1950s, 4/4, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Review

The Big Heat

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#2 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Fritz Lang film noir: how could you possibly go wrong? What starts as a rather routine procedural noir gains a surprisingly extra emotional punch through the curious relationship that develops between its two leads, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. This is a special example of the genre, demonstrating the strong results that could be had from hard-edged detectives and femme fatales that became cliches decades ago when applied with skill and intelligence.

Ford plays Dave Bannion, a homicide detective sent to review the scene of a policeman’s suicide, Tom Duncan. It’s straight forwardly a suicide with the burn marks in all the right places along with Mrs. Duncan’s attestation of sickness. This is open and shut, and he’s just about to move on when he’s called to interview a woman who says she has information on Duncan’s murder. The girl talks a decent game about how Duncan and her had a strong plutonic relationship and that he was worried about corruption, but Bannion doesn’t buy it and walks off. When she ends up dead, though, his curiosity is piqued and he starts investigating.

What he quickly learns is that Duncan probably had corrupt connections to Mike Lagana, the head of organized crime in the city, and Bannion’s wife begins receiving threatening calls at home. Bannion isn’t the kind of guy to take things laying down, so he goes straight to Lagana, tells him off, and Lagana has him paid back by trying to blow up Bannion’s car only to accidentally have Mrs. Bannion in the car when it goes up instead of Bannion himself.            

Alongside this story is Grahame’s Debby. She’s the girlfriend of Vince Stone, one of Lagana’s right hand men. Stone is a violent man who treats his dame with the barest amount of respect from time to time to keep her around. He doesn’t hurt her, but he is willing to burn another woman at a bar for disrespecting him, an event that Bannion witnesses, saving the girl, and trying to follow the rabbit hole of clues that’s going to get him to the man who planted the bomb in his car. Debby, perhaps in an effort to spy for Stone or maybe just because she felt like it, attaches herself to Bannion, going up to his hotel room to share a couple of scotches, and getting shooed out before anything else can happen.

Up to this point, the movie is pretty standard noir fair, but it’s when Debby goes back to Stone that the movie gains its real edge. Stone throws a pot of hot coffee in her face, scarring her forever. Wounded both physically and emotionally, she goes to Bannion who decides to care for her. The relationship that develops never approaches sexual. Instead, the two are simply both wounded by the same criminal organization and end up on the same side. They never really work together, but they work off of each other.

The key is that Mrs. Duncan is in possession of a document written out by her husband that outlines the corruption he was a part of for years, including direct links to Lagana. She has that hidden and if anything were to happen to her it would immediately go to the newspapers. Bannion is a good man who may be willing to bend the law to hurt some men and get what he needs, but he’d never do that to a woman. In walks Debby, though, willing to viciously shoot Mrs. Duncan in cold blood. This is the mutual movement on each side that ends up helping the overall cause of fighting corruption in the city that make the back half of the film work so well, and that’s all anchored by Ford and Grahame.

Ford plays Bannion with cool professionalism, tough to those he’s up against and warm to his wife and daughter. To Grahame’s Debby he goes from tough to warm as the two share their mutual pain. Grahame is great, though. Starting the film feeling like an almost throwaway character, Debby takes center stage halfway through the film and never backs off. The pain she goes through when she loses her single most valuable asset, her looks, is palpable, and the way she decides to take action against the man who did it to her is cold and calculating. She doesn’t set out to hurt him. She sets out to destroy him, and she uses what she finds out through Bannion to do it.

Lang had deep ties to the German Expressionist movement of the Silent Era, and he kept those original tendencies through his move to Hollywood. By the 50s, he was helping to define the noir genre visually through the use of stark shadows that Hitchcock and Wilder would also use. He coaxes great performances not just from the two leads but also the supporting cast including Lee Marvin. The movie skips along at the efficient Golden Age of Hollywood clip, never lagging and always moving forward with an entertaining example of the genre that stands near the top of the whole heap.

This was a movie that kind of snuck up on me. I never had anything less than high quality expectations, but I wasn’t really expecting the emotional connection with the characters that Lang and his actors manifested. This really is a great film.

Rating: 4/4

9 thoughts on “The Big Heat”

  1. This is a great Noir.
    Hard boiled dames and coppers, bad guys who are bad and powerful.
    Great direction, great writing, great pacing. I’ll take even a mediocre Noir over 99.9% of movies made today. For a great one, like this? It’s worth making time for.

    Like

  2. One of my favorite noirs, one that I watch every time it shows up on TCM. I love Gloria Grahame, and this may be her greatest performance. Plus, oh man is she hot–I find myself involuntarily sighing when I get to her first scene: mixing the martinis and cha-cha-ing in that white dress.

    In addition to his mastery of the business of moviemaking, Fritz Lang’s movies pack an overwhelming emotional punch that many other great directors don’t always consistently manage. In fact, it’s because of that emotional punch that I tend to hold Lang at arm’s length; there are a bunch of classic titles of his that I haven’t yet watched because I know I’m going to have to hitch up my trousers, tuck in my shirt, and prepare to be run through the wringer.

    Liked by 1 person

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