeance on Lagana.

Turning point occurs when Bannion meets Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), a sadistic Lagana aide, and his girl Debby (Gloria Grahame). Bannion is seen with Debby, possibly getting information from her, and the jealous Vince disfigures Debby’s face with scalding coffee. Bannion nurses Debby and she tips him to Vince’s and Lagana’s guilt in the three deaths.

Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford in The Big Heat

Realizing that Mrs. Duncan’s death would release the incriminating suicide note and bring down the “big heat” to destroy Lagana, Debby shoots Bertha Duncan. Debby then lures Vince into a trap, scalding him with coffee, and is fatally wounded by him. Bannion arrives and Vince is taken into custody. Debby dies with the disfigured side of her face hidden in her mink coat,  Bannion, vindicated, returns to his desk at homicide.

Bannion’s vendetta does bring down the “big heat” on the criminal syndicate, but there is price to be paid: No less than four women die, Bannion loses his home, and risks his daughter’s life.

There are two types of women in “The Big Heat.” One group shows their legitimate status by marriage, or purity. Bannion’s wife and daughter and the innocent daughter of the gangster chief Lagana, belong to this category.

The other group consists of women who through their age, disability, and independent sexuality are more disposable, like Mrs. Duncan, Lucy Chapman, the crippled woman from the garage, and Debby. Feminist critics have pointed out that Bannion does not mind exposing the crippled woman to possible harm, while his own daughter is guarded from the same thugs by armed men. Bannion slanders Lucy Chapman as a whore for loving Duncan and is enraged when a gangster uses insulting language about his wife.

Debby represents the link between the two groups of women. Street smart, sexy, and flamboyant in behavior and costume, Debby is involved with the sadistic Vince Stone. Later on, she becomes useful to Bannion, and her treatment becomes more sympathetic. Debby is trying to cross the line into decency, but a woman like her, once damaged, can never be totally accepted. The only possible “salvation” for Debby is death, a tragedy that links her to the fate of Bannion’s saintly wife. Debbie’s dual nature is illustrated by the dual sides of her face: the pure and nave and the tarnished and disfigured. When she dies with her hideous scars hidden in the mink, she is transformed into a better femme.

Misogyny or just violence: Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone’s aggressive behavior against Debbie, spilling hot coffee over her face and scarring her, is still one of the most violent scenes in American films.

Bannion’s part is constructed is in the tradition of the crusading detective. He’s honest, tough, compulsively upright, and blessed (or cursed) with the dogged obsession to confront any situation no matter how dangerous. Through his obsessive investigation, we see the average American city (fictional in the film) as a place where organized crime runs rampant.

At the time, Lang described his (anti) hero as the eternal man trying to find justice, the vigilante who steps in when established law and order fails. Through him, right prevails–in spite of overwhelming odds.

In the end, the film restores social order. Leaving behind him death and destruction, Bannion is restored to good standing on the police force and in the community at large. Reflecting the morality of the 1950s, a decade in which the American public still believed in the legit power of formal authority agencies such as the police. But even in 1953, one critic notes: “Could it be that people see in Bannion a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity, and the H-bomb

The whole movie could be seen as Dave Bannion’s movement from law-and-order abiding policeman to a cruel avenger. Bannion almost crosses the line between law and crime, order and chaos (every man for himself)–but not quite. In a pivotal scene, Bannion visits Debby at a motel, bringing her food and forcing her to eat it. When he tells Debby about his confrontation with Duncan’s widow and how close he came to killing her, Debby articulates the audience’s collective fear (and conscience) by saying: “You couldnt. If you could, then there wouldnt be much difference between you and Vince Stone.”

Grahame’s Debby begins as sort of a femme fatale–a gun moll-only to redeem herself later on. And it’s hard not to notice that in the end all the female figures lose their lives in acts of violence.  

At the time of its release, “Big Heat” was largely treated as a well-executed but routine crimer. A more acute evaluation of this and other films by Lang took place in the 1960s as a result of Andrew Sarris’ auteurist perspective. Both deliberately stylized and brutally realistic, The Big Heat is an iconic Lang film, bearing his pessimistic vision on every frame.  Sarris has observed that “Lang’s explosive mise-en-scene implies that the world must be destroyed before it can be purified.”

Colin McCabe wrote in the 1970s: “It’s pity that Fritz Lang didn’t submit himself more frequently in the discipline of genre, for the discipline resulted in his most formally restrained and beautifully constructed film.

Curio Item/Intertextuality:

When Stone and Bannion first meet, the popular song “Put the Blame on Mame,” is played at the bar. This song was used in the 1946 noir classic, “Gilda,” also starring Glenn Ford, opposite Rita Hayworth whose singing was dubbed.

Critical Status:

In 2011, The Big Heat was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Films of Similar Interest (Fighting Organized Crime)

Captive City

Hoodlum Empire

Kansas City Confidential

Films of Similar Interest (Avenging Cops)

Madigan
Dirty Harry (and its sequels)
The French Connection
Death Wish (and its sequels)

Credits

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehmi from the novel by William P. McGivern
Director of Photography: Charles Lang
Edited by Charles Nelson
Production and distribution company: Columbia Pictures
Release date: October 14, 1953

Running time: 89 minutes

Cast

Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion
Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh
Jocelyn Brando as Katie Bannion
Alexander Scourby as Mike Lagana
Lee Marvin as Vince Stone
Jeanette Nolan as Bertha Duncan
Peter Whitney as Tierney
Willis Bouchey as Lt. Ted Wilks
Robert Burton as Gus Burke
Adam Williams as Larry Gordon
Howard Wendell as Commissioner Higgins