The Big Heat

Over the years I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about film noir, musing over what it is or isn’t and, perhaps inevitably, looking at quite a few borderline cases. I’m still not sure I could articulate exactly what constitutes film noir – although not being able to do so is hardly a big deal – but I do recognize a clear-cut example when I see it. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) comfortably fits the bill with its harsh portrayal of a cruel and corrupt world and the merciless way it treats those who would resist it.

The first thing we see is a man reaching for a revolver and then calmly blowing his brains out as he sits at the desk in his front room. His wife (Jeanette Nolan) is alerted by the gunshot and appears shocked, but not too much and certainly not overcome by grief. If anything, she’s drawn more to the document her late husband left behind. The recently deceased was a cop, a dirty one who had been bought and paid for by the mob, and also smart enough to have retained some insurance. As the investigating officer, Bannion (Glenn Ford), remarks, when a cop takes his own life the department is always interested to find out the reason. Initially, there’s no reason to doubt the widow’s claims that her husband was suffering from ill-health and the case looks to be an open and shut one. Even when a girl in a clip joint makes allegations about a less than satisfactory private life, there’s nothing to prove it’s anything other than talk. It’s only after Bannion starts to get gently warned off that he grows more suspicious. As the underworld flexes its muscles and reveals the violence that has been lurking behind the thinnest of veils the full extent of official corruption becomes apparent. Had Bannion been prepared to play the game, matters would have ended there. However, his persistence, and perhaps recklessness or naivety, brings tragedy right into his own parlor. With the whole fabric of his being torn down around him, Bannion moves himself out to the fringes of society where he allows himself to become consumed with hatred, frustration and an unquenchable desire for vengeance.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact I’m a big fan of Fritz Lang, and I’m especially fond of his Hollywood movies. Towards the end of his time in the US the budgets he operated under seemed to shrink but he always had a talent for economy in his storytelling anyway. The Big Heat exemplifies this neatly in the no-nonsense way it plunges headlong into the tale from the very first shot. The whole movie is a lean affair, pared down to its essentials visually, thematically and in terms of dialogue too. There’s no waste – not a word nor a gesture appears which doesn’t serve to drive the narrative on. Even the central idea (that of institutional corruption, an increasing staple of 50s film noir) is addressed in direct, matter-of-fact terms.

One of the most interesting aspects, for me at least, was the contrasting portrayal of family life on view. We’re introduced to Bannion’s domestic setup early on and it’s an attractive one, defined by the affection and banter between the detective and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) and the simple yet wholesome way they’re living. Later, when we’re introduced to the chief mobster, Lagana (Alexander Scourby), it’s a very different world which is presented. Where Bannion’s home is a relaxed place filled with informal conversation, Lagana’s mansion feels like a mausoleum of respectability, a soulless place where no hint of “dirty” talk is tolerated.

The other notable point to be made about The Big Heat is the frank way that violence is depicted. There’s real brutality in the actions of the mob and its principal enforcer (Lee Marvin), a sadistic pleasure derived from the infliction of pain and suffering. The film came along quite early in Marvin’s career and gave him the kind of role that was something of a gift for a young actor. In another of those instances of mirroring Ford’s honest cop is driven right to the brink of sanity and morality – he comes to embrace violence with almost the same gusto as Marvin’s sociopath. The crucial difference here though is that Ford draws himself back before he fully succumbs to his basest instincts. Actually, it’s a very solid part for him, requiring him to exercise a fair bit of range as his character travels along the painful arc from contented family man, through heartbreak and loss, to cold avenger. He’s partially saved or redeemed by his own innate decency, but an even more significant influence is provided by Gloria Grahame’s unfortunate moll. It’s her actions and what happens to her that breaks everything wide open, giving Ford his first real leads and also reawakening his ability to identify and empathize with people again. Ultimately, while The Big Heat is a film which sees very bad things happen to people, its message is a positive one about human nature. Sure society has its share of rottenness and violence may be lurking just round the corner, but decent people remain so at heart and there are always those willing to lay it on the line to help others.

There was a time when it was difficult to see all of Fritz Lang’s films, although that’s no longer the case. Even back in the days when one had to search around for his stuff The Big Heat was one of the more accessible titles – I think it may actually have been one of the first films by the director I ever saw, at a time when his name wouldn’t have registered with me. Now there are a variety of DVDs and Blu-rays available from different territories so there should be no problem finding a suitable copy of the movie to view. I would imagine that most people with even a passing acquaintance with Lang will be aware of this film – it’s generally well regarded and the casting probably helps. Needless to say, it’s highly recommended for anyone who has yet to view it.

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56 thoughts on “The Big Heat

  1. Nice take on an essential classic. If you want to know some more unkown tidbits about making of The Big Heat, you can find it here…..
    Happy Valentine’s Day Viv and thank you for the friendship. By the way, have you seen this?
    LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK
    Check it out at the Amazon link below as a kindle, collectible hardcover, or trade paperback with extra material.
    http://www.amazon.com/Lee-Marvin-Point-Dwayne-Epstein/dp/1936182572/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455498577&sr=8-1&keywords=lee+marvin+point+blank

  2. The cast is pretty much perfect as cast here, I quite agree – in some ways, it is the prototypical Ford role, right up there with GILDA and BLACKBOARD JUNGLE.. Weirdly, given this and the fact that I am a Lang fan, this is one that I probably need to catch up with again because I always been a bit underwhelmed by it given the reputation it accrued. But I can;t really explain why – maybe because the plot, once you get past the ambiguity and incongruity of the opening (why does the wife do what she does), is rather linear and the visual style rather restrained compared with so many baroque noirs of the day. Lang had certainly simplified his technique by this point, but does as a result seem to focus even more than normal on irony and character. I need to watch it again clearly, thanks chum!

    • Lang’s later films do have a much simpler look, partly down to budget constraints I suppose. However, his skill as a director is such that he never seems to allow that to hamper him, and turns it to his advantage in fact.

      • I have come to appreciate his later work more and more (WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT are two examples of works I initially found disappointing due to the low budgets and rather ‘flat’ visuals but have come to appreciate belatedly for the ‘meat’ of the content

            • Maybe. I think I was late teens when I first saw it and I liked it fine, although I can see how that might not be the case for everyone.
              Mind you, I did have more of a problem with Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which I probably first viewed around the same age. I certainly appreciated that one more when I’d added a few years.

                • Believe me, there’s nobody slower on the uptake than me, my friend, so that can’t be it.
                  No, I haven’t seen the remake – in fact, I’d completely forgotten about it. Hyams has made some pretty poor stuff, and some quite good movies too like Outland.

                  • I knew you’d pick the remake of HIGH NOON 🙂 I think CAPRICORN ONE, HE RELIC and TIMECOP are especially good, along with his episode of AMAZING STORIES starring Gregory Hines, ‘The Amazing Falsworth’

                    • I’ve never seen Amazing Stories but I’ll keep an eye out for it.
                      Although it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, I thought The Presidio had its moments, even if it’s not all that satisfactory on the whole. Also, Narrow Margin wasn’t too offensive as remakes go – Gene Hackman makes most things watchable of course.

                    • They are both OK, I agree and the action is very well handled as always (I though the carchase in RUNNING SCARED especially good) – though I remember finding ending of PRESIDIO at the the water bottling plant a bit dull.

                    • I haven’t seen Running Scared so I can’t comment on that, but I think that The Presidio is a real mixed bag – it’s full of potential yet ends up disappointing in a lot of areas.

  3. Great review, Colin, of one of the best films of its type, I believe. A firm favourite of mine.

    Interested in your opening paragraph about what actually constitutes ‘Film Noir’. I guess it’s open to interpretation really, isn’t it, as different people describe it and use it as a tag diversely.
    It actually was not used as a term until around 1970 anyway and it seems to be recognised for films 1940-58 loosely. Generally subject matter is dark, with despair and hopelessness at its heart, with people unable to control what happens in their lives. Very much a result of the dark feelings left behind by WW2. A lot of films get the tag that strictly speaking probably are just crime dramas or thrillers. At the end of the day – who’s really to say?

    • Thanks, Jerry. I’m not that worried these days about deciding on what noir really is – it’s one of those things where I can say I know it when I see it though.

      On the film itself, I reckon there’s no doubt about the noir credentials. I could have, and probably should have, written more and gone into greater depth on certain issues but I was a bit pressed for time, and I’m still a bit low on energy to be honest.

  4. “There was a time when it was difficult to see all of Fritz Lang’s films, although that’s no longer the case.”

    Happily, that is exactly right! I can attest to that because I set up my own at home retrospective of the complete Lang over the last three years 2013-2015 and managed to get everything, renting a lot of it but also buying a number of the films I care most about. I watched about one film a month to have time to reflect on it, take some notes for future, and do some writing on present projects. It was a good pace for the way I wanted to be with his movies over these last years.

    This was a great experience and one I’d recommend. His body of work is so much of a piece, and though I knew all the films except the very earliest ones (pre DER MUDE TOD/DESTINY) and had seen most many times and had my ups and downs with some of them, they all gained in context.

    I’ve always felt and it was confirmed that THE BIG HEAT is top tier Lang, one of his best in all ways, carrying his ideas and quite supreme in his visual style. I will weigh in on the discussion here about his simplifying his style in these late films. Lang was quite elaborate in the early German films and to some extent in earlier Hollywood films. It’s in the 50s that his approach becomes pared down and very pure, and he is expressive, visually and in every other way, without distraction of incidentals. Lang’s cinema was above all architectural–this doesn’t change; he just becomes more subtle about it. And I always felt and now feel even more emphatically that although he has great films in all periods of his work, his last decade from RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952) to THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (1960)–back to Germany for those very last ones–finds him at his most mature and for me, most satisfying. Let’s just say he looks at his images through these films with laser-like intelligence and has no need to be showy. I say that as one who finds DIE NIEBELUNGEN, for example, awesome and magisterial with all the imagination that he puts into it and that’s one of his best movies too. But these later ones are so taut yet beautifully simple and that moves me even more. I reject the idea that budget constraints account for it–they may have been a factor but watching his films chronologically it’s plain he was going in this direction of less is more anyway.

    Not much more to say about THE BIG HEAT right now. You didn’t want to give away some of the startling violence of some of the incidents in it–even though they are well-known by now and most have seen it–so I won’t either. I do like the way you see the film in the end–and I will say that, as always, Lang has a pessimistic vision but not one that is mean or cynical. He has a lot of heart–it comes over most of all here in Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh–a wonderfully realized character.

    Hope you appreciated that in deference to you I wrote this whole comment without using the word “masterpiece.”

    • Some very interesting points there, Blake. I haven’t tried watching all Lang’s films chronologically – in fact there are still a handful I’ve yet to see at all – and I’m intrigued to hear that in doing so you could discern a deliberate move towards a more pared down or sparse visual style. I actually find it heartening to hear that it appears to have been a conscious stylistic choice rather than one imposed by external pressures.

      Perhaps I have been unnecessarily coy regarding the violence, mainly due to force of habit in seeking to avoid major spoilers, when its depiction and the consequences it leads to are a major element in the development of the movie’s theme. If you, or anyone else for that matter, wish to refer to any incidences in greater detail or mention their impact, then please feel free to do so.

      Hope you appreciated that in deference to you I wrote this whole comment without using the word “masterpiece.”
      Now this made me smile. I have been working on overcoming my old aversion to the term “masterpiece” ever since you and I first chatted about that a few years ago now. In truth, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to which film would be regarded as Lang’s masterpiece. Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I might have had the notion Scarlet Street would have won the popular vote on that score, but I guess The Big Heat is indeed the leading contender for that accolade.

      • Yes, it was meant to make you smile or chuckle or something like that.

        For the record, I usually don’t think of one specific film as a director’s masterpiece if it’s someone that I consider great. A great director usually will have a handful of masterpieces among many films that are on some level outstanding and of course some that miss or really fail. In Lang’s case, there are indeed a few I’d consider the weakest but none that were completely without interest. So if there are some you haven’t seen yet, you will want to.

        And I will add, it isn’t just Lang who moved toward a simpler style over time. All directors evolve and don’t stay just the same, nor should they, and the ones who really mature don’t feel the need to do all the showier things they did earlier on. They just look for the most expressive way and simplicity doesn’t mean it lacks for thorough artfulness. And sometimes these directors are as striking as ever in these films–for example, the staging, cutting and composition in the night club in the moment when Bannion, Debby and Vince all first interact in THE BIG HEAT. That’s just brilliant and so effective.

        In Lang’s case, though, there used to be a specific prejudice against many of his later Hollywood films in relation to the German classics, on which he had autonomy and did do some very elaborate things. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Mostly, people who know his work understand him better–what was appropriate to his art in the 20s simply isn’t in the 50s where those movies don’t need it.

        • Yes, I remember that slightly dismissive attitude towards the later Hollywood work. I’m not sure it’s completely gone these days but it’s certainly been eroded significantly.
          On the few Lang films I’ve still to see, it hasn’t been a matter of avoiding any or feeling that the quality may have been less than others. They’re simply titles I’ve been slow in getting round to, something I fully intend to do in due course.

  5. Of course, I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t mean to see those unseen Lang movies. I know that given your high opinion of him you will want to see everything he’s done and have that to look forward to. One of the pleasures of being passionate about movies is that there is always so much to catch up with and one is aware of so many specific movies one intends to see because of directors or genres or for many other reasons. I’m older than you and still have plenty of things like this too and have mentioned some of them here from time to time (Westerns 1946-1962 for example are a kind of endless treasure trove of discovery). I am complete on some of my favorite directors, but not all of them. I just try to take a patient attitude about it now.

    • Yeah, I agree completely that one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a film fan is the seemingly bottomless pool of material that exists; the more you see, the more you come to realize how much there still is to discover. Like you, I’m pretty patient and know I’ll get round to things eventually.

  6. Like you, one of the earliest Lang films I probably saw and unaware of that fact. I knew it had Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin and for me that was good enough at the time. The word gritty applies here and it’s almost like a fifties Dirty Harry.
    Enjoyed it many times.
    As you know I love the posters and this one has some great art work in various languages.

    • “A fifties Dirty Harry” is a fun way to describe the film, Mike. It does convey the idea of a relentless cop driven on in a quest for vengeance though.
      I know you’re into posters so I’m not surprised you’re drawn to some of the artwork used. I have a soft spot for European variations on Hollywood posters – some really interesting examples out there.

  7. You certainly zero in on the heart of the film Colin. About the violence, I don’t think Fritz Land would make us feel the brutality of it if he didn’t show us the decency and vulnerability in the people first. There isn’t a moment when Gloria Graham isn’t at risk; she’s like a fawn among wolves. Even when she is being protected by Glen Ford, we fear for her. Wouldn’t you agree that even though Lang is depicting the violence and cynicism that is only a veil away he is not a nihilist. Some of Fritz Lang’s films astonished me the first time I saw them, and SPIONE (1928) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1931) still do. It seems to me that these two films spawned an entire culture of literature and cinema in the action-espionage realm. I marvel at how Lang could stretch the mundane into the surreal and snap back again as if the stretch was just another beat in the story. His surrealistic impulses dissipated and then reasserted themselves at the end of his career. Personally I think he directed several masterworks, and THE BIG HEAT strikes me as one of them. Every element is harmonious and perfectly realized. Lang’s images have become simplified, as you say, but they also communicate the story in vivid visual terms. Of his later work, I find his two-part German-language chapter serial THE INDIAN TOMB and THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR (1959) and his final Mabuse thriller 1,000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (1960) among his most gracefully made and entertaining films. As you can see, I’m nuts about the films of Fritz Lang. I’ve bought them all on DVD and blu-ray.

    • Yes, Richard, I’d go along with all you say here, and most especially that there’s nothing nihilistic about Lang’s vision. While one can find nihilistic characters in his films, I don’t get that sense of hopelessness from his work overall.
      Those later German films you refer to are some of the titles I spoke about not having seen earlier, so I can’t comment on those.

  8. Just a quickie to say i got the Italian Blu and watched it this afternoon on a visit to my folks and was really impressed – much stronger and tighter and dynamic than i remembered – and clearly a big influence of THE UNTOUCHABLES too – great afternoon was had – thanks Colin 🙂

  9. Sorry Colin, completely missed this one. It’s perhaps my favourite of Lang’s American films, perhaps because it doesn’t finish in ruin for all and has an (albeit heavily diluted) optimistic note. No, in fact the reason’s clear enough and it’s the violence. I’ve always found classic noir entertaining but rarely in so visceral a fashion as THE BIG HEAT – Ford’s a powder keg and convincingly so, Marvin the result of what Ford’s character might become if he allows the darkness to take over. The moments of brutality, when they happen, are ahead of their time even if they remain within the bounds of what was acceptable. In the meantime the story crackles along and there’s no fat on the picture at all. It seems a much longer film than its sub-90 minute running time, and I mean that in a good way. It obviously has influence also, not least on the cop films Clint Eastwood was involved in from the 70s onwards.

    Great review Colin; it really is a movie from the top drawer.

    • Cheers, Mike. I know exactly what you mean about the running time – it feels like there’s a lot of story, a lot going on all the time, and the movie just about contains it all. It’s almost as much of a packed keg as Ford’s character.
      I’ve always felt that violence on screen needs to be justified and treated seriously, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Lang makes sure that happens in this film. The violence shocks because its effects (the physical and the psychological) are never shied away from and there’s nothing gratuitous about it.

  10. I’d prefer to junk the “noir” term altogether, along with a bunch of other superficial intellectual shortcuts that plague film thinking. It’s more difficult to make colourful and valid points without these terms, but it’s worth it in the end, as the films become more individual in perception…without the word(s) providing shortcuts.

    That said, I haven’t watched this one. I’ve been listening to a lot of the radio show NIGHT BEAT (what I consider to be the best of the type), and I’m WAY in the mood. 🙂

    • I have to say, Clayton, that’s an excellent point. We can get far too hung up on terminology and definitions, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to fit films into various categories rather than simply enjoying them for their individual merits. It is of course helpful to be able to have the language to group similarly themed material together for discussion purposes, but it can be limiting too if it ends up occupying too much of our time.

      Do I take it you’re saying you’ve never seen The Big Heat</em? If that’s so, then you’re in for a real treat whenever you get the chance to view it.

      • You are right, I haven’t seen it. 🙂 I have, honestly, been driven away by the universe that has agglutinated around the term. Some really good movies have lost (short term) in that, but all the name-dropping and pseudo-expertise of that type of geek-o-verse nonplusses me when I go to make film picks. I also shy away from Bava and Val Lewton for the same reasons. 🙂

        Ford is a big draw. I’m also a fan of his Christopher London radio show (which I’ve also been listening to lately), so there’s yet another draw!

        • That really is too bad that you’ve been put off some terrific stuff by labeling. And I’m sure you’re not alone in that – there’s a dreadful paradox at work where people who probably want nothing more than to encourage interest in their specialist field actually wind up discouraging people. I guess many of us can be susceptible to both aspects of this – guilty of adding to the off-putting technobabble on the one hand, and simultaneously avoiding movies we’ve allowed ourselves to be “talked out of” on the other.
          There’s so much pleasure to be had from the likes of Bava (who I’ve only fairly recently explored myself) and Lewton, and the huge area of noir – don’t deny yourself because of the sometimes overcooked language involved in talking about the films.

          • I appreciate those words, and I never get that vibe from your page at any time. 🙂 I do get about watching quite a bit of those films, but I do admit that the artificial niche’ does put me off. I try to add good movies into the rotation, in spite of the tacit association with that stuff. I do end up seeing a ton of this type of thing from the 1930s, which is a fave era for that sort of thing.

            The major benefit of the “noir” conceit (or any other label, for that matter) is that there are lots of great DVDs available and some respectable collections. Also, when you want info about a particular picture, it’s almost always available.

            The biggest problem to me (besides pretension), is that once swept into the same context, then usually films get graded on a curve, so to speak. In the instance of Spaghetti Westerns, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone films are at the top of the curve, and a ton of workaday gems automatically are pushed downward in the hierarchy…without having been personally experienced. I’m fervently opposed to this. Each film needs to be experienced in it’s own specific context, which is usually more specific than such a broad category. That’s why so many will say that something like LONESOME DOVE is better than a Buck Jones western…because them goll-darned b-pictures sure was cheesy, and Robert Duvall is practically the western movie version of Laurence Olivier. 🙂

            I dig me some Buck Jones.

            Keep up the good work! Lots of gems get discussed on your page.

            • Lots of interesting points raised here – delighted with the direction this chat has taken, by the way – but the matter of context and appreciating a movie on its own terms is a valid and important one in my opinion. It’s awfully easy to lock yourself into a hierarchical mindset and find you’re assigning low values to certain works on an unfair basis. It is important to be aware of this trap and try to avoid straying into it.

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  14. Colin
    Excellent write-up of what could be Lang’s best film after M. THE BIG HEAT along with FRAMED are my two favorite Glenn Ford films. BIG HEAT having the benefit of the sneering Lee Marvin to keep it slightly ahead in my rankings.
    Gord

    • Having viewed the film again on Blu-ray quite recently, I find my opinion of it as high as ever.
      Framed as one of Ford’s very best films? That’s an interesting choice and has me keen to look at the movie again as it’s been an awful long time since I last saw it. I would have put his films with Delmer Daves, 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal in particular, up there but hadn’t thought of that one.

    • Overall, I think his western roles maybe just shade it – he made a number of fine noir pictures – Gilda is terrific too – but there’s an arguably stronger body of work contained in the westerns, up until the 60s anyway.

  15. As for FRAMED it was one of the earlier reviews I posted to IMDB back in 2008. I enjoyed I from start to finish. The screenplay was by Ben Maddow who also worked on UNFORGIVEN 1960 and Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Director Richard Wallace pumped out a varied collection of films from quite good, to real stinkers. His next film after FRAMED was the “hold your nose” TYCOON with the Duke.

    • I’ll try and dig out my copy of Framed quite soon and revisit it. I haven’t seen Tycoon for more years than I’d care to mention and can’t recall if I thought any better of it than you do. I have a DVD somewhere so I suppose I should have a look and decide.

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